Hillary Clinton's 'Race of a Lifetime'
In politics, as in everyday life, a convergence of circumstances can prove fateful -- gleefully so for the winners, and maddeningly unfair in the view of the defeated. This is one of the many observations one may divine from John Heilemann's and Mark Halperin's newly-released book on the 2008 U.S. presidential race, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime.
I followed the 2008 election closely and bought this book because I wanted to learn more about what went on behind the curtains and was left unreported in the press and on TV. Attempting to untangle Hillary Rodham Clinton's motives for throwing her hat in the ring was one of the questions I wanted answered. I also hoped to gain an insight into the reasons behind her unsuccessful presidential bid.
I grew up with a strong faith in the power of personal endeavor, believing that it's possible to achieve your goals in life if you apply consistent and strenuous efforts. As I grew older, though, I realized that it is OK to back down sometimes, and that admitting failure doesn't make a person weaker -- some things are just not meant to be, at least not here and now.
Apparently, politicians of global stature are prone to the same disappointments that the rest of us, mere mortals, are. At times, they may feel that their continuous efforts only distance them further from a prize they so much covet.
Hillary Clinton is the case in point. She spent seven years as a U.S. Senator from New York, methodically (some would even say, masochistically) and successfully building alliances and co-sponsoring legislation with conservative Republicans, her and Bill Clinton's erstwhile foes. Yet, despite her hard work, she failed to assert herself as an effective bipartisan consensus-builder, who is adept at bridging the ideological divides. Eight years after the Clintons left the White House, their tumultuous legacy was still too painful a memory for many Americans to erase from their minds.
And after President George W. Bush's two terms in office, the Democratic Party yearned for a leader who would be willing and able to overcome partisan bickering and unite Americans. The need was so strong that many Democratic big shots threw their weight behind Barack Obama -- then a freshman U.S. Senator from Illinois -- trusting that his charismatic appeal would overshadow his obvious lack of national credentials. In fact, it was exactly the dearth of the "Washington experience" in Mr. Obama's resume that made him appealing to the heavyweights in his party.
Having set up a historical background, Heilemann and Halperin proceed to paint a realistic portrait of Hillary Clinton and other candidates. The focus of their narrative shifts from the former New York senator's liabilities to her strong idealistic streak and an unwavering dedication to her constituents and the Democratic cause, as a whole.
They describe how, after much contemplation, Mrs. Clinton decided against running in the potentially winnable 2004 presidential contest. She was concerned about not fulfilling her pledge to New Yorkers to serve one full senatorial term, and the potentially damaging impact of a broken promise on her political future.
There are other references in the book to her self-described "responsibility gene." In one of those poignant twists so common in history, Mrs. Clinton raised funds for junior senator Barack Obama's Political Action Committee, exhibiting a rare dedication to promote a rising Democratic "superstar in Chicago," as she characterized him to her friends. She also readily coached her future arch-rival during Mr. Obama's first months in the U.S. Senate. Later on, Mrs. Clinton encouraged her loyalists to vote for Mr. Obama after she herself withdrew from the presidential race. And in late 2008, she submitted to President-elect Obama's persistent entreaties that she accept the Secretary of State position. However, despite her willingness to leverage her global stature and expertise to carry out Mr. Obama's foreign policy agenda, his advisers refused to help her pay off her multi-million campaign debt.
And then there are numerous mentions of Mrs. Clinton's oversights, such as the Clinton camp's failure to promote an image of their candidate as a people-friendly and accessible politician. An adroit image makeover could have helped her attract the votes of the undecided young Democrats who eventually cast their ballots for Mr. Obama. But Mrs. Clinton's rocky relationship with the Fourth Estate made it all the more difficult for her to reach out to the press and mold her political persona to meet the expectations of her potential supporters.
Some of Mrs. Clinton's advisers appreciated the importance for a politician (especially, for a female one) in the United States to cooperate with, and shape the public opinion through, the mass media. There were, after all, rich lessons to be learned from Mrs. Clinton's tenure as a First Lady. Back then, her shunning of the press, bordering on arrogance, resulted in her negative ratings in the United States skyrocketing. But Hillary Clinton ignored those lessons, staffing her presidential High Command with the old-time Clintonites, many of whom despised reporters as much as their boss.
Game Change describes how, in anticipation of a New York Times article criticizing the Clintons' marriage as fake, the furious Mrs. Clinton's knee-jerk reaction was to avoid talking to the writer out of fear that her reaction would only validate the story. In the end, the Clintons' younger and forward-looking communications staff were able to change the former First Couple's opinion, managing to soften and even disarm what could have potentially been an explosive piece filled with factual inaccuracies.
Mrs. Clinton's proclivity to projecting an image of an intimidating opponent was, at times, self-defeating. It invited outsiders and her entourage alike to hold her to higher standards compared to other contestants. As a result, her vocal frustration with a lost caucus vote immediately caused some of her staffers to question her fitness for the presidential role. Mrs. Clinton's formidable command of policy issues on stage made her private emotional outbursts even more staggering, especially in light of the no-drama attitude espoused in public by Barack Obama.
The irony of double standards used to evaluate female politicians was not lost on Mrs. Clinton. She wondered how she could possibly afford softening her image when people expected her to handle the infamous "3 AM call" with the toughness appropriate to a prospective Commander-in-Chief. She also wanted voters to think of her as someone who is not a "flip-flopper" and can defend her stance on issues. Yet she was subjected to harsh broadside in the media for standing by her earlier approval of the Iraq war -- the decision she and other legislators made based on the information on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that appeared credible at the time but was proved false a few years later.
Mrs. Clinton's campaign was also hurt by her over-reliance on tested loyalists who delivered victories for her and her husband in the past. She assembled her campaign team from people who proved helpful in the past but were mutually incompatible and had varying ideas about what she should do to win the nomination. Given Mrs. Clinton's much-publicized strategic and team-building prowess, one may only wonder why she was unalarmed by the backstabbing and distrust pervasive among her team.
Secretary Clinton now deinies that she will ever enter a presidential race again. For those who have been tracking her political record over the last decade and are aware of her penchant for secrecy, this statement may not necessarily be an indication of her actual intentions. According to Game Change, Mrs. Clinton had a genuine apprehension for entering the 2008 presidential race, concerned that it would disrupt her and her family's life. Her hesitation at the time was at odds with an alleged "20-year project" she and Bill Clinton devised, as a couple in their late 20s, to win the presidency and reform the Democratic Party. But friends and influential backers urged Mrs. Clinton to join the 2008 race, and her sense of "calling" ultimately prevailed. Afterward, having wrapped up the presidential contest, she looked forward to resuming normal life and re-focusing her senatorial career. Nevertheless, she eventually accepted the offer to head the State Department, where her job now involves one high-stake and high-profile assignment after another, aggravated by a punishing schedule.
Hillary Clinton, undoubtedly, is a woman of many talents, whose flaws are magnified by the media spotlight, as well as by her own rigid unwillingness to let others see her "human" side. Whether she will attempt once more in her lifetime to break the most resistant glass ceiling of U.S. politics -- elevating a woman to national presidency -- remains to be seen. If she does, I hope that she will do so with a renewed commitment and a more refined and inspirational strategy. She has so much to offer.