Hillary Clinton, Considered in Herself

Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama. (ABC/Ida Mae Astute, photo used under Creative Commons license)

So, before Hillary Clinton puts a cap on the DNC convention with her appearance tonight, let me talk a little about what I think of her as a presidential nominee, (mostly) independent of the fact of Donald Trump as her opponent for the office. And to talk about her as a presidential nominee, I need to talk a little bit about me as a political being.

And who am I as a political being? As I’ve noted elsewhere, among the various political labels that have been used over the last several decades, I’m probably closest to what used to be called a “Rockefeller Republican,” a person who is relatively socially liberal but relatively economically conservative. But that label doesn’t precisely describe me, either. I am both of those things, generally, but it doesn’t get to the root of my political ethos.

To get to that, I need to go back to high school, to a class I took called Individual Humanities. The class was the brainchild of teacher Larry McMillin, and it was a year-long class (interestingly, divided between the last half of one’s junior year and the first half of one’s senior year) that took a look at portrayals of the individual in Western Literature — from Oedipus Rex through Joan of Arc through Huckleberry Finn — to chart the development of the idea of the individual and what it means to be one, in the larger context of  western civilization.

The specific details of the class are something I’ll leave out for now, but the takeaway of the class — the summation of its goals — was to argue that one of western civilization’s great achievements was the development of the independently acting and thinking individuals who saw as their greatest life crisis service to their community. Which is to say: In our world, we get built to think for ourselves, and when that happens, we realize we can’t be in it just for ourselves.

And, importantly, this ethos and the benefits thereof are not the purview of one group or class. Everyone should be encouraged to develop into who they have the potential to become. Everyone in turn uses that realized potential for the overall benefit their community or communities.

Well, that sounds communist! Yes, I suppose if you wanted you could argue that “from each according to ability, to each according to needs” is an expression of this concept, but then again, so is “TANSTAAFL” as long as it’s applied alongside “Pay it forward”; even the concept of noblesse oblige holds its echo. Like the “golden rule” which is found in most major religions, the concept is adaptable to a number of situations. The important things: Development of people as individuals; recognition of the individual’s responsibilities to their communities.

This is, to my mind, a powerful, adaptable and moral ethos, first because it encourages each of us to find our full expression and to develop those gifts we have within us — to become us — and at the same time reminds us that these talents and gifts need to be used not only for ourselves but for the benefit of others. It’s not (just) self-interest, or even (just) enlightened self-interest; it’s realization of self and a commitment to others as the result of that realization. It doesn’t mean one can’t do well for one’s self; most of us are not built to be monks. It does mean you should see “doing good” as an equal or higher goal than “doing well.”

This idea of the enlightened individual in service to their community is a significant part of my own personal ethical toolbox; likewise, it’s part of my political thinking as well, and a thing I want to see in politicians.

Along with this ethos, I have a very large streak of pragmatism, which is to say, I generally think it’s okay to get half a loaf when the full loaf is manifestly not on offer. Should you go in saying “sure, I’ll take half a loaf”? No, go ahead and see how much of the loaf you can get — if you can get the whole damn thing, good on you. But if you get 80% or 50% or 25% or whatever, depending on circumstances, well, fine — that fraction can be a basis to build on. Applying “All or nothing” thinking to every situation is for amateurs, nihilists and fools.

So, let’s apply both of these concepts to Hillary Clinton. I think that Clinton has shown amply over the years that, whatever personal ambitions or her willingness to cash a check for speaking fees (and as an ambitious person who occasionally speaks for money, I don’t see either as inherently a problem), time and again she’s put herself in service. Not with 100% success and not without flaws even when successful, but there are none of us perfect, and the end result of her putting herself back into the arena again and again is that much of that service has had an impact. Her ambition and service are not just about her and what it gets her. She’s done much, and at a high level, for others.

