The presidential campaign here in the land hymned by one of its earliest immigrants as a shining ‘city on a hill’ looks more and more likely to boil down to electing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
It is of course possible that the party of Lincoln and Reagan will not go completely off its meds and nominate Mr Trump. It’s possible, too, that the wretched FBI agents tasked with reading Mrs Clinton’s 55,000 private emails will experience a Howard Carter/King Tut’s tomb moment and find one instructing Sidney Blumenthal to offer Putin another 20 per cent of US uranium production in return for another $2.5 million donation to the Clinton Foundation, plus another $500,000 speech in Moscow. Absent such, Mrs Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. As we say here: deal with it.
Only last summer, her goose seemed all but cooked. Every day she offered another Hillary-ous explanation for why as Secretary of State she required two Blackberries linked to unclassified servers. Eventually this babbling brook of prevarication became so tedious that even her Marxist challenger, Comrade Bernie Sanders of the Vermont Soviet, was moved to thump the debate podium and proclaim: ‘I’m sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!’ (He has since backtracked, declaring himself now deeply interested in her damn emails.)
Drums, meanwhile, were beating along the Potomac for VP Joe Biden to jump into the race, prompted by a truly heart-wrenching story that his splendid son Beau had begged him to do so on his deathbed. This narrative was corrected; which is to say, Beau did not in fact beg his father to run. But by this point, Biden’s Hamlet turn had run on a bit too long and he withdrew — to heaving sighs of relief in Camp Clinton.
As her path to White House cleared, the Republicans became infatuated with a blow-dried blowhard real-estate developer who makes Ozymandias sound like Little Nell, and an affable but strange neuro-surgeon doppelgänger of Chance the Gardener. Mrs Clinton is not Irish, but luck like this is downright Hibernian.
It’s still a long, boggy slog to Tipperary. But the Republican establishment (what’s left of it) is now seriously bracing itself for a Trump nomination. And so the time has come for us to ask ourselves: what point is there left in opposing Hillary Clinton? Fun as it is to fulminate and decry against her myriad peccadilloes and villainies — to what end? Cui bono? The Orange Ozymandias.
But, OK, let’s rehearse the damn — as Comrade Sanders would put it — arguments.
The presumptive next president of the United States is viewed as ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’ by less than 40 per cent of the electorate. Call us naive, but some Americans stubbornly cling to the notion that our leaders shouldn’t always look as though they’re thinking: ‘Which lie did I tell?’ Nor do we like to be played for fools, although this may seem a questionable assertion in the era of Trump Ascendant. Still, when someone who wades hip-deep in Wall Street money — $3 million in speeches, $17 million in campaign contributions — tells us that she will have no truck with the evil barons of finance, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
But never mind us — how does she manage? When you and your husband have banked $125 million in speaking fees from the odious malefactors of wealth, and you insist that you feel the pain of the middle class. How do you maintain the deadpan after you’ve cashed $300,000 for a half-hour speech at a state university — which fee comes from student dues — and then declaim against crippling student loans?
Small lies are often more revealing, especially when there was no need for them. Claiming, say, that you were named after Sir Edmund Hillary when you were born six years before he became a household name; or that you sought to enlist in the US Marines after years of protesting against the Vietnam War, graduating from Yale Law School and working on the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern; or that you dodged sniper fire on the tarmac in Bosnia, when TV footage shows you strolling across it, smiling.
And what — hello? — about that tweet last September about how ‘Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.’ Does that include the women who say they were groped by your husband, and the one who says she was raped? Pace Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman: ‘Every word she [says] is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’
Changing one’s position on an issue isn’t the same as lying, but along with the ‘Which lie did I tell?’ thought bubble permanently hovering over Mrs Clinton’s head, one sees too the licked finger held aloft. The American lingo for this is ‘flip-flop,’ as in the rubber sandal thingies you wear on the beach before going inside to give a $200,000 speech to Goldman Sachs.
Mrs Clinton’s flip-flop closet has reached Imelda Marcos levels. There’s the Iraq War vote flip-flop; the gay marriage flip-flop; the Keystone Pipeline flip-flop; the legalising marijuana flip-flop; and most recently, the Trans-Pacific Partnership flip-flop.
And yet, as you work your way down this bill of attainder you feel like an old village scold. Another member of the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’. A tiresome ancient mariner, banging on at the wedding.
There’s nothing new there. It’s all been gone into, again and again. This election isn’t about the past. It’s about the future.
And before you know it, you too, like Comrade Bernie — the prior version, anyway — are sick and tired of hearing yourself whinge. Because it has all been gone into before. It’s all ‘damn’ stuff now. Mrs and Mr Clinton have been with us since 1992, our political lares et penates — and after all this time, less than half the electorate think she’s honest.
During one of the 2008 Democratic debates, the moderator asked her about the, er, ‘likeability factor’. It was a cringey moment. One’s heart (I say this sincerely) went out to the lady. The shellac deadpan mask melted. She smiled bravely, tears forming, and answered demurely with a hurt, girlish smile and said: ‘Well, that hurts my feelings.’
Whereupon candidate Obama interjected, with the hauteur and sneer of cold command that we’ve come to know so well: ‘You’re likable enough, Hillary.’
The nervous laughter in the auditorium quickly curdled into chill disdain. How could he! But, lest we slip into sentimentality, let me quote Christopher Hitchens on this anniversary of his death, who in 2008 wrote: ‘The case against Hillary Clinton for president is open-and-shut. Of course, against all these considerations you might prefer the newly fashionable and more media-weighty notion that if you don’t show her enough appreciation, and after all she’s done for us, she may cry.’ Christopher, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
When the latest version of Hillary was rolled out like a new product by her campaign apparatus, she was rebranded as a doting granny. What’s more ‘likeable’ than a granny? Unfortunately for her, the meme didn’t stick. But then it’s hard to look like a cooing old sweetie when you’re swatting away snarling congressmen on Benghazi and explaining that you’re suddenly against a trade treaty you promoted for years. None of this does much for the likeability or honesty factor.
Mrs Clinton has her champions to be sure, but it’s been a long slog for them, too, with an awful lot of heavy lifting. When her choir cranks up to sing her praise, one detects the note of obbligato, not genuine ardour.
If it does come down next November to Trump vs Clinton we will — all of us — be presented with a choice even the great Hobson could not have imagined. And those of us who would sooner leap into an active, bubbling volcano than vote for Mr Trump will have to try to convince ourselves that really, she’s not that bad. Is she?
I’ll let Bertie Wooster have the last word: ‘It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.’
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Christopher Buckley is an American novelist, essayist and critic, and a former speechwriter to George H.W. Bush.
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