Saturday, December 15, 2007


Anybody who dares to philosophize about moral issues surely recognizes a distinct occupational hazard: you feel like a hypocrite whenever your values and your conduct fail to coincide, which is bound to happen with some frequency. In my case, I have always been struck by my professing to be “rationalistic” – note the name of this blog – when, in fact, I’m an extremely emotional creature. I like to see myself as “passionate;” it’s a positive-sounding word. But when your passions cause you to be resentful, angry, or disgusted by the behavior of others, it’s pretty darned hard to listen to that Voice of Reason. She gets drowned out rather easily.

For we who are both passionate and philosophical, perhaps the best we can do is to detect and unveil our own biases. So I’d like to devote this post to one of my own. Specifically, I’m referring to my intense allergy to Ms. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If there’s someone among us who were to chronicle all my comments about the Democratic front-runner during the past several months, s/he would surely find many good “reasons” for opposing her candidacy. I’ve surely suggested that she is polarizing, calculating, cold, often insincere, unwilling to apologize, and downright mean at times; she represents dynastic rule, rather than a return to democracy; her ambition clouds her judgment; she’s never successfully run anything bigger than a Senate office; she plays the gender card at a time when we need to unite and not divide. I could go on, but why bother? I’m not exactly revealing anything that hasn’t already been aired by the media.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons not to care for Ms. Clinton as a candidate, but there are plenty of good reasons to fault the claim of any mere mortal to serve in the world’s most powerful position. Few have even come close to measuring up to its demands. My question is why do I find this particular person so distasteful, compared to the other candidates? You could point to sexism, but I tend to like many public figures who are women. It’s not her gender. Then what is it?

The answer didn’t dawn on me until I watched a funny little black comedy called Election. Released in 1999, this movie was widely acclaimed by critics. It starred Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, but it was Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick that stole the show. Premiere Magazine, in its list of the 100 greatest acting performances in Hollywood history ranked Witherspoon’s performance #45, and #13 among actresses -- pretty high praise for a comedic role about a high school student.

Election focused on the least important political campaign imaginable – a race for student government president. Tracy Flick was a little miss perfect high school junior who felt that the presidency was nothing less than her destiny. Tracy was the girl who always gets a 100 on every test. She tries to answer every question asked in class, joins more school organizations than any other student, and invariably takes a “can do” attitude for every task that comes up. In short, she views herself as objectively more deserving of whatever accolades are available, and that certainly includes the title of Student Government President.

When the movie first introduced the election, Flick was running unopposed. She’d set up her little booth and gave out gum to anyone who signed her petition. Clearly, this was a girl who knew what she wanted, knew how to get there, and couldn’t imagine that anyone could stand in her way. Her campaign even had a cute little motto: “Pick Flick.” With the passage of time, her giveaways became increasingly elaborate, culminating in customized cupcakes for all voters. In her mind, she couldn’t imagine why any student would pick anyone else.

Then, one day, Flick got some competition. Paul Metzler, who was played by American Pie’s Chris Klein, was a prototypical boy next door. Tall, handsome, athletic, genuinely kind, and neither intelligent nor stupid, Metzler was extremely popular among his peers. As he began to gain more support, Flick became more and more angry. She must have been incredulous that anyone could vote for this boy, whom she must have seen as a moron, as compared to herself, a natural aristocrat. Here’s the way Witherspoon described what it felt like to play Flick: “She clenched her teeth and jutted her jaw forward, particularly when she was angry, which was ninety-five percent of the film. I just remember after the movie was done, my jaw hurt so bad. I had TMJ from holding my jaw so tight!”

Eventually, Flick’s anger got the better of her. She ripped up a Metzler poster when nobody else was around to see her. And then, to cover up the deed, she ripped up her own posters. Would she get away with it? Would she become SGA president? Would Broderick, the teacher who presided over the election, somehow find a way to bring her down to size? I’ll leave these questions unanswered, as I don’t want to spoil the film too much for those of you who haven’t seen it, which I’d urge you to do. Premiere Magazine may have gone a tad overboard in its raves, but that Flick character will stay with you. In fact, it stays with me whenever I see Hillary Clinton’s face on the screen.

