How Richard Nixon Created Hillary Clinton – Sam Tanenhaus/Bloomberg Politics
As a young lawyer, she helped investigate Watergate. For the First Woman of American politics, those chickens are always coming home to roost.
Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi testimony, in all its layered meaning, overpowers cogent analysis and even neutral description. It was unsettling, strange, riveting—and without any true precedent: A front-runner for her party’s presidential nomination, and the first woman ever to be a serious contender for the job, interrogated, often with unconcealed hostility, for the better part of a day, with breaks for in-studio score-keeping, followed by postmortems, and spin on all sides. Even as committee Republicans took hard hits—“disturbing” (David Gergen on CNN), gripped in “psychosis” (David Brooks on PBS NewsHour)—conservatives dug in: “Hillary Clinton is corrupt, and vomits up lies,” Mark Steyn said on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program. “You can hear the contempt in her voice when she answers questions, she believes she is above questioning.”
Either way, it has been Hillary Clinton’s most vivid and accomplished public moment, eclipsing her solid performance in the first debate. Great politicians, Murray Kempton once observed, “are capable of as many roles as there are sins to commit.” Hillary proved herself the Mirren or Streep of the political witness stand—cast as defendant, an all-too familiar role in our politics. After so many years, both Clintons evoke many feelings, but the strongest is of déjà vu. And in Hillary’s case each new controversy or scandal or pseudo-scandal—we’re never sure— arrives trailing gusts of previous ones. We—and she—have been here before. Nothing about the Benghazi theater was routine, but it was familiar nevertheless. She brought along her troupe as well. There was David Kendall, the Washington lawyer whose collaboration dates back to the Whitewater investigations, seated behind her in the hearing room, impassive as ever. And there was Sidney Blumenthal, Hillary’s voluble e-mail buddy, not seen but quoted with almost comical zeal by Trey Gowdy and company.
It was all a reminder of just how long Hillary Clinton’s dominion over our politics has lasted, and how powerful her gift still is for embroiling us in her dramas. Other politicians have phases, ups and downs, smooth sailing and rough patches. But Hillary’s political life, deep into its fourth decade, has been a fable of twice- and thrice-told tales, replayed in an endless loop. “We’re seeing history repeat itself,” Bill Clinton told Fareed Zakaria back in September. “Ever since Watergate, something like this happens.”
Clinton of course didn’t mean—couldn’t mean—that his wife’s latest troubles, whatever they finally amount to, approach Richard Nixon’s crimes and breaches of constitutional law. He was referring to something else, less damning but if possible even more dispiriting—the transformation of our politics into a form of continual inquest. We know the cycle: accusation, counterattack, pitched battle to control the “narrative.” The Washington Confidential of a previous era, with its winking hostesses and careerist snitches, has given way, in our grimmer moment, to the beltway as no-end-in-sight C.S.I. series (the Benghazi Committee, we were often reminded, was the seventh—or was it eighth—rehash).
It’s the result—must it be repeated?—of what seems the unshakable fact of our political period, its hyperpartisanship combined with extreme polarization. There are no disagreements, only the culture war fought and refought on multiple, overlapping fronts. Hillary Clinton is very good at it, which isn’t surprising. She learned the rules from Nixon. He was the presidential author of modern politics. Hillary Clinton is his heir. She is Eve or Lilith, and was present at the creation.
The strange Nixon-Clinton bond was formed in the spring and summer of 1974, the last act of Nixon’s downfall following the break-in and arrest at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972. In the next months, the broad outlines of White House crimes were sketched out and painstakingly filled in. The numbskull burglars had been caught. The henchmen G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt had been convicted. John Dean had dazzled a Senate committee with his punishingly total recall. All that remained was to tighten the cinch on Nixon. The job was undertaken with delicacy and tact by the House Judiciary Committee, which was drawing up articles of impeachment, with a staff of bright law school graduates, including Hillary Rodham. She was 26, a year out of Yale Law School, and she got the job after her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, turned it down.
