‘Ruthless’ Hillary Clinton returns as the ‘90s make a comeback

President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton exchange smiles at a 1999 appearance.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The ‘90s are back, all but the shoulder pads and bad hair, and Hillary Rodham Clinton is right in the middle of it once more, as much cultural avatar as political potentate.

The decade that brought unending political scandals -- as well as the best economy that the nation has had in ages, by many markers -- started to resurface a couple of weeks ago when potential presidential candidate Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, took indirect aim at Clinton over her husband’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Then, this week, came a piece on the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website that cited papers archived at the University of Arkansas after the death of Diane Blair, a close Clinton friend.


The papers -- a collection of Blair’s diary-like accounts of conversations, campaign memos and the like -- are a sometimes wrenching trip via the wayback machine, as she recounts the Clintons’ arduous transition from Arkansas to Washington. In the most quotable comment, Hillary Clinton is said to have called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony toon” whose relationship with Bill Clinton resulted from a moral lapse on his part, albeit one driven by the pressures facing the couple in the capital.

The papers also reflect, time after time, Hillary Clinton’s frustration with politics and her view that, while she adopted her husband’s name to stave off criticism in Arkansas, she was not about to change her personality to suit the Washington establishment, the press or, for that matter, voters.

“I gave up my name, got contact lenses, but I’m not going to try to be somebody that I’m not,” Blair quotes Clinton as saying.

That tension has been a recurring theme of the Clintons’ political lives. In the 1992 presidential contest, campaign aides placed much emphasis on humanizing Hillary, or at least forwarding a public version of the human being her friends, including Blair, testified to. Blair’s papers included a confidential campaign memo that said voters believed Hillary Clinton was smart but just couldn’t fully connect with her. (Among other things, as was reported during the campaign, many voters were unaware that the Clintons had a daughter, the then-teenage Chelsea, and thus didn’t see Hillary as particularly motherly.)

She got little credit for the things people liked about the Clintons, and more of the blame for the things they disliked.

“What voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary,” the memo said.

The truth is she was a one-woman Rorschach test of the nation’s shifting gender roles. Was she the ardent lawyer and family breadwinner who said, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do is fulfill my profession”? Or was she the woman who saved the campaign by standing by her man when womanizing charges surfaced (and, again, when they resurfaced during the presidency)? The answer, of course, was that she was both.

The “ruthless Hillary” theme ran through conservative coverage of the Blair papers, including a Drudge Report account that trumpeted the Free Beacon’s findings, much as it ran through Clinton’s campaign for the presidency in 2008.

As she ponders a potential reprise in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s supporters point to her walloping lead among Democratic contenders; the broad sentiment is that the nomination is hers should she want it.

Whether or not that’s the case, the last week serves as a reminder that a campaign by Clinton will be less a cakewalk than an extended Groundhog Day. Her supporters have 30 years of political activity to tout Clinton’s preparedness; her detractors will have 30 years of Clinton messes to dredge up.

And dredge they will, for their own political imperatives. As Peter Beinart noted in the Atlantic, Rand Paul’s blast at the Clintons seemed to have less to do with them than his desire to secure the votes of the religious conservatives who will in large part decide the Republican nomination.

Bill Clinton’s behavior is “not Hillary’s fault,” Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”, before adding that “with regard to the Clintons, sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.”

But reprising the past has its limits.

For one, Hillary Clinton has historically benefited from piling-on; it has imposed on her a sense of humanity. When John Edwards, in a 2007 Democratic presidential debate, joked about Clinton’s choice of jacket, it raised enough ire that he later apologized. When President Obama, in a 2008 candidate forum, snootily offered that she was “likeable enough,” angry criticisms came his way and support went hers.

More to the point, both Clinton and her detractors need to gaze through the windshield, not the rearview mirror, for both sides’ political benefit.

Apart from serving as a fundraising tactic, Clinton criticism does little to help Republicans craft a vision for the future that embraces more than the shrinking base of Southern whites who have powered the party to congressional strength but are not numerous enough to win the presidency.

And responding to Clinton criticism does nothing to help Democrats frame a vision of government that incorporates lessons learned from the recent recession and the quicksand of Obamacare.

As the Clinton campaign song put it in 1992: “Yesterday’s gone.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker