Is there a more reviled public figure in America today than Hillary Rodham Clinton? Well, okay: Scott Peterson. But in the large and growing class of Politicians Thinking About Running for President, the junior senator from New York is surely the most controversial and -- yes -- the most despised.
Not everyone hates Hillary. According to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 53 percent of respondents said they were either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to vote for her if she runs for president -- an impressive showing, and a considerable improvement over a year ago. But those who hate her really, really hate her. Only 7 percent said they were "not very likely" to vote for her. But a whopping 39 percent said they were "not at all likely" to support a Hillary-for-president campaign. When it's more than three years before the next presidential election and four out of every 10 prospective voters hate your guts, that's usually not a good sign.
Dry statistics cannot begin to plumb the depths of Hillary-hating. Right-wing Web sites such as FreeRepublic.com and NewsMax.com revel in every negative tidbit their readers are able to dig up (or make up) about her. There's even a site called BlogsAgainstHillary.com, an online gathering place for venting against the former first lady. The wingnuts were bitterly disappointed late last month when former Clinton fundraiser David Rosen was acquitted of corruption charges. Her "chief accuser," a man named Peter Paul, told NewsMax, "This is by no means an exoneration of Hillary's campaign." No, of course not. It never is.
The sensation of the moment is a new book by Edward Klein, The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go To Become President (Sentinel). Unfortunately for Hillary-haters, Klein -- a former editor of the New York Times Magazine -- is already under heavy siege for what appears to be some dubious journalism. The July issue of Vanity Fair includes a long, intriguing excerpt about Clinton's frosty relations with the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his wife, Liz. Hillary comes off as an unappealingly slippery political naif who gradually overcomes on the strength of Bill's advice and her own daunting intelligence. So far, so good. But MediaMatters.org has published plausible evidence that parts of the excerpt had been lifted from Sidney Blumenthal's book The Clinton Wars (2003).
And that may be the least of Klein's woes. Last Friday, the New York Post -- hardly friendly to the Clintons -- reported that two women described by Klein as lesbians who had, uh, influenced Hillary during her Wellesley College days were publicly denying Klein's insinuations. One woman, indeed a lesbian, said she didn't come out until 20 years after she left Wellesley. The other, married to a man, has retained a lawyer -- never good news.
Then, before The Truth About Hillary appeared in bookstores, Matt Drudge posted an item stating that Klein's book alleged that Hillary became pregnant with Chelsea only after Bill raped her. Drudge quoted a source reportedly close to Senator Clinton as saying that Klein would "rot in hell," adding, "Mrs. Clinton told me she was considering suing him for outright libel. This is the right-wing attack machine on crack!" In subsequent radio and television interviews with Sean Hannity, Klein said that he never meant to suggest that Hillary was raped.
Kristen Lombardi, a former Boston Phoenix reporter who began covering Clinton for the Village Voice earlier this year, says she's never seen a phenomenon quite like Hillary-hatred. "It's too visceral to be about her policies," Lombardi says. "We're not talking about Dennis Kucinich or somebody like that. I really don't think it's related to any rational analysis of her as a politician."
Not that there's ever been anything rational about the intensity with which the Clintons' enemies loathe them. Which is why the Democrats should be wary before choosing Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate in 2008. The swift-boat lies about John Kerry and the false, smirking charge that Al Gore claimed to have "invented the Internet" will look like ineffectual spitballs compared to what would be unleashed against Clinton. It would be war -- just as it was throughout the 1990s, when the Clintons were accused (and cleared) of charges involving real-estate chicanery, savings-and-loan crookedness, even murder (remember Vincent Foster?), only to be laid low by the revelation that Bill Clinton had enjoyed the sexual favors of a young intern named Monica Lewinsky.
"If Hillary runs, we're in for an extreme rehash of the '90s," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "And I say extreme because people were hesitant at first to broach some of the family-oriented questions about the Clintons. This time around, there will be no hesitation at all. It really will be savage. It's something that she has to consider and that Democrats have to consider."
