There is a lot to love about “Hillary,” the sympathetic new Hulu docuseries about the life and times of one of the most polarizing women in American political history.
Clinton critics, naturally, have found much to hate.
But love it or hate it, the series makes clear that Hillary Clinton really understands herself — her strengths, her vulnerabilities, her mistakes. “I’m a really good public official,” she says, but “a less-than-ideal politician.”
Unlike the Bushes, who, in their lack of introspection, are just boring, the Clintons are endlessly fascinating.
They have dominated so much of recent American political life and had so many bizarre ups and downs that they have captured a permanent place in our national psyche.
Because Hillary came of age in the late 1960s, a moment when American women were making unprecedented professional strides — and encountering unprecedented backlash — she has come to be a kind of living, breathing Rorschach blot. Americans look at her and see all the positive and negative feelings they have about feminism, gender equality and, yes, even marriage.
“What a burden,” she says in “Hillary,” joking about the amount of time she has to spend on hair and makeup. She might as well have been taking about her place in history.
Two moments from this documentary have captured the public imagination in ways that underscore that, no matter what they do or say, the Clintons just can’t seem to win.
They are scorned for lying, and scorned for telling the truth.
They are scorned for being too private, and for talking too much.
They are scorned for not taking responsibility, and scorned when they do.
The first moment involves Hillary’s dim view of Bernie Sanders, her fierce Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential primary.
“Honestly, Bernie drove me crazy,” she says. “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that, you know, people got sucked into it.”
So many Democrats were offended: How dare she criticize a fellow (nominal) Democrat during an intense primary season!
Well, why not?
“I thought everyone wanted my authentic, unvarnished views!” she tweeted in January, after “Hillary” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.
Oh, they do.
But only when it suits them.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a fan of Sanders, of his idealism and commitment to dragging the Democratic Party to the left, where it belongs. But I can see how Sanders’ angry, aspirational rhetoric annoys the hell out of a pragmatist like Clinton. Not to mention his less-than-stellar interpersonal skills.
There is a totemic scene in the documentary, where Clinton and Sanders are standing a few feet apart, shifting on their feet, not really looking at each other, as they prepare to take the debate stage.
Sanders, channeling every clueless man who has used a woman as his mirror, turns to Clinton and, gesturing at his jacket, says, “Whaddya think? Buttoned?”
You know she wants to say, “What am I, your wardrobe consultant?”
Instead, she says, “Well, you can start buttoned, and then when you get wound up, you can unbutton.”
Sanders grunts, barely acknowledging her, and looks away. In that obnoxious moment, I totally got why he drives her crazy.
The second scene that has gotten people worked up is Bill Clinton’s attempt to explain why he engaged in a destructive sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to his 1998 impeachment, and also very nearly to the end of his marriage.
Critics, like Bill Maher, have been appalled that Clinton speaks of his “anxieties” as an impetus for such dreadful behavior.
“Can I, for one second, channel Monica Lewinsky?” Maher asked his “Real Time” panel Friday. “I just gotta say, the blindness of a man saying that I had this affair with this person to manage my anxieties — how does that make her feel? It’s a terrible thing to say.”
Is it, though?
“Everybody’s life has pressures and disappointments and terrors, fears of whatever,” Clinton says. “The things I did to manage my anxieties for years.... I am a totally different person than I was.”
You don’t have to be a fan of Bill Clinton to understand that he was trying to explain, not excuse, his state of mind when his sexual liaison with Lewinsky occurred.
“You feel like you’re staggering around,” he says. “You’ve been in a 15-round prize fight that was extended to 30 rounds, and here is someone who will take your mind off it for a while....”
If that seems callous, it also seems perceptive.
Lewinsky was exploited, no doubt, and has paid far too great a price for someone else’s (and her own) monumentally wrong choice. “I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it, unfairly, I think,” he says.
But it has always been a mystery why Clinton would risk so much. “I have no defense,” he says. “This is inexcusable what I did.” And, he said, he just didn’t think about the implications of getting caught.
Even Jennifer Palmieri, assistant to Clinton’s chief of staff who assigned Lewinsky to deliver memos to the president during the fateful government shutdown, says in the documentary that it never occurred to her to worry about the obviously smitten Lewinsky’s proximity to Clinton, because she never thought that Clinton could be that stupid.
I think his explanation is entirely plausible; he has come to understand — through counseling, he says — the forces in his life that led to his reckless sexual behavior. Most extramarital affairs, I daresay, are less about sexual gratification than they are about meeting emotional needs, and acting out childhood scripts.
The claim that he has not apologized to Lewinsky is wrong. He publicly apologized in 1998.
Perhaps he has not apologized enough. Perhaps he can never apologize enough.
And perhaps Hillary Clinton should keep her mouth shut (while also doing everything in her power to support her party, naturally). After watching “Hillary,” I’m really glad she didn’t.