I’m quite looking forward to Hillary Clinton being president of the United States. I think she will probably run, I think she will probably win, and I think she’ll be at least a good and maybe a great president. What I’m not particularly looking forward to is the process by which she’ll have to get there. Just in the past few days here, Maureen Dowd and Richard Cohen have laid before us in the form of two recent and silly columns little reminders of the prejudice against Clinton within a certain slice of the liberal chattering class, a prejudice that will swell predictably as she passes the various posts that stand between her and the nomination and, finally, election. Fortunately, these chatterers are less and less relevant every election. Clinton should welcome their animus. It can only help her.
I have observed many strange things in my years of tilling these fields, but surely nothing stranger than the way the arbiters of conventional wisdom in America have viewed the Clintons. It’s a deep and weird Baby Boomer psychodrama that I can summarize as follows: when the Clintons first hit the national scene, they were doing so at the same time that strivers of their generation were starting to displace the old graybeards in the news business. Tim Russert took over Meet the Press in 1991. Dowd got her column in 1995. The ’60s generation was taking over. Things were going to be different. Here was a cohort, after all, that grew up thinking that it could, and would, change the world. And now one of their own was president! We would witness the dawn of a new era of authenticity, to use a big ’60s word, and the Clintons would lead it.
Soon enough, though, the Boomer generation turned out to be no more authentic than any other—indeed quite less authentic, or at least less admirable, than the greatest generation, whom Tom Brokaw limned between hard covers the same year the world learned the name Monica Lewinsky. Though the Boomer journalists began to turn on the Clintons before the Lewinsky scandal, that really sealed it. Obviously, there were good reasons for any human being to consider what Bill Clinton did there to be unacceptable. But there was a self-regarding quality to many Boomer journalists’ scribblings (and on-air musings—the cable nets were taking off around this time) about the whole mess, as if the Clintons had somehow done this to them. Chris Matthews—oh, if you could have heard him in those days going on and on and on about the Clintons, and about Al Gore too (Matthews has even said that he voted for George W. Bush in 2000).
I served my time inside the walls of this abattoir as Hillary first sought her New York Senate seat in 1999 and 2000, a race I covered closely. My God, the hatred of Hillary one heard then! Especially among white Boomer women. At one event in early 2000, I ran into the journalist Jim Traub. We were chatting about this matter, and he said he’d spoken to a shrink friend of his who was aghast at the number of women who were plopping themselves down on his couch and—well, as Jim said to me: “Can you imagine, these women spending $165 an hour to talk about Hillary?”
Dowd and Cohen are here to remind us that the knives will once again be unsheathed.
That was then. Ever since, Clinton has of course served a very successful stint as a senator from New York, successful enough that when she sought reelection in 2006, the Republicans had no one of importance to run against her. (I remember well their blood vows to make sure she was a one-termer.) She then became the secretary of State, and an excellent one, forging major diplomatic breakthroughs with Russia (since rescinded by Putin, not her fault) and other triumphs like the Libya coalition. In between, she ran a not-very-good presidential campaign, it is true. But there’s very little room to doubt the proposition that someone who has been both a senator and a secretary of State, and has to boot lived in the White House for eight years and seen daily what it’s like to have that job, is amply prepared to be the president, and is not remotely the same person she was in 1999.
The world has moved on from those tremulous Boomer anxieties. Well, most of the world has. But Dowd and Cohen are here to remind us that the knives will once again be unsheathed. Dowd’s column was notable only for the fact that she found the flimsiest pretense possible for printing the name Gennifer Flowers, and Cohen is in a lather because Clinton doesn’t have a message yet (of course, if she did, he’d be writing about how having one so early openly showed Clinton’s breathtaking chutzpah). Of Matthews, though, we must say that he has moved on: he has understood, to his great credit, from very early on how lunatic and dangerous today’s Republican Party has become, and he’s changed his tune accordingly.
Matthews’s change is important. Back in the 1990s, there seemed to many people to be little truly at stake in our politics. The Cold War was won. The parties disagreed, of course, and money was rotting the system, yes. But the corrosive effects of both polarization and legal corruption were nothing compared to today. And one of our two major parties hadn’t yet lost its collective mind. This was the historical era when many center-liberals decided it was cooler to bash liberalism than conservatism—when Slate was born, for example, specializing as it did (and still does a bit, but not nearly as much) in producing the “counter-intuitive” “liberal” take on something like why Charles Murray might be right about IQ after all.
That era is pretty close to dead, thankfully. But in a certain kind of pundit, Hillary Clinton will always inspire the same kind of reaction she did two decades ago. It will make for tedious reading, but it will end up helping Clinton, this superficial japery, because the rest of the country understands that the stakes are too high now, and any journalism that doesn’t sink its teeth into that problem will just look silly. And the curse of the Boomer psychodrama about the Clintons will be canceled for lack of interest.