In those days, Congress relied on professional investigators (the Benghazi fiasco reminded us why), and a model of the type was the Watergate committee’s chief counsel, John Doar, a liberal Republican (remember them?) and moral ramrod. He imposed a strict code on the young impeachment staff—no shows of partisanship, no leaks to the press or even to friends, above all no gloating. Even among themselves, Nixon was to be referred to, at all times, as “the president.” Doar “enforced a strict policy of total confidentiality, even anonymity,” Hillary recalled almost 30 years later, in her memoir Living History. “He warned us not to keep diaries, to place sensitive trash in designated bins, never to talk about work outside the building, never to draw attention to ourselves and to avoid social activities of all kinds (as if we had time).”There were 44 young men and women, skimmed from the nation’s best law schools and working as many as 20 hours a day, seven days a week, “in a mildewed office overlooking an alley” on the second floor of the Capitol Hill Hotel, across the street from Congress. But the excitements were all sublimated into the often-tedious work. There was little alcohol and little sex (never mind a handgun club or fun customized wineglasses). Nothing would taint the purity of this high ceremony, even if the furtive devotion bred its own atmosphere of cultlike insularity and concealment. At one point, Hillary, who had helped draft procedural rules, accompanied Doar to a public committee session and was instantly swarmed by reporters, looking for “human interest” from this attractive young lawyer. Doar was appalled. “I knew I would never be let out in public again,” Hillary recalled.
In July 1974, after a long battle, the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to surrender his cache of secretly recorded White House conversations. The tapes had become the Holy Grail of the investigation, ever since an administration official had mentioned them in a Senate hearing. “It was hard to believe that they existed, much less to think that the President had not taken care that there was nothing incriminating on them,” Elizabeth Drew wrote at the time. And yet there must be something on them since Nixon had clung to them for a year, citing the phantom protections of “executive privilege.”
When Federal district judge John Sirica ordered them released, Doar instructed some staff, including Hillary, to play the tapes and hear the spoken evidence in all its rawness. Sitting in a “windowless room, trying to make sense of the words and to glean their context and meaning,” as she later recalled, she was one of the first people to hear Nixon unplugged. Most transfixing was what Hillary called “the tape of tapes.” It was Nixon himself listening intently, like Beckett’s Krapp, to previous recordings he had made and then testing out a new counter-testimony, while aides sat by. “He justified and rationalized what he had previously said in order to deny or minimize his involvement in ongoing White House efforts to defy the laws and the Constitution,” Hillary remembered. “I would hear the President saying things like, ‘What I meant when I said that was…’ or, ‘Here’s what I was really trying to say…’ It was extraordinary to listen to Nixon’s rehearsal for his own coverup.”
In a sense, it would be her rehearsal, too. She had been involved in politics for some years. But this was her baptism into the world of Nixon: the private obsession that colored public campaigns, the blurring of personal grievance and political mission—the strange loneliness and isolation of the “imperial presidency.”
Almost 20 years later, Hillary re-entered that world, with all its anguish, when her husband ran for the presidency, and she stood with him in the dock of public opinion. The ordeal was repeated throughout “their” two terms, their lives in Arkansas became subject to prosecution. And the inquest goes on. Her October testimony, lest we forget, was her second on Benghazi. This latest overlaps with the e-mail-server controversy. It emerged in March, only to be overshadowed by revelations, in April, of slippery dealings and overlap between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary’s State Department. Older ghosts have also been rising. Bill Clinton wasn’t alone in citing Watergate. Bob Woodward did, too, saying the “massive amount of data” Hillary had stored on her server “reminds me of the Nixon tapes.” The analogy didn’t hold, as far as the facts went. Nixon’s recordings were done in secret for his purposes. Clinton was the recipient of e-mails she shared, or over-shared, with colleagues. The parallel lay elsewhere, in the blurring of the personal and the official. The many e-mails released so far have included very few revelations. The story has instead been Clinton’s sense of ownership—or entitlement, take your pick. It was this that put Woodward in mind of the “thousands of hours of secretly recorded conversations that Nixon thought were exclusively his.”
