4 February 2008

Two Letters on the Democratic Primary

From 2008

Dear Mom:

I’m writing this letter at the counter of a coffee shop on 168th Street. I’m in between interviews for an article I’m writing. It’s been a good day so far, relatively. I’ve been able to work as a reporter, to speak to people who know interesting things, to ply my trade, such as it is. Today, at least, I’m not forced to do the menial work I often do in order to sustain myself financially—and, by extension, to sustain your new grandchild: my daughter.

I’ve been thinking about this letter since Thanksgiving, but I haven’t found the time to write down my thoughts until now. They’re thoughts about your support for Hillary Clinton—the prospect of whose presidency seems to excite similar emotions in you as the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency excites in me. When the topic first came up between us, I was surprised by your enthusiasm. To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could be enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton. She is smart and tough-minded and well-versed in domestic and foreign policy, and as a Senator she has performed admirably, gaining respect from colleagues of both parties for her knowledge and political skill. Yet her negatives are so correspondingly clear—her unfortunate and (at the time) politically expedient support for the Iraq war; the arrogance and lack of tact she displayed in the healthcare debacle of 1993; the obsession with polling—that I hadn’t realized she might appeal to anyone emotionally. Rationally, yes. To the mind. But to the heart?

Obviously, I was wrong. She has great emotional appeal. And the people to whom she most appeals are people like you—women of her own age and intellectual ability and general socioeconomic background. Women who came of age in the 1960s and were forged by the social and political upheavals that forged you. This is not the full extent of her appeal, of course. But it’s become clear that the group for whom Clinton has the most visceral appeal is women in their late middle age.

I have been deeply curious about why this is. It’s a question I can’t answer on my own. But I’ve done my best to understand. Whenever I have had the opportunity, I have asked women your age why it is they’re drawn to Clinton’s candidacy.

The most articulate answer came from my mother-in-law. As we ate dessert at her house over the holidays, I turned to her and said something like, “I know you’re a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton. I was wondering if you could explain to me why she appeals to you.” What followed was so strong, so deeply felt, so personal, that I was taken back. What she said, in essence, was that Hillary represented what she herself had endured as a woman in America all these years. As a teacher, she was told by her superiors that her tendency to push back against bureaucratic inertia, to think independently, was professionally unwise. She was told that she was a nuisance, a troublemaker. She had watched over the years, she said, as the same messages were leveled—cruelly, vilely—at Hillary, and this pained her. It seemed a public display of the criticisms she had been forced to endure for being a strong-minded woman. In other words, she saw herself in Hillary, and yearned for a Clinton presidency as a means of expiating the historical insult of sexism.

You might find this too simple-minded an explanation. Also consider that, for all the reflexive nostalgia many of us feel for the years in which Bill Clinton was president—years of peace and prosperity and not a small amount of glamour—much that you and I find unfortunate, even unconscionable, took place. Throughout his candidacy, Clinton made heartfelt promises to the gay community; despite this, he implemented the lamentable “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Despite his repeated empathy for the underclass, he signed into law a destructive welfare reform bill. And despite that empathy, his administration not only stood by as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were slaughtered, it blocked efforts by others to stop that genocide. In other words, ask yourself what the country has to show for the Clinton years—on its own, not in false comparison to the Bush years—and you’ll find yourself coming up short.

But this is all a prelude to the real reason I am writing, which is to argue that, if I am right that you and your peers have chosen to vote for Hillary Clinton out of a sense of emotional, historical, or psychological identification with her, then you and your peers are making your choice irresponsibly. It’s natural to vote out of a sense of personal affinity: because a candidate seems to mirror or embody one’s experiences or values, or because his or her triumph can be expected to result in a thrill of vicarious satisfaction. We are persistently encouraged to see in a candidate our personal hopes and desires, our need for succor, or security, or camaraderie, or validation. To some extent, we all vote out of these needs. We all submit to the narcissism of identification. But it doesn’t follow from this that we should submit. What’s right, what’s patriotic, is to vote out of a sense of national and collective need. What’s right is to step back and choose to vote not for ourselves but—it’s a cliché, but it is newly poignant for me, newly resonant—for our children, and yes, for our grandchildren.