The parallels between these women are endless, and they seem to grow more profound with each month Hillary spends campaigning. Like Tracy, Hillary is really smart, really ambitious, and really diligent. Like Tracy, Hillary thinks that her brains, ambition and diligence morally entitle her to win whatever campaign she tackles – political or otherwise. Like Tracy, Hillary likes to smile a lot – how else does one act professional? – but those smiles belie a smoldering anger underneath. Both women want to be in control; in fact, both women want to rule. Heaven help anyone who takes them on, for they will do whatever it takes – within the rules or otherwise – in order to win.

We saw that in Election when Flick ripped up Metzler’s poster in a fit of rage and then coolly covered up the deed. But until recently, we didn’t see that “win at all costs” mentality from the Clinton camp. Then again, we didn’t need to. The media was allowing her to run virtually unopposed. Oh sure, there was that momentary dalliance with Obama back in the spring, but it wasn’t serious. All Hillary had to do was point out that her rival – gasp! – was willing to talk to bad guys and to go into Pakistan if needed to capture Bin Laden and the media pounced on him like a cat. That drove Hillary’s numbers back through the roof and allowed her to play the role of the above-the-fray politician who simply wants what’s best for her party.

Yeah right.

Perhaps six weeks ago, the tide turned. Obama and Edwards realized that it was time to take Hillary on – especially by pointing out that she is waffling on the issues. When that happened, and her rivals got a little bounce in the polls, Hillary lost it. No, she didn’t rip down any Obama posters (at least none that I’m aware of), but she did everything but. She directly questioned her rival’s character. She challenged him for being overly ambitious because of a statement he made when he was five. And one of her lieutenants even questioned Obama’s drug use – raising the specter that years ago, he wasn’t merely a user but also a dealer.

I think even most house cats don’t have claws that sharp. But Tracy does. She could relate. When she fights for what is rightfully hers, there are no means that aren’t justifiable to reach the noble end of victory. That’s the way life is like for the Tracy Flicks of the world. And increasingly, it appears, that’s the way life is like for Hillary Clinton.

To get back to the point I made at the beginning of this post, I have to make a concession here. Tracy Flick is a fictional character and a stereotypical one at that. We can’t possibly exaggerate her features because those features, taken to the nth degree, make her what she is. But maybe, just maybe, I have turned Hillary Clinton into a stereotype when, in fact, she’s a complex human being who surely has a limit to her cravenness, and a quantum of compassion that Flick could only dream of having. Maybe, in other words, my biases have allowed my mind to under-appreciate what semblance of class Hillary truly possesses.

Moreover, I will also admit that the stereotype that Flick represents is laden with gender issues, and my disgust for Hillary might accordingly have something to do with her being a woman. So the fact that I don’t feel the same way about most other women politicians doesn’t mean that I’m not somehow holding Hillary’s gender against her, albeit subconsciously.

I’ll concede those points to Hillary’s defenders. And yet I don’t think they take away much from a point of my own. Many human stereotypes are gender-linked – such as the oily used-car salesman (Romney?) or the curmudgeon (Gravel?). But that doesn’t mean that these stereotypes don’t elicit emotion, or that they shouldn’t elicit emotion. The reason why the Tracy Flicks of the world are so distasteful is that they’re mean, unscrupulous, phony, arrogant, and are no more entitled to what they seek than the genuinely nice, but less ambitious, people they walk over throughout their lives.

Hillary Clinton may not be as extreme as Tracy Flick, I’ll grant you that. But she is reminiscent of Flick, pretty damned reminiscent, if you ask me. Democrats who might personally prefer people like Obama or Edwards but who back Hillary because she is more “electable” might consider Clinton’s celluloid twin. If I’m right, Clinton’s “Flick issue” will follow her more and more with the passage of time. Come November, she’s going to have to bribe voters with a whole lot of customized cupcakes if she hopes to win a popularity contest. Either that, or her campaign had better produce evidence that her opponents really were drug dealers. I don’t see it happening, but then again, I’m not one to bet against the Tracy Flicks of the world. I’ve seen too much blind ambition get rewarded to count such people out before the cat fight is officially over.


