Do any conservatives really believe that if Hillary Clinton does run for president, Americans will care a bit about the old stories from the 1990s? Two commentators I respect seem to think so. My colleague David Frum, in a column about Clinton’s 2016 chances that elsewhere makes several thoughtful points, seems to believe that the old Clinton White House issues could rise again. MSNBC analyst Jimmy Williams, across from whom I sat on the sound stage Monday, invoked Filegate and something else. Conservatives have spent two decades trying to destroy Clinton. They’ve only helped make her the most popular woman in America. And if they keep at it, they’re going to help make her president.
If you are old enough to think back, please do so now with me. Part the mists of time. I feel like that first ghost taking Scrooge back to when he was the vital young man who’d been completely buried. Remember the Rose Law Firm? Remember the alleged billing scandals? And then the supposed commodities trading scandal? That was a great one.
Just mentioning these nothings feels like opening a door to a section of the house that you haven’t been using for the last 20 years, since someone died, like Olivier in Rebecca. There are torn and frayed little pieces of furniture, draped in drop cloth, spider webs emanating from their corners. Whitewater was far and away the biggest of these utterly phony stories, consuming years and many millions of investigative taxpayer dollars and besotting initially even The New York Times (I bet the Times won’t get fooled again). And I would bet that if you asked Americans about it today, no more than 20 percent would have the foggiest idea what it was. No, check that. It would be 33 percent. The same, reliable 33 percent who say Barack Obama was created in a laboratory in socialist Zimbabwe.
Those days and those Clinton stories—Vince Foster, the travel office, all of those ridiculous accusations—were the ones on which the modern right-wing agitprop machine made its bones. It was a new thing then, that machine. Indeed, it was created solely and specifically to destroy the Clintons. Its job ever since has been to crush Democrats and liberals of all kinds, to grind their reputations into dust on whatever grounds proved handy: usually, that they were elitists who hated regular Americans, but also that they were corrupt, if it could be pulled off. Hillary was a twofer—since she was an ex-Goldwater Girl who’d gone to snooty Wellesley, the elitist sales job was easy, and the Arkansas angle and her (in retrospect) mostly sad attempts to pull some investment income into a household that never had much money made the corruption piece no great challenge either.
Except for two problems. First, none of the allegations were true. And second, the allegers proved themselves over time to be as unappealing a litter of reptiles and crones as could be imagined. Hillary, meanwhile, kept winning those annual polls as America’s most admired woman. Even some years when Laura Bush was first lady. Must have driven them bonkers. And then, Clinton went on to earn things—a Senate seat, the secretary of State job. Indeed, a set of attacks that harks back to her days as mere wife will sound to the average American not only antique but quite sexist.
So now, nearly 20 years later, the reptiles’ and crones’ successors (and some of them are still the same people), who by 2016 will have spent eight years talking the same way about Obama with evidence consistently proving them wrong, will seem as boring to most folks as dotty old aunts. Journalists will still scribble down the things they say, but most Americans have by now tuned all that toxicity out. After all, if vitriol won presidential elections, Republicans would never lose.
Vitriol doesn’t win presidential elections. Now: Hillary could lose. She could make some errors. She may take too much for granted (although she did that in 2008, and she has tended in her public life never to make the same mistake twice). If the economy is back in the dumps, the nation may just want change. As Frum notes, Republicans will raise questions that are not ancient history—I'm sure we'll hear a lot, for example, about former President Clinton's speaking fees and such. And one supposes there could conceivably emerge some kind of damaging Benghazi-related tidbits. Even absent all those things, she will have to do a lot of things right. Americans admire her greatly, but they will rightly demand that she make a case to them that she wants to be the president for reasons that have more to do with them than with her.
But on the basic questions of vetting and character, they will give her the very wide latitude that she has earned. Fox and Friends could bring Craig Livingstone on every day, and that wouldn’t change. We’ve been fighting the culture war in this country over Hillary Clinton for 21 years now. The right-wing failed to notice that, about five or six years ago, she won it hands down.