I know as much as anyone how much her most fervent supporters want Hillary Clinton to run for president. On the opening night of the Women in the World Summit the mere mention of the possibility had the audience on their feet. The fan base is there, and constituencies beyond it.
But should she do it? Would the bravest and best decision be for her to skip it? In the 2008 campaign the chronic negativity of the ladies and gentlemen of the press was relentless, and the gouging of Hillary was wholly unrelated to either her record or her behavior. It was just that her story had gotten old. It required new angles, or, heaven forbid, new facts, to make it interesting—whereas Barack Obama was a story that wrote itself.
The first black president was a hotter plot line than the first woman president. Bad luck for Hillary. Obama stole her exceptionalism, leaving the press only with the hair, the alleged cackling laugh, and the over-familiar back-story, which meant dogging Bill around, hoping he’d lose it once in a while. (He obliged.)
I joined the Hillary bus for a Newsweek story in 2008. I was fascinated how little attention in their copy the traveling reporters actually paid to anything she said when she got out. They were too busy filing recaps of blogs by commentators who weren’t there. Suddenly there would be media uproar about some killer soundbite from Hillary that someone had gotten traction for that in context wasn’t controversial at all. Remember that shit-storm when she said MLK’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act?
The LBJ library in Austin just spent a week celebrating that very same point of legislative history in April, but ginned up with a bit of screaming about how King had been dissed. It led the news then with a new Hillary-as-racist meme that went on for a week. Five years later the ADD of the political press corps has only deepened.
Does Hillary really want more of this? Being president you may have more power than anyone else in the country, but you quickly discover that you have much, much less than you thought you’d have going in. You’re hamstrung in ways you never dreamed of. That’s truer now than it’s ever been. It’s not that you can’t get anything done. It’s that what you can get done is so paltry compared to what you wanted and expected to get done. You are doomed to disappoint the people who elected you. You’ll disappoint yourself. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg of stress that awaits you.
So knowing all this, why indeed would Hillary run? It's now clear that given the vile toxicity of the campaign experience and the grueling gridlock of the Oval Office itself, the only reason to run for the highest political office in the land is not the presidency but the post-presidency. The post-presidency, as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have proved, is a win-win. Money, Nobels, the ability to leverage your global celebrity for any cause or hobbyhorse you wish, plus freedom to grab the mike whenever the urge takes you without any terminal repercussions. No longer being President does wonders for your morale. Even the Bushes have seemed happier out from under it. Big George went parachute jumping. Little George medicates memories of his Iraq mistake by painting not-bad pictures.
For Obama and Michelle it will be fantastic, because they are young enough to have a long, massive, wildly interesting presidential afterlife. While sitting presidents become more and more despised, ex-presidents become more and more popular.
I saw Jimmy Carter, now 89, hold an audience spellbound last month talking with joyful satisfaction about his one-dollar-toilets-for-women initiative in Ethiopia. Why had I so misunderstood this guy when he was in office? This twinkling crusader for things no one else gives a toss about was one of the biggest hits of our three-day event. Who knew, by the way, that The Carter Center has wiped out guinea worm just about everywhere in Africa but South Sudan? (For a truly horrendous description of what a three-foot guinea worm does to you as it burrows out of the first orifice it can find in the human anatomy like the Alien, check out his new book.)
Now that Chelsea is pregnant, and life for Hillary can get so deeply familial and pleasant, she can have her glory-filled post-presidency now, without actually having to deal with the miseries of the office itself. She is as adored as any ex-president already, she is making a ton of money, and she can expand the real passion of her life, her global mission to promote women’s rights, education, and political participation. The spotlight follows her and always will. If she becomes president at 68 it will be another press onslaught from hell and such a hog-tied two terms, only the festive delights of hip replacement surgery will await her by the time she gets out. Leave the presidency to the people who don't know what she knows all too well: what it’s really like.