If there is an über-theme to Hillary hatred, it is that she is a shrewd, shrewish, calculating woman who covered up for her husband's sexual indiscretions (and worse) in order to keep her own ambitions intact. It is the theme, too, of yet another new Clinton-bashing book called Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine (World Ahead). Written by a 27-year-old lawyer named Candice Jackson, who formerly worked for the anti-Clinton operation Judicial Watch, Their Lives is intended as a response to Bill Clinton's 2004 doorstop of an autobiography, My Life. Jackson tells the story of seven women who fell into Clinton's sexual orbit. Some are well-known, especially Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. Most had consensual affairs, only to be subjected to (in Jackson's telling) threats, IRS audits and the like after their dalliances with Clinton ended. Two -- Jones and Kathleen Willey -- claim to have been crudely propositioned. Juanita Broaddrick levels the most explosive charge of all: that she was violently raped by the thenArkansas attorney general in 1978.
None of these stories is new. Many of the tales (but certainly not Lewinsky's or Flowers') fall into the hazy category of never-proved/never-disproved. Broaddrick's disturbing claim, first reported in 1999, has always struck me as credible -- although, as Bob Somerby, who writes the Daily Howler weblog, observes, "'credible' is not the same thing as 'true.'" Jackson's innovations are to cast each of these stories in the most anti-Clinton light imaginable; to claim that Clinton's attitude about women says something revealing about modern liberalism (watching Jackson attempt to relate this logic to her libertarian-inspired opposition to zoning laws is, if nothing else, entertaining); and to argue that Hillary Clinton, as her husband's chief apologist and co-conspirator, must be kept out of the White House.
"When it comes to electing our first female president, we can do better than Hillary Clinton," Jackson writes. "We need to do better than Hillary Clinton, or the symbolism of a woman as president will be marred by electing a woman who has done almost as much to inflict mistreatment on real-life women as her misogynist husband."
Right now, Their Lives is barely a blip on the horizon. Jackson's been on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, Fox News' Fox & Friends, and, she told me, a number of talk radio shows. She says that Hillary Clinton has "a somewhat well-deserved reputation of being a strong, independent, brilliant woman. I love that about her." But, she adds, "a woman in her position does far more harm to causes like the abuse of women in our society."
Jackson is young, articulate and attractive, and she's brimming with well-honed sound bites as to why Hillary Clinton shouldn't be president. Prediction: if Hillary runs, you are going to see a lot of her.
What is it about Hillary? Some argue that her detractors are scared of a strong woman. Yet Condoleezza Rice, to name one example, doesn't seem to rub folks the same way. Maybe it's that Hillary is a strong liberal woman -- or at least as liberal as the current Rush-and-Fox-drenched politics will allow.
That's what Gene Lyons thinks. A columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he is the co-author, with Joe Conason, of The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign To Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (2000). Among other things, Lyons and Conason argue that there's another side to the stories told by women such as Broaddrick, Willey and Jones -- that they were used by the Clintons' right-wing enemies, or that they waited too long to step forward, or that they have too many personal demons to be taken seriously.
If that's the case, why do so many conservatives evince such irrational hatred toward the Clintons -- and especially toward Hillary? "I guess I think scandal sheets always tend toward cultural conservatism, if not political conservatism," Lyons told me, "because the whole game is to pretend to be horrified by what gives you a stiffie." He adds: "I think there's something about him that upsets people. I think there's something about her that upsets people. I think people have a lot of problems with an extremely, ambitious intelligent person who makes no effort to hide either her ambition or her intelligence."
Alan Ehrenhalt, reviewing John Harris's The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (Random House) for The New York Times Book Review, recently wrote, "The passion of the Clinton haters is a phenomenon without equal in recent American politics .... It surpasses even the liberals' longstanding detestation of Richard Nixon."
Yet Hillary Clinton is arguably the most popular Democratic politician in the country -- among Democrats, anyway. She is a fundraising star, a policy wonk whose only match is her husband, and a moderately inclined problem-solver who's earned unexpected praise from New York Republicans -- and even from Newt Gingrich.
Still, if she decides to run for president, the Clinton wars, reduced to a simmer for the past four years, will blaze anew. She will resume her status as the most divisive figure in the country, not because of anything she's said or even who she is, but because of what she seems to represent. It may not be fair. But since when has politics been fair?
- "If Hilary runs, we're in for an extreme rehash of the '90s" says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "And I say extreme because people were hesitant at first to broach some of the family-oriented questions about the Clintons. This time around, there will be no hesitation at all. It really will be savage."