As for pragmatic — well, look. One does not work at the levels she does and has for decades without it, and if there’s any ding on the Clintons as a political couple, it’s their willingness to make a deal. Again, I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if one’s line for “acceptable deal” is elsewhere than theirs. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” sort of thing, but I’m okay with the mileage I get out of it.

Independent of anything else, Clinton is an attractive presidential candidate for me for the reasons noted above. Service and pragmaticism go a long way for me. In the context of where the GOP is right now, and who they are fielding as their candidate this cycle, it’s not even a contest. In the case of John McCain and Mitt Romney, the two previous GOP presidential candidates, even as I disliked their overall policies and plans for the country, I could not say they had not acted in service to their communities and country, or that they didn’t have the ability to be pragmatic when being pragmatic was what was needed. I can’t say that about Trump. There’s nothing in his past actions that suggests he’s in this life for anyone but himself.

But Hillary Clinton is — is what, exactly? A criminal? Corrupt? Dishonest? Evil? Terrible? Awful? A bitch? Satan in a pantsuit ensemble? As I’ve noted before, a quarter century of entirely outsized investigations into her life and actions have come up with nothing criminal or found corruption that rises to indictable levels. As for the rest of it, whatever Clinton’s own personal characteristics, she also had the misfortune of stepping into the political spotlight concurrent to the GOP wholesale adopting the Gingrich playbook of demonizing the opposition. She’s had an entire political party and its media apparatus spending two full decades telling the world she’s a bitch, and evil, and a criminal. It’s still happening; the Republican National Convention resounded with the words lock her up, lock her up, lock her up. And yet she is still here. She is still in service. Now, you can see that as ego or delusion or the inability to take a hint. I see it as an unwillingness to yield the floor to those whose political playbook is simply “demonize your opponent,” with the rest to be figured out later.

(And make no mistake — should Clinton win the presidency, the fury isn’t going away. The GOP is all in this year with sexism and bigotry and hate, and at this point it has no other gear; it literally cannot do otherwise without entirely losing its primary voter base. This is what the Gingrich playbook has gotten the GOP. It’s made them fury addicts, and the withdrawal symptoms are as likely to kill them as not.)

Maybe ultimately the issue is that she’s not likable, i.e., she’s not the candidate you’ll have a beer with. Well, now there’s Tim Kaine for that if that’s important to you; he’ll have a beer with you, and if you have too many he’ll take your keys when you’re not looking, pretend to help you look for them when you’re ready to go, and then let you sleep it off on the couch. But honestly, I’ve never gotten that whole construct. One, I don’t need to have a beer with my President; I assume they have other things to do. Two, if that’s a controlling aspect of your presidential decision making, I mean, if it actually is important to you, then you’re the problem and you need to pull your head out and maybe have more relevant criteria, or at least put “beer buddy” as far down the goddamned list as possible.

And three, says who? I don’t need Clinton to be likable in order to vote for her for president, especially as I’m not likely to ever meet her and spend time with her and have late night phone calls where we gossip and share secrets. She’s not my friend. But I also don’t find her unlikable todayand I don’t remember that ever being the baseline of my opinion of her (she’s had unlikable moments, to be sure. Welcome to being human). But then, I also don’t tend to think women who express opinions, or who don’t feel the need to excuse their ambition or their place near the top of the power structure, are inherently unlikable. Let’s not pretend that in fact that’s not a problem, still, for a lot of people — and that this being a problem hasn’t been exploited by others.

(Also, you know. Maybe it’s a personal quirk, but I just don’t get that invested in politicians as inspirational figures. I’m perfectly happy with them being essentially colorless and efficient and boring. Maybe even prefer it!)

At the end of the day, without reference to any other aspect of this particular presidential race, Hillary Clinton offers more than enough for me to vote for her. With reference to other aspects of this race — namely, that Donald Trump’s candidacy is as close to being an actual existential threat to US democracy as we’ve had, possibly ever — voting for Clinton becomes not only a preference but a moral necessity. I can’t not vote for Hillary Clinton in this election. So it’s nice to know I would have been happy to vote for her, no matter what.