The Consumer Republic

The Politics of Fame
Don’t let the dreary headlines, the cable coverage, the empty huffing and puffing of the editorial pages fool you. The real debate over the future of our country isn’t taking place at the Senate impeachment trial, but around the metaphorical watercoolers where the hot topic is not “Will they convict?” but “Will they divorce?”
Americans have been saying all along that Hillary, not Congress, is the only judge fit to pass sentence on the president of the United States. If Hillary can put up with Bill’s wandering libido, the reasoning goes, so can we. But if she’s given the guy up for dead, who are we to waste our energy fighting for him?
With so much at stake and the First Lady not talking, it’s little wonder the art of Hillary reminds me of the golden age of Kremlinology, when a year’s worth of Cold War policy hinged on who stood next to whom on the reviewing stand of the Moscow May Day parade. But instead of measuring the distance between Brezhnev and Andropov, today’s Hillarologists draw deep conclusions about the First Couple’s private lives from studying variables such as hands proffered or rejected, duration of eye contact and their proximity while working a crowd.
According to Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair, watch out when Hillary’s “lower lip juts out while the top one pulls in tight”–she’s on the war path! Not since Stalin stroked his mustache have the grimaces of the mighty been so closely scrutinized for clues to the political future. With only these scraps of gestures and the off-the-record speculations of “close friends” to go by, it’s not surprising that different Hillarologists have drawn opposite conclusions. According to Time, she’s forgiven him, because it’s the only Christian thing to do. Conversely, Vanity Fair declares she’s finished with turning the other cheek.
But since no one–perhaps even Hillary herself–knows where the unfolding drama of the First Marriage is leading, the she-loves-him/she-loves-him-not dynamic is interesting precisely because of what it says about us, not HRC. As was true during her mid-’90s nadir, Hillary remains a martyr to our conflicted hopes for and fears of the New Woman, even in her triumph.
For the pro-divorce contingent, the First Couple’s yin-and-yang neuroses are pathologies that keep the abler, smarter, ballsier Hillary from reaping the bounty of her talents. Now the truth about Monica has set her free. For the pro-reconciliation crowd, a marriage that endures beyond the White House represents a happy, self-affirming ending.
Whatever else, Bill and Hillary have mastered in their private lives what is so lacking in our public one: the art of compromise. Without it, every social institution from marriage to legislative government crumbles.
Either way, it’s clear that Hillary’s good hair day has arrived. Like horny swains at a Yale Law School mixer, both the Illinois and the New York Democratic parties are fantasizing she’ll jump in bed with them in the next senatorial election. What better vindication for the political wife who was forced to abandon her last name to appease voters than to ride into elective office as Sen. Rodham? Whatever else Ken Starr has accomplished, he’s turned one of the most unloved First Ladies of recent years into a potentially electable candidate. By enduring exposure of private sorrows with public dignity, Hillary has become a front-runner in the “politics of character.” Thus, another Clinton runs away with a Republican agenda.
There’s only one problem with Hillary’s bright political future: There are no politics in it. Journalists now follow her on the stump with more interest than they can muster for her played-out, lame-duck husband. They ooze admiration for her aura of command and self-assurance, marvel at smooth speeches delivered without notes, bear witness to the standing ovations granted by energized crowds. The one thing they don’t bother to even mention, let alone analyze, is what she actually says.
And it’s probably a good thing. We admire Hillary Clinton’s awesome ability to stay on message amid private heartache as long as the message itself remains a little fuzzy. Hillary was always the real left-liberal in the family, and unless I missed some earth-shaking poll, left-liberalism has yet to make a comeback. So the less attention paid to the substance of her political convictions, the better. Let that flattering Vogue cover girl hair-do do the talking.
After all, Kremlinology was a symptom of a society without politics. It arose in a system where the ebb and flow of power and policy could not be observed. Hillarology, in which the vital business of the republic takes place within the unfathomable depths of private relationships, is a symptom of a different kind of apolitical culture. Hillary may have begun her sojourn in power as a latter-day Eleanor Roosevelt, but will history remember her as a middle-aged Princess Di?