It isn’t that I believe that the policies expounded by Barack Obama are any wiser or better thought out than those expounded by Hillary Clinton. In fact, their platforms on important issues—the environment, health care, the economy, ending the war in Iraq—are nearly identical. Nor do I think that Hillary Clinton isn’t fit to be chief executive. No, the reason that I feel the need to try to convince you to change your vote—feel it with an almost painful urgency, with the primary fast approaching—is that a Clinton presidency cannot solve the most difficult problem facing the country today, a problem that seems to get worse with each passing minute, a problem that if ignored my daughter will have to face, and will grow cynical as a result of, because who, when faced with this problem, can avoid growing cynical? The problem I’m talking about is the political and cultural division that has been splitting America for years, and a Clinton presidency will only serve to exacerbate it.

In 2000, it was easy to see the division: a country neatly color-coded in red and blue, candidates so different in style and history it was as if central casting had ordered them up, an election bitterly, closely contested. It was a political explosion sparked from the powder keg of the 1990s, during which we were uselessly distracted by identity politics, and the right was seized by an almost maniacal hatred and moral crusading mentality, and our national politics became a reenactment of a cultural drama first staged in the 1960s. And it was poisonous.

And yet if the events of the past six years and five months—the time that has elapsed since 9/11—have tended to obscure the acrimony of that time, I think you’ll agree that that acrimony has by no means vanished. You can see it in the appeal of people like Bill O’Reilly and Michael Moore and Ann Coulter, in the haughty disdain displayed by Clarence Thomas and Joseph Lieberman, in the eyes of those who state openly their desire to see George Bush dead, or Nancy Pelosi tried for treason. You can see it in those who impugn the patriotism of the Vietnam veteran and triple-amputee Max Cleland because he deigned to criticize the war, and in those who pay for a full-page advertisement in the Times perverting the name of a dutiful military officer as “General Betray Us.” And yes, you can see it in the white-hot animosity so many people on the right feel for Hillary Clinton.

I don’t pretend to understand this animosity for all things Clinton. It seems perverse and irrational, ever borderline McCarthyite in its virulence. No less than Bill Clinton, its most spectacular victim, seems perplexed by it. During his two presidential campaigns, he often articulated this perplexity with a joke, which went like this: “A guy is walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon and he falls off. He’s hurtling down hundreds of feet to certain death and he looks up and grabs a twig, and it breaks his fall. He heaves a sigh of relief … and then, all of a sudden, he sees the roots coming loose. He looks up to the sky and says, ‘God, why me? I’m a good person. I’ve taken care of my family. I’ve paid all my taxes. I’ve worked all my life. Why me?’ And this thunderous voice says, ‘Son, there’s just something about you that I don’t like.’”

It’s easy to see the appeal of this joke to Bill Clinton. It’s also easy to imagine how resonant this joke must be to Hillary Clinton, who as First Lady was the victim of an unending series of slanderous accusations—of infidelity, of blind ambition, even, incredibly, of murder. Living through the ’90s, it often seemed as if what the Clintons’ enemies saw when they looked at Hillary Clinton was nothing less than Lady Macbeth. Their hatred stank of misogyny. It still stinks of misogyny. But that vitriol is alive and well, and I fear that it will not go away—not ever. During her husband’s presidency, Hillary was among the most divisive people in the country, the most polarizing in the feelings she inspired in her supporters and her detractors, and she is still among the most divisive.

