Whitewater was one of the major scandals to face Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Administration.
For starters, let’s all agree that Hillary Rodham Clinton is not your typical damsel in distress.
Unlike the helpless princess portrayed in fairy tales, if Hillary Clinton can be saved, most likely it will be Hillary herself who pours hot oil over the bad guys, props up a ladder against the dark castle walls and — with flames nipping at her heels — escapes to live happily ever after.
Let’s also agree that what’s at stake is not only Bill Clinton’s presidency or Hillary’s health care proposal, but the future of women in American politics. How Mrs. Clinton manages herself during the Whitewater inquiry — and how we and our elected officials respond — will tell us if there’s finally a level playing field for men and women in national politics, or if this is just another poorly camouflaged battle in the gender wars.
Let’s also understand that Whitewater is not just about some small-time land deal gone awry, or a conflict of interest that took place years ago in the cozy but cutthroat world of Little Rock politics. Whitewater is about trust. It’s about America’s love-hate relationship with its politicians. Mostly, though, it’s about a generation’s attempt at renouncing its post-Watergate cynicism for one last dance with idealism.
Finally, let’s admit that Mrs. Clinton — thus far — just doesn’t get it.
We called Hillary Clinton’s press office. We made our call after the “chorus of responsible journalists” rose to a predictable crescendo and demanded more openness from the White House. It was made after the soft-ball interviews that Hillary gave to Time and Newsweek, and after her tirade in an Elle magazine interview about “paranoid conspiracies.”
Deputy press secretary Neel Lattimore was still under orders to play out the party line, i.e. that Whitewater is nothing more than a crude Republican ambush of the President’s and First Lady’s agenda for change. When we asked if Whitewater was eroding the First Lady’s credibility with the American people, Mr. Lattimore said only that “Republicans would like it to.” When our impatience (or was it disappointment?) began to show, he admitted that not everyone who wants the truth about Whitewater was behaving out of base partisan interests. Still, what he told us had nothing to do with trust, or change, or hope, or (gasp!) the politics of meaning.
“We’ve been cooperating all along,” Mr. Lattimore said, stoically. “There’s a special counsel, people have been going to the grand jury, the White House staff has pulled out anything that relates to Whitewater. We’re doing everything we can to cooperate.”
We feel badly for Neel Lattimore. We feel badly for everyone in the East Wing who’s had to squirm, who’s had to line up behind the First Lady like lemmings, each singing the same off-key tune to the press and the American people as they drop off into the dark waters. We feel badly for those who are now going to have to listen, patiently, to those gloating far-right mastodons who relish the prospect of a failed President and a shamed First Lady, who have been chomping at the bit to say, “I told you so.”
Lastly, we feel badly for Hillary Clinton. Like a tragic heroine whose character flaw preordains disaster, the seeds of Hillary’s destruction seem to come from within. She learned early on — at age four to be precise — that the most effective way to deal with conflict is to pummel your opponent. The story has often been repeated how little Hillary had been intimidated by a neighborhood bully. Her mother told her to go out and hit the bully back. The impressionable Hillary did just that, to the amazement of the boys looking on. “I can play with the boys now!” a proud Hillary exclaimed.
Despite all the reassuring talk about embracing society in a new politics of meaning and engaging the world in productive conversation, Hillary’s own instincts — reinforced by the lessons of her past — inevitably lead her down a path where traditional, albeit self-defeating, American attitudes about power come to the fore. Hers is a “make my day” mentality where might makes right and the powerful rule over the weak. Hillary’s instinct is to fight back, and she’s beginning to sound` more and more like the Dirty Harry of American politics. As her biographer, Donnie Radcliffe, told us, “She likes to be in control and it’s very frustrating to her that she can’t control this.” Not unexpectedly, the more out of control Hillary is, the angrier she becomes, and the less sympathetic she is to those who might hope for her success.
In our heart of hearts, we believe — or want to believe — that Hillary will weather this storm. Chances are good, after all the minor peccadilloes finally see the light of day, she might end up embarrassed. At worst, she might have to bite her tongue the next time she’s tempted to rant against the “decade of greed.” In the final analysis, we think this might end up doing her some good — a learning experience, as they say about big time screw-ups. If nothing else, perhaps in the future she’ll defer to her much-heralded intellect and let reason, not emotional defensiveness, guide her response to adversity.
Whitewater might be a learning experience for the country, too. The next time we see another sappy political film about another would-be populist — you know, another “Man From Hope” saga — as we wipe the tears from our eyes, we’ll remember Whitewater — and vote for the guy anyway.