Night Stranger said...

Hope you saw the clip from "Election" on Chris Matthews this morning. I resent the general tendency of Hillary's fans to say that her "womanness" not only is what should get her elected, but that we who see her as unacceptable would have a problem with any female candidate. That's just too damn easy; there is so much about Sen. Clinton that has nothing to do with her being a woman, and so little about her that does.

I would like to see a woman President, but I would want her to be qualified by her stand on the issues and her ability to be flexible and able to grow, just as I would want a man to be. I still like John Edwards, but am backing Obama at this point.

I'm glad Iowa has ignored the coronation the media was preparing for the Clinton dynasty.

Daniel Spiro said...

Night Stranger,

I hadn't hear that Matthews had made the "Election" comparison. I wish I could have seen that.

I also support Obama. I would vote for Edwards if I had to, but I strongly believe that Obama is the guy with the best chance of building the kind of coalition we need to solve some of our society's pressing problems. Gore would have been great as well, but he's not running. :(

Benedict S. said...

Hillary can't possibly be as nice as you make her out to be.

Anonymous said...

I think you are totally unfair to Hillary. I don't agree at all that she comes across as particularly angry and calculating. But most importantly analogy/metaphor is not an argument. It might be clever, it might be entertaining, but it is not an argument.

In fact, it appears that several of Hillary's policies are better thought through than Obama's. Health care is one example (from Krugman), science is another. From what I understand, Hillary wants to reinstate the congressional committee that would scientifically measure outcomes of policies. (We used to have one of those until Bush got rid of it) This is very important since it will stop programs that are ideologically based but are harmful to society, such as abstinence only education, no over the counter plan B, no child left behind etc. Obama proposes to make this kind of committee a part of the executive branch, which is not as good for obvious reasons - stability, division of power etc.

Daniel Spiro said...

Unfair to Hillary? I think a major point of this post is that, indeed, I may be being unfair to her (unconsciously). But the unfairness isn't necessarily coming from the head. Rather, it's coming from the heart, or to be more exact, from the gut.

This post describes, quite honestly, the way Hillary strikes me at a visceral level. And it is notable that Chris Matthews apparently did a similar piece the same day I did (kind of like Newton and Leibniz coming up with the calculus independently at the same time ... except that those two are just a tad more intelligent). In fact, I know a large number of Democrats, let alone Republicans, who are similarly turned off by her approach.

I would never claim that any one politician who is running for President has a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to public policy. But there are several things about Hillary Clinton that make her, at a minimum, extremely difficult to get elected in any campaign that includes independents and Republicans. And even if she is elected, I don't see her producing the kind of mandate for change that a President needs to get things done. Her opponents will block her every step of the way.

Night Stranger said...

Hillary has something of what Chris Matthews used to call "The Jerry Lewis Factor" (and he invented that to describe Bill Clinton, actually) -- either you love her or you hate her. Sorta you get it or you don't. There is no explaining to us who find her totally acceptable as President-material, and there seems to be no way we can explain to those who think she'd just be wonderful at the job.

Doesn't stop Dan and me from trying!

Anonymous said...

Hi Dan,
I understand your point about your "gut" reaction to Hillary. I don't think it is fair to discribe it as "uncounscious" since you seem to be pretty well aware of it. However, it is irrational. Surprisingly, you appear to be just fine with making important political choices based on your irrational reactions. To use your type of argument, it is no different than republicans voting for GW because he seemed like a guy they would like to hang out with. That decision was also based on a gut reaction and it turned out to be dead wrong. If you were to hire someone to build you a house, whould you care about the proposed building plans or your gut reaction to the type of a person they are? I am not sure Clinton is the right person for the job also, but I think it is wrong to discount her just because of "gut reactions."

Daniel Spiro said...

I'm not saying that my views regarding Hillary Clinton are based solely on gut reactions. I've said many things over the course of the last year about why, intellectually, I don't support her candidacy.

I am saying, however, that the Tracy Flick analogy is a relevant one because it draws on what is in a lot of our guts. So take it for what it's worth. If you think it's worth little, so be it. It's merely a fragment of my calculus.