A synoptic history of Hillary Clinton’s career could be made of her reluctant testimony in different venues: the 60 Minutes interview at her husband’s side, after the “bimbo eruption” of Gennifer Flowers; the “pink press conference,” held in the White House State Dining Room, below a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, in which Clinton, demure in a pink-and-black knit suit, tried to put to rest questions about the Whitewater real-estate deal and her futures trading that brought her a quick $100,000. Its most-quoted phrase is “zone of privacy”—what she told her interviewers had been lost, implying it could never be recovered. All major politicians make this sacrifice. But for a wife and mother, even a “second-wave” feminist, the sting is sharper. This explains the sense of injury Clinton so often projects. It was visible again in her first press conference on the e-mail server, the “Guernica” news conference at the U.N. America’s first-ever truly serious female presidential contender has no choice, perhaps, but to redefine the meaning, and limits, of the personal in our politics. In this, too, she had Nixon’s example. “He vindicated himself,” Garry Wills once wrote of one excruciating early Nixon moment, the “Checkers speech,” which long predated Watergate. “But to do so he had to violate his own privacy, and the experience left him with a permanent air of violation, not of vindication.”
So too with Hillary, and Nixon knew it. During the New Hampshire primary, when it was Bill Clinton’s turn to be caught on tape, in conversation with Flowers, Nixon told Maureen Dowd that the real trouble was Hillary. “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.”
Hillary appraised it coolly. “Either he was getting even with me because I was on the impeachment staff—because he has a very long memory—or it’s because he’s laying the groundwork for an attack on me, which has turned out to be the case.”
If Hillary’s armor seems plated with Nixonian grievance, it is because, just like him, she feels outnumbered and defenseless. Nixon drew up lists of liberal “enemies,” Hillary closely tracks the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” What is confounding to her detractors is her steady glow of righteous innocence. Nixon radiated competence, but not idealism. Hillary exudes both in equal measure. The all-purpose cynicism of political journalism obscures the manifestly good—in Clinton’s case the honorable service dating back many years: the Methodist Youth Fellowship she belonged to as a teenager, helping migrant Mexican families; the long association with the Children’s Defense Fund; the landmark law-review articles she wrote on children’s rights, the legal aid clinic she founded, Arkansas’s first, in Fayetteville; her part in helping pass the SCHIP bill that extended health care coverage to 8 million children. On the issues where she is strongest—families, women, and children—Clinton quite possibly has accomplished more than any other politician of our time.
“I had images in my mind that she could be the first woman president,” the political consultant and activist Betsey Wright has said. She meant in 1972, when both were involved in George McGovern’s presidential campaign, that last hurrah of the work-within-the-system-to-change-the system 1960s-style “New Politics.” Bill Clinton worked for McGovern, too. It was their “first rite of political passage,” in Hillary’s description. Bill spread the charisma—in the office (all those female volunteers) and on the phone—while Hillary did the thankless “woman’s work,” driving through South Texas, trying to register young black and Latino voters. (1972 was the first election in which 18-year-olds could vote.)
In the mythology of the period, McGovern shone too brightly, too honorably, for the brutalisms of modern politics. He had “a heart which could conceivably be full of love,” Norman Mailer (in his moonbeamy “Aquarius” phase) wrote in St. George and the Godfather, his book on the 1972 election. McGovern’s young supporters were just as dewy-eyed, “Phi Beta Kappas with clean faces and clean horn-rimmed glasses,” Mailer observed. The sentiment rested on the hard obvious truth that McGovern didn’t have a chance. Hillary knew it, and so did everyone else. Still, the numbers were devastating: Nixon carried 49 states and more than 60 percent of the vote. “Looking back on our McGovern experience,” Hillary reflected. “Bill and I realized we still had much to learn about the art of political campaigning.”
The instructor once again was Nixon, studied at close range. Hillary’s tasks for Doar included drafting a memo on the inner workings of Nixon’s White House, its hidden grids of power and buried lines of authority, who reported to whom. The exercise gave Hillary “an intimate view of a president practicing the dark art of Washington politics, doing whatever necessary to maintain his grip on power,” Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., wrote in Her Way, a biography published in June 2007, five months after Hillary announced her first try for the nomination.
But Nixon’s White House wasn’t just a cat’s cradle of low schemes and illegal machination. Nixon was grappling with the central new fact of American politics: the two parties’ waning power and influence. Nixon was oddly detached from other Republicans. His prodigious triumph in 1972 had come without coattails. Democrats maintained firm command in Congress, with large majorities in both the House and the Senate. Nixon cited this, in his resignation speech, as his reason for giving up the fight, saying, “I no longer have a strong enough political base in the Congress”—when in fact that base had never existed.
