How should we regard Hillary Clinton and her bid for the White House after absorbing the litany of contradictions between past and present positions she has taken, compiled by a shrewd observer in late January and shown in the reel above?
As a journalist nursed from adolescence on the adversarial writing of social critics including H.L. Mencken, George Orwell and Chris Hedges, I found myself thinking words like “mendacious,” “duplicitous” and “Janus-faced” as the clip rolled. Those are harsh terms, and I imagine they grate against the sensibilities of some readers who do not spend their days in the essential mental habitat of the critic, where concern for the feelings of other people are subordinated to the imperative to speak truth with the force required in an era of pervasive misinformation and noise.
Nonetheless, there the words are. What remains then is for the critic to invite the still unconvinced to consider the potential costs—to society as well as ourselves—of clinging to an insistence that Clinton in particular and public figures in general, who after all are subject to many of the same challenges faced by all of us, be granted the same nominal deference and politeness that ordinary people expect from each other.
What does it mean that Hillary Clinton could publicly state numerous times in the early days of this millennium that she opposes marriage equality for gays and lesbians -- and then reverse herself once it became politically expedient to do so?
She says today that she opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has precipitated the loss of hundreds of thousands of decent-paying manufacturing jobs to operations overseas, since its implementation in 1994. But examples of her support from that very period are abundant and easily found.
In 2008, Clinton criticized then-presidential candidate Barack Obama for besmirching their party by criticizing her proposals for health care reform. “Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care?” she asked, indignant. Well, she’s been doing just that to her rival for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential race, Sen. Bernie Sanders, for months now.
Clinton likes to portray herself as a friend of working Americans, especially women. But when she was a senator of New York between 2000 and 2009, her office paid its female staff members 72 cents for every dollar paid to males--5 cents fewer than the national average. She wants young people bearing college debt to believe she understands their pain. But she pays nothing to the interns currently working on her presidential campaign. (Incidentally, guess who does?)
She claims none of this has anything to do with her ties to parties that have an interest in keeping wages low. But she won't release the transcripts of the speeches she was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece to give to Wall Street.
Are these matters trivial? Are they the politically necessary maneuverings of a person devoted, deep down, to a progressive agenda? Maybe. But if they are, why do we honor people who, as Hedges often puts it, “hold fast to moral imperatives”? People from our history, such as Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr., and from contemporary times, such as Chelsea Manning? Should we regard Hillary Clinton as a member of their class? Or is she, for some of us, an evil we accept only for the sake of edging past the next whirlpool of right-wing disaster that we risk falling into after the upcoming election?
Those of us who find ourselves agreeing with the latter answer have to face up to an uncomfortable fact: at some point we parted with the idea, which must occur to virtually all people at one time or another, that integrity—fidelity of speech and action—is what makes people, leaders especially, worthy of our trust, support and endorsement. And that repeated demonstrations of its opposite make some public figures unworthy of the credence that they will do the things they say they’ll do when we most need them done.
Hillary Clinton’s claim to our confidence has been under extraordinary scrutiny since the Democratic primary votes began a few weeks ago. Poll after poll reveals that large numbers of young people—majorities in some cases—once presumed to be her supporters are finding her wanting and transferring their support to Sanders, a candidate whose appeal is based on the honesty and integrity displayed throughout his long career.
Clinton has only herself to blame for these losses. Are we to accept her explanation that a person of her background, education and uncommon experience “evolved” on the question of same-sex marriage? What should we make of her contradictions on such issues as NAFTA, universal health care, and obligations among Democrats? Or the fact that she bristles indignantly, as in a clip above, when her contradictions are pointed out by journalists, debate moderators or interviewers—and, perhaps even more repulsively, suggests that they’re being unfair to her? As Truthdig contributor Alexa Sue Amore pointed out in recent days, Clinton has given us a clear pattern of behavior in which she reflexively deflects legitimate criticism by presenting herself as a victim. Combined with her willingness to shift her attitudes and opinions to suit the times, it is clear that she is concerned first with winning, and then with serving the interests of the under-represented who need her leadership.
A limited degree of this double-dealing may be defensible in politics, and where that line is drawn is a matter of debate. But Clinton can hardly be defended as someone who has taken risks for causes that were unpopular but that she believed in. The "progressive values” she claims for herself regularly melt away in the face of formidable wealth, power and bigotry. Americans need a champion, and Clinton's own words make it plain that she is not it.