Monday, October 8, 2007

The Nerve of Her!

Geoffrey Wheatcroft wonders what America is thinking by making Hillary Clinton the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Among so much about American politics that can impress or depress a friendly transatlantic observer, there’s nothing more astonishing than this: Why on Earth should Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton be the front-runner for the presidency?

She has now pulled well ahead of Sen. Barack Obama, both in polls and in fundraising. If the Democrats can’t win next year, they should give up for good, so she must be considered the clear favorite for the White House. But in all seriousness: What has she ever done to deserve this eminence? How could a country that prides itself on its spirit of equality and opportunity possibly be led by someone whose ascent owes more to her marriage than to her merits?

[…]

Everyone recognizes the nepotism or favoritism she has enjoyed: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written that without her marriage, Clinton might be a candidate for president of Vassar, but not of the United States. And yet the truly astonishing nature of her career still doesn’t seem to have impinged on Americans.

Seven years ago, she turned up in New York, a state with which she had a somewhat tenuous connection, expecting to be made senator by acclamation (particularly once Rudy Giuliani decided not to run against her). Until that point, she had never won or even sought any elective office, not in the House or in a state legislature. Nor had she held any executive-branch position. The only political task with which she had ever been entrusted was her husband’s health-care reforms, and she made a complete hash of that.

No doubt she has been a diligent senator, even if the cutting words of the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier about “the most plodding and expedient politician in America” ring painfully true, and no doubt her main Democratic rivals have only quite modest experience themselves: Obama’s stint in the Illinois state legislature before entering the U.S. Senate in 2005, John Edwards’s one term in the Senate. But both men are unquestionably self-made, and no one can say that they are where they are because of any kin or spouse.

Either Mr. Wheatcroft is being sarcastic or he is woefully ignorant of American history. We have had plenty of presidents who came to office with comparatively thin political resumes but well-known names, including Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Oh, and lest we forget, George W. Bush. I think we’ve had enough experience in this country with families and their histories and their descendants to know that it isn’t so much where the person came from or how they got there but what they do when they get there. FDR, the liberal who redefined the role of the federal government in the lives of Americans from the corporate board room to the rural farm in Kansas, was nothing like his libertarian free-market Republican cousin Teddy. John F. Kennedy’s muscular Cold War challenge to the world that America would “bear any price” to protect liberty is in sharp contrast to the anti-war sentiments of his only surviving brother. And the last six years have proven that the presidency of the first George Bush was a hallmark of moderate if not nerdy competence as compared to the complete mangling of the job by his namesake.

But what seems to offend Mr. Wheatcroft the most is that Hillary Clinton is a woman. How dare she tread on the sacred ground of nepotism and dynasty that has heretofore been trod upon by only men. He dismisses the idea that she’s a “self-made woman” because she is married to a former president, but fails to acknowledge the fact that while she may have won her election to the Senate in New York because of — or in spite of — her husband, she has been a successful Senator in her own right and won re-election by a landslide. Certainly if she had done nothing but coast on her name she would have been found out and turned out. To dismiss her accomplishment is nothing but snooty male chauvinism. He cites Maureen Dowd’s comment that “without her marriage, Clinton might be a candidate for president of Vassar, but not of the United States.” He’s leaving out the rest of Dowd’s point, which was that without his family name, George W. Bush would be pumping gas in Midland — and not out of the ground. So whether or not Hillary Clinton was elected because of her name the first time around, she’s earned her stature on her own, and it sets her ahead of both John Edwards, who served only one term, and Barack Obama, who has yet to face re-election.

But she’s a woman, so nothing else matters.