McGovern’s defeat and Nixon’s downfall were related events, but not in the way many supposed. The idealist and the political mobster—St. George and the Godfather—were actually kindred spirits, each a pioneer in a newly personalized politics. Each was an “independent leader responsive only to the people” who alternated “between extremes of moralism and expertise” and combined “cold pursuit of success with manic self-righteousness.” Each had operated in a kind of vacuum, essentially a loner. Each had only one powerful instrument at his command: public approval. And it came through the media, which itself had become skeptical and adversarial, in search of its own “narratives,” the more scandalous the better.
Nixon’s elected successor, Jimmy Carter, received the identical message. His pollster, Patrick Caddell, in 1976 told him he must govern as if still running for office. Thus was born “the permanent campaign,” with its “shift,” as William Galston has written, “from strategy to tactics, from future-oriented policies to the daily news cycle, from the politics of consensus-building to a ‘war room’ approach.”
“War room” was Hillary Clinton’s coinage. It was the name she gave the famous response-and-counter-attack center set up in the 1992 campaign to fend off salvos—on her as well as her husband. Along with the war room was a second unit, “the Defense Team,” which operated “stealthily, invisibly, without anyone except a tiny group of Clinton insiders ever knowing what they were up to,” Gerth and Van Natta write. Its work was “overseen by Hillary. In March 1992, at the time of the make-or-break New Hampshire primary, also according to Gerth and Van Natta, the Clinton “defense team” prepared a list of more than 75 potential vulnerabilities in the campaign:
Roughly two-thirds of the issues were matters relating to both Hillary and Bill or to Hillary alone. Many of the joint issues involved tax returns and financial disclosure reports. Eighteen of the issues solely involved Hillary’s work at the Rose firm, some under the heading “Appearance of Influence through HRC.”
The “permanent campaign” was organized to fend off the opposition party and also the media—the two often worked in tandem. Even as politicians tried to control their “image” and “message,” journalists were trying to burrow beneath the surface, looking for crimes below. The Clintons’ struggles in Arkansas, and later in Washington, came when mainstream journalists picked up the scent, or simply received tips, from Republicans doing opposition “research.” That was how Whitewater became a scandal, the Clintons’ Watergate, though the analogy never made sense. Watergate began with an authentic criminal act, the bungled “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic National Committee offices. Woodward and Bernstein had followed its trail into a dark maw: break-ins, wiretaps, White House talk about hush money and blackmail payments. Whitewater, in contrast, began with rumors that led to the frantic search for a crime that would justify prolonged and infinitely renewable investigation. The first national Whitewater story, published in the New York Times at the time of the New Hampshire primary, was a tangle of innuendo and allegation revolving around the Clintons’ “complicated relationship” with their friend James B. McDougal, who had included them in a bum real estate deal. It was a confusing story told confusingly. “When it was read aloud to [the Clintons’ campaign adviser] Susan Thomases,” James B. Stewart reported in Blood Sport, his account of the Clinton’s Arkansas financial tangles and their aftermath, “Thomases was thrilled. She thought it was incomprehensible.”
Nevertheless, Hillary saw trouble, and detected a motive, or thought she did, behind the reporting. The Times’s Washington bureau chief, Howell Raines, “was out to get Clinton because he was jealous of a fellow Southerner his own age who was a serious contender for president,” Stewart writes. “Hillary wanted to attack the Times as irresponsible and anti-Clinton,” and had to be talked out of it by George Stephanopoulos.
The press, it seemed, was preparing to attack. This was Hillary’s view but not hers alone. It was shared by another Watergate veteran, her husband’s White House Counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, who had been Hillary’s immediate supervisor under Doar and thereafter her good friend. Offered the counsel’s job in 1992, Nussbaum warned the Clintons that “every recent president had gotten into trouble when a legal problem mushroomed into a political problem.” Blurring the two had become a weapon in the partisan wars, an effective “way to bring down a president.”
The enemy, in any case, was the press. Even the wary Nussbaum was surprised by its appetite for scandal, especially after “Troopergate,” sensationalized reports on Clinton’s Arkansas philandering, spun from lurid gossip and published in The American Spectator, the conservative magazine that struck gold as an anti-Clinton scandal sheet. Worse, the allegations were being recycled in more respectable outlets. The Los Angeles Times, in particular