Hillary Clinton’s campaign so far feels like a bad 1990s rerun: Having braved this once, back when cellphones were clunky and dialing-up to get online took forever, must we endure this again? But, like binge drinkers who love AA as much as alcohol, both Hillary and Bill Clinton have always excelled at getting out of the messes they keep creating. Voters need to recognize why her scandals and stumbles seem so familiar, to decide whether to tolerate more rounds of Clinton capers. Meanwhile, Hillary’s aides trying to resurrect some of that redemptive Clinton magic should study how these masters of disaster kept saving themselves.
Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal has triggered communal PTSD—too many Americans still remember this high-minded couple’s sludge of sleazy moves in the Nineties. What Alice Roosevelt Longworth said about Warren G. Harding applies to the Clintons: Warren “was not a bad man…. just a slob.” The personal email server is no high crime, like most Clinton sins, despite the crazy, ultimately disproved, Republican murmurs of drug-running murders, rubbed out interns, murders masquerading as suicides, and Chinese payoffs. The allegations that stuck to the Clintons like gummy sap from an Arkansas Slash Pine evergreen were drearier, barely misdemeanors: influence-peddling connected to the Whitewater real estate deal; unfairly firing White House travel employees; illegally releasing FBI files; conveniently misplacing embarrassing documents; crassly peddling access to the White House to raise money; covering up Oval Office sexcapades.
Even in the final moments of what Clinton had promised would be the “most ethical administration” in “history,” when both Clintons should have learned the importance of acting and appearing upright, their sloppy ethics and sense of entitlement again trumped good sense. Bill Clinton issued 176 pardons and sentence commutations, with many of the parolees enjoying special access to him. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton accepted $190,027 worth of gifts to help fill their two new houses, while taking some furniture donors had deeded to the White House. In M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 movie The Sixth Sense, millions felt chills when the psychologist played by Bruce Willis turned out to be a ghost administering to a child who kept telling viewers, “I see dead people.” In 2001, many Americans experienced a similar revelation, the Greeks called it “anagnorisis,” as the star reveals his true self. Bill Clinton, a brilliant politician, clearly was morally tone deaf and personally hollow; while his wife was often co-conspirator, not just victim or enabler.
With that background, compounded by Republicans’ obsessive Clintipathy, Hillary Clinton today must appear honest, humble, and authentic. Instead, she grudgingly releases emails to the FBI, apologizes with escalating intensity, and runs to be Grandma-in-chief, as kinder, gentler, and more moral than anybody else. This Clintonesque combination of ethical sloppiness and posturing self-righteousness inflamed the politics of the 1990s. Who wants to relive those headaches?
To win, Hillary Clinton should remember three approaches that repeatedly saved the Clintons. First, she must distinguish between minor character questions and her main mission, emphasizing that while “presidents are people” with “lots of different flaws and shortcomings” she will get the people’s business done. She should say: “I believe the best way for me to demonstrate my character is to make sure people know the whole story of my life and my work and my family and what I’m fighting for in this election.” Both quotations are from Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
Next, Hillary Clinton must stop being defensive and lash out against the “gotcha” press. She should dismiss the email attack as a “diversion” that “keeps the real issues out,” the words she used when defending her husband in 1992. She should also mobilize Democratic anger and loyalty as she has done before, slamming what she called the “vast right wing conspiracy” during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. With any luck—and it seems to be holding so far—she will be blessed, as her husband was—with flawed enemies, easily targeted.
Finally, Hillary Clinton must be herself. Americans most recoiled when she thickened her faux Southern accent and insulted millions of country music fans by saying “I’m not sitting here [like] some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” in 1992—when she was doing just that—or when this supposed feminist eagerly seized power as Mrs. President to reform health care in 1993. Reeling, she has had more makeovers than Elton John, chronicled here and here and here.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton thrived as First Lady when she defied Chinese pressure—and nervous presidential aides—to declare in Beijing in 1995 that “human rights are women’s rights.” She became popular when she published It Takes a Village, continuing Bill Clinton’s initiative of synthesizing traditional values with the Sixties’ egalitarian, progressive mores. And she earned respect by entering politics and earning power directly, running for Senate in 2000 and 2006.
Bill Clinton can play the honey-smooth Southern rogue, balancing his Saturday Night “Bubba” persona with his Monday morning Yalie policy “wonk” self; Hillary Clinton can’t. He—“Elvis”—is a political natural, she—nicknamed “Sister Frigidaire” in high school—is a stiff, more like Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon, a Brainiac passionate about governing who reluctantly enters politics as the democratic path to power.
Hillary Clinton needs to appear publicly as what her friends report her to be: a super-smart, sincere, Okey-dokey-artichokey Midwesterner. If marketed properly, her political awkwardness could emphasize her genuineness at a moment when the no-edit-function candor of Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem more appealing than a guarded Yuppie turned political powerhouse and international celebrity, who expects to inherit the presidency like a seigneurial right.
It is too early to dismiss Hillary Clinton, despite her sagging polls and Bernie Sanders’s roaring crowds. She is lucky to be saddled with this email issue now. Eventually, ADD Americans will lose patience and it will become “old news.” But Hillary Clinton’s nomination is no more inevitable today than it was in 2008. She will have to earn her victory, fighting national demons like Clinton fatigue and these more personal demons too, while promising Americans a reset, not a rerun, a fresh approach that can be implemented by a seasoned, occasionally clunky, yet deeply compassionate political professional.
Gil Troy is a historian and the author of a new book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.