Hillary Clinton is neither a saint nor a monster. Although I share Zelda Bronstein’s distaste for feminist sycophancy, I think she fails to grasp—amid all the disappointments—what is genuinely laudable about our First Lady.
Blaming Hillary Clinton for “losing” the battle for universal health care is as absurd as condemning Truman for “losing” China. It was never hers to lose. The health care industry accounts for one-eighth of the nation’s gross national product. Her very effort, though badly bungled, mobilized formidable political and economic opposition. The insurance industry launched an enormously successful public relations and lobbying campaign. The most comfortable and wealthy Americans, moreover, demonstrated little political will to tax themselves to pay for the health care of the poor. Although I, too, supported a single-payer plan, most Americans did not. In California, our single-payer plan was overwhelmingly defeated by a well-financed campaign underwritten by the insurance industry.
In retrospect, it would have been easier to nationalize the railroad, automobile, and aviation industries than to redistribute 12 percent of the nation’s wealth for health care reform.
In short, the First Lady could not reverse Americans’ growing distrust of government and their deepening distaste for helping the poor. Nor could she prevail against the awesome medical insurance industry. Bill and Hillary tried, but Harry and Louise won.
Afterward, Hillary Clinton became the lightning rod for the right. Silenced by relentless criticism in her own country, she gradually realized that she had to export her progressive agenda to other parts of the globe. The media, however, ensured that her message would be muted.
When she and her daughter visited India, the First Lady publicized the success of development programs that loan village women small sums of money with which to start their own cottage businesses. The women rapidly pay back the loans, gain some economic independence, and raise their standard of living.
When the First Lady returned home, she called for American financial institutions to offer small loans to poor American women, whom banks usually reject. Small enterprises, she argued, might free poor women from their dependence on welfare or abusive relationships.
Few Americans recall her advocacy of these development programs. When Hillary Rodham Clinton changes her hair style, reporters demand a political explanation and speculate on the symbolic meaning of her new coiffure. But when the First Lady travels abroad, the American media trivialize her speeches and publish photographs that spotlight Hillary and Chelsea riding an elephant, watching hippos, or admiring floral displays.
At the Fourth World Women’s Conference at Beijing in l995, Hillary Clinton gave a keynote speech that boldly defended women’s rights as human rights. Defying the moral relativism that suppor...
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