So much has been said about her.
And yet, so much has barely been uttered.
Specifically, the fact that even after four years as Secretary of State and six years as United States Senator, the most practical experience which provides Hillary Clinton with an unparalleled grasp of the nuances, conflicts and realities of what the American Presidency in the 21st century entails may well be the eight years she spent as First Lady.
She’s been one of sixty-eight Secretaries of State, but one of only eight spouses who have thus far lived in daily, intimate contact with the President of the United States for eight or more years (this includes the wives of Madison, Monroe, Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and W. Bush).
Even if people absolutely, insanely despise her, or more fairly make a rational argument against the value of any any of her “official” public service, nobody can deny that Hillary Clinton has achieved the rarest of statuses, that of a living legend: the first presidential spouse elected to any public office and furthermore appointed to serve in a President’s Cabinet. She’s an established figure in American history. Children’s books have been written about her. She’s depicted in wax museums. She’s been on and off mugs and tee-shirts for over two decades.
Now, she’s a living legend intent on making even more unprecedented history. Having served in two official capacities, one focused on domestic policy, the other on foreign policy, her breadth of knowledge and experience is even wider than it was in 2008.
The closest analogy to what is occurring in the larger public imagination and popular culture by Hillary Clinton running for President in 2016 is that of World War II hero Charles De Gaulle running for President of France in 1958, or former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill elected back to that position in 1951.
As was true during her failed candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, however, the print, broadcast and online mass media seems intent on yet again willfully ignoring the invaluable political skills, and one-of-a-kind professional experience she gained during those crucial first eight years she was a public figure, from January 20, 1993 to January 20, 2001. At this point, it certainly seems to be a willful decision – but why?
In fact, the only aspects of her First Lady years which the media fixates on relate to her personal life, political scandals, and reaction to media and partisan attacks. Those lurid subjects decidedly fascinate the general public. Examined more rationally, some of them do offer legitimate grounds for consideration of her as a potential President.
Emphasizing this, however, and belittling or ignoring the enormously substantive legacy of her First Lady years ultimately distorts the truth about Hillary Clinton as, arguably, the most visible woman in the world at the time – even, at times, among the most important.
There seems to be an almost primal reason why this has been and already seems like it will again be studiously ignored. It goes beyond sexism.
No matter how precisely devised, the efforts to categorize and catalog the public record of First Ladies and classify them under different labels is futile, still largely characterizing them as caricatures.
Each behaves and reacts as a unique individual, even differently at times of crisis during their tenure.
The Nancy Reagan of 1981, reacting with hurt timidity to media criticism on matters related to her clothing and entertaining style, was very different from the Nancy Reagan of 1987 reacting with determined action to quell media speculation about her husband’s potentially-damaged legacy for his handling of the Iran-Contra scandal.
However demanding might be public expectations, she can cross a picket line to buy shoes and take control of a presidential health crisis (Mamie Eisenhower), drink heartily and initiate the first federal workplace health and safety standards (Nellie Taft), dance in tights on T.V. and foster new national nutritional food labeling (Michelle Obama), vacation in Europe and translate discussions between state leaders (Jackie Kennedy).
There are, however, some basic facts about every First Lady, applicable to seemingly disparate individuals like Eleanor Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower, Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams, Barbara Bush or Hillary Clinton.
– They have unfettered, unfiltered, absolute and immediate access to the President of the United States without being elected, without being confirmed by the Senate, without being appointed to any official federal position.
– They are under no obligation, legal, moral or otherwise to disclose what they advise, discuss with the President, or on what matters they seek to influence the President.
Since 1978, two laws have been enacted which do restrict the activities of First Ladies:
– The Ethics in Government Act requires the spouses of high-ranking federal officials such as the President from accepting unreported gifts over a specific value, adjusted
– Like all other close blood and non-blood family members, a presidential spouse is legally forbidden from being appointed to any official position by the President by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, Pub. L. No. 95-454, 92 Stat. 1111, codified at 5 U.S.C. § 2302(b). Nepotism is addressed at prohibited personnel practice number 7.
That means that while Hillary Clinton’s professional experience before becoming First Lady may have well qualified her to serve as a salaried West Wing advisor to President Clinton, it was forbidden.
However, a President can seek advise and counsel from whoever he chooses and, in theory, any citizen can seek to influence him on any matter, if they can somehow gain access to his time and attention.
Meaning, in a word, the power and influence of a presidential spouse is unaccountable.
The enormous effort required to ferret out information and then fairly assess the full record of her extremely active eight years as First Lady without any political agenda to either help or hinder Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary race may be the primary reason the mass media did not do so.
The fact is, tracking the dozens of staff and congressional meetings over which she presided in the process of drafting adoption reform legislation, for example, would be deemed too tedious for public consumption. It would offer the media no blaring teaser tag to draw in viewers and readers. It was easier to focus, for example, on her memory of being in the line of fire in an active war zone.
Equally at fault, however, was her very own 2008 campaign.
During the debates of that primary season, from about December of 2007 to May of 2008, as she faced off against the likes of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Edwards and others, Hillary Clinton focused almost exclusively on her official record and experience as a duly-elected member of the United States Senate.
It is difficult to untwine whether it was the media or the campaign which first set the course of ignoring the First Lady Factor, but the result was that whether by her own conscious or unconscious determination or the strong advice of media advisers, she rarely alluded to her eight years in the White House.
In the process, entirely ignored were the lessons learned from her leadership of a complicated and abandoned effort to reform national health care policy, her advisory and tactical work in lobbying legislation initiated by the Administration, the economic and geopolitical nature of her diplomatic missions, visionary leadership on behalf of previously-ignored societal and health problems facing largely disempowered constituencies, and efforts to direct a unifying national narrative by using the White House as a platform and publicly disseminating all of it by the first presidential use of Internet live-streaming.
In fact, by some definitions of executive duties, this particular First Lady served as as a legitimate, genuine presidential surrogate.
Still, no matter how much funding she may have succeeded in having allocated or pending legislation she helped shepherd towards passage, no matter how central she was to the daily, operational functioning of the American Presidency, the media soon authoritatively dismissed it all.
Left, right and center it was soon uniformly declared that there was little to no value in examining her First Lady years.
As the primaries came down to the wire, it got to the point where her “work” there was ridiculed as an eight-year tea party. It was written off as unimportant, superficial and irrelevant.
Why did the Clinton campaign permit this to go unchallenged? Everyone knew a First Lady is neither elected nor appointed to any “official” position, making whatever power she held unaccountable.
It seems that her campaign advisors presumed that it would be a losing battle to counteract a largely philosophical debate in the midst of a time-sensitive primary debate season when matters of immediate relevancy like national security were the priority.
Further, even had an effective case been made, it would all be delegitimized because anything substantial she achieved as First Lady was due to derivative power, by virtue of the lucky fortune of being married to the President.
This time is different. There are no formidable challengers for the party’s nomination. There is a far greater period of time for substantive examination of her work as First Lady.
There has always been something rather primal about the nation’s dual embrace and rejection of “the boss’s wife.”
Every time a First Lady has involved herself or voiced an opinion on public matters, ever-resounding is the cry of “Who elected her?”
Given the attacks on Abigail Adams and Mary Lincoln, or later Florence Harding and Eleanor Roosevelt, it was true before women gained the vote in 1920 and ever since.
Rarely has this other half of the equation been spelled out: more often than not, “he” would have never been elected were it not for “her” support, be it to provide emotional resolve, financial support, networking skills, and most importantly practical advise on campaign strategy, including how to convey a calibrated presidential viewpoint on politically contentious social issues in a way that the everyday American could grasp.
Belittling the value of Hillary Clinton’s experience from 1993 to 2001 is rooted in presumptions which go far deeper, however, than sexism. When the nation elects a woman President married to a First Gent involved in policy work – and they are not the Clintons – the question asked will likely be, “Who elected him?”
For history proves that no matter what gender a leader’s spouse may be or even under what form of government they rule, the legitimacy of power based on an emotional relationship is always questioned.
In the 17th century, the male lovers of Russia’s Catherine the Great were despised for their influence over her. In the 20th century, Communist Romanians worked hard to keep their deep resentment of Elena Ceaușescu’s power under wraps, or face imprisonment.
Yes, sexism is at the root of attacks on Hillary Clinton which fixate on purely personal matters, like the often disturbingly vile observations about her physicality as First Lady (and yes, these were made about Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Florence Harding, Edith Wilson, Ida McKinley – in fact, going back to Julia Grant).
It’s the same sort of a shallow judgment, however, increasingly being applied to men. In fact, there seems to now be some equal-opportunity sexism aimed at at least two male Republican candidates with what the shallow consider to be less than ideal male physicality: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s growing bald spot and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s weight.
The dismissal against Hillary Clinton’s work as First Lady, however, goes beyond being a judgement against her based on gender to one involving status.
It is the same sort of facile, conventional worldview which judges a person based on their academic degrees or the titles of their jobs – versus proof of their capabilities based on their achievements.
It is a presumption based upon classification labels, encompassing not just sexism, but also marital status, regionality, socioeconomic origin, ancestry, education, date of birth – even birth order and astrological sign!
It is a shorthand judgment far more insidious than sexism for it is so pervasive that it often passes unnoticed, or isn’t considered an unfair form of bigotry.
It is one, however, that every human being has experienced at some point in their life, that only with official credentialing can one earn credit.
All that said, resolving why Hillary Clinton’s substantive work as First Lady has been ignored can be an endless debate with no ultimate resolution or even purpose. The
Only by making clear that Hillary Clinton’s work as First Lady was substantive and that it serves as the foundation for a legitimate case for her qualifications as President, however, will the matter forward with genuine truth.
This is the first in what is hoped will be a series of pay-per-view articles examining the legacy of Hillary Clinton’s work as First Lady over the course of her 2016 campaign. It will be drawn from the author’s history and expertise, as well as access to and interviews with her between 1992 and 2001. For a more detailed author biography, read “Who is Carl Anthony?” under the “About” tab on the Home Page.