Bill and Hillary: Biography as History

Bill and Hillary: Biography as History

What Hillary needed—and got—last night was a biography reboot. If Bill Clinton’s valentine to his wife was characteristically a bit windy, it deftly painted a picture of her as a lifelong progressive who gets things done.

Bill Clinton speaking at the Democratic National Convention, July 26 (ABC Television Group / Flickr)

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Emerson said, “There is properly no history, only biography.” That was certainly true on day two of the Democratic National Convention. If the evening lacked a barn-burner speech like Michelle Obama’s heckle-proof mom’s-eye tribute to Hillary as the rightful heir to Obama, it was full of reminders of just who it is that a majority of Democrats have been voting for all these months. It was heavy on biography, but biography was what was needed.

The strangest aspect of the campaign has been the transformation of Hillary Clinton into—depending on which website or whose Facebook feed you’re reading—a “Wall Street Democrat,” a “hawk,” a “neocon,” or various other species of conservative.

But, in many cases, the Hillary-as-conservative meme was not a lie but an error. More than a year ago, the number-crunchers at 538 told us she was a liberal, but the argument didn’t take. And too many of her detractors—and, for that matter, the millennials covering her for mainstream news outlets—had no living memory of something different. As Bill Clinton said last night, that picture of her was a cartoon.

What Hillary therefore needed—and got—last night was a biography reboot. If Bill Clinton’s valentine to his wife was characteristically a bit windy, it deftly painted a picture of her as a lifelong progressive who gets things done. What was characteristically Bill, too, was that his love letter should be so wonky: while offering the requisite anecdotes about courtship and Chelsea’s birth, much more was about Hillary’s policy achievements, going back to her importation to Arkansas in the 1980s of a successful Israeli preschool program called HIPPY and her creation of another organization for children and families in her adopted state that survives to this day.

The reboot seemed to work. Underappreciated achievements from her White House, Senate, and Foggy Bottom years were all spotlighted, including her longstanding penchant for diplomacy and her work against sex trafficking and enslavement. (Yes, foreign policy is about much more than whether or not to send troops somewhere.) Veteran journalists tweeted that they learned things about her biography they hadn’t known. And Bill’s speech was only the capstone, following one speaker after another reminding—or, it must be said, educating—Americans young and old about her long, committed career of activism. It was impossible to experience day two without concluding that Hillary is entirely in the party’s liberal mainstream with Dick Durbin, Barbara Boxer, Pat Leahy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Joe Biden, and all the other Democratic senators whose names fail to elicit jeers from certain leftists of all ages.

Earlier in the day, I attended an offsite screening of Crashing the Party, a documentary about the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The film, too, was high on wonk appeal: It went deep into the organization’s history—its creation, its conventions, its policy reports. Here the biography-as-history on display was that of Al From, the congressional staffer who founded and led the group, and, like the narrative From has often peddled, it made the error of making Bill Clinton seem a vehicle of the DLC rather than the other way around (Bill also had support from many other key constituencies in his rise, including the African-American community, the nation’s governors, and the famous network of FoBs, or friends of Bill, including people like Robert Reich and Ira Magaziner).

But what the film made clear was just how badly the Democratic party needed a course correction in 1992, having lost five out of the last six presidential elections, three of them by some of the largest margins in its history. Seeing the film made one realize how much changed as a result of Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidency, despite the partisanship and polarization of these years. As From said, times have changed, the party has changed, and the challenges have changed. What’s remarkable—and counterintuitive in the face of the coverage of so much the last year—is how consistent Hillary Clinton’s pragmatic liberalism has been. If elected in November, she is not going to launch a political revolution, but she is likely to get stuff done.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is a longtime contributor to Dissent. He is the author, most recently, of Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency (W.W. Norton).

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