For me, this is reason enough not to vote for her. We have lived through that psychodrama once; we should not be asked to live through it again. Does that sound unfair? Is it perverse? That’s the reaction I’ve often gotten from Clinton supporters. It is a form of surrender, they suggest, to acquiesce to the negativity marshaled against Hillary Clinton. She has paid her dues. She has been forged in the fires of American politics and come out still standing. She deserves her shot.

I sympathize with this position. I understand it. And I reject it. Elections are not about fulfilling our obligations to individual candidates. They are about choosing the candidate who will best serve the needs of the country. And what this country needs now is to leave the turmoil of the past twenty years—the turmoil of Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr and Monica Lewinsky, of Whitewater and Bush v. Gore and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, of battles pitched between those who served in Vietnam and those who did not, between those who wore their hair long and those who did not, between those who inhaled and those who did not—finally behind us.

I’m not among those who gape at Barack Obama with near-religious awe. He’s an inspiring man, to be sure, an electrifying speaker and, I should add, a writer of uncommonly beautiful prose, but he is not a political messiah. Yet I am among those who delight in Obama’s ability to transcend the divisions that plague us. I delight in the fact that his personal and political history is not enmeshed in the identity politics of your own generation, that he is a black man whose appeal is not tied to his race, that he is a politician whose last name will not extend a dynastic see-saw that began in 1980, when George H. W. Bush entered the White House. I delight in the fact that his success would mean a presidency of one, as the Founders intended, and not of two.

But most of all I delight in his newness, just as I know you and Dad delighted in the newness of President Kennedy. It is a remarkable asset. I so much want to make you see this, to make you feel it. It’s an impulse that surprises me—as you know, I’ve never been an actively political person. But I look at my daughter and I have no choice anymore but to think like one, to become one. I’ve never asked you for something like this before. But I’m asking you now. Please consider my words. It’s all I can ask.

With love,
Daniel

Daniel’s Mother Responds

Dear Daniel,

After giving your passionate and persuasive letter much consideration and thought, I’ve decided to stick to my original plan to vote for Hillary in the primaries.

Your main argument is that people my age and gender are drawn to Hillary because of “an emotional, historical, or psychological identification” that gives us a sense of security, a feeling of “camaraderie, or validation,” and that because of this attraction we are not able to be objective—that I and other over-55-year-olds are making a crucial decision, one that will affect your daughter and my granddaughters, based on emotion and not facts.

Dan, I find this argument insulting—not least of all because it follows from assumptions that you have made based on your emotions and not on facts! It’s what women my age have long endured and what your mother-in-law (who is my friend) spoke about when she spoke to you about dealing with sexism and not being taken seriously as a professional. The idea of Hillary in the White House would certainly give me a sense of pride: finally, a woman breaking through the ultimate glass ceiling. Moreover, that achievement would be an inspiration to women of all ages and would stand as an example to my granddaughters that anything at all is possible!

Now we come to another facet of your argument, which is the assertion that Hillary is a divisive politician. You name people like Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter to try to strengthen your argument, and state that Hillary is hated by the majority of those on the right, and that this vitriol will never cease if she is elected.

I’ve seen research that shows that it is the political elite—the pundits, the media, and elected officials—that is divided, and not the country; that the general public as a whole is more centrist than “color-coded in red and blue”; and that the perception of a large split is the result of polarized choices being available to us in elections. If that is the case, then Hillary Clinton cannot exacerbate a problem that doesn’t really exist. In addition, if Obama becomes the nominee, pundits who make their livings viciously attacking politicians will be just as cruel with him as they would be toward Hillary. Why wouldn’t they be? Sparking controversy is entertaining and keeps the ratings up.

Yes, Obama represents new hope, youth, and vigor, but I prefer someone who just happens to be a woman who is a tough veteran of the political arena, with all the wisdom gained having already been through the trenches, who has already survived attacks from the media and from her adversaries and who has proven herself to be stronger as a result. Either candidate would be able to do a more than competent job as the president of this nation. But a Clinton presidency, for me, would be icing on the cake.

I love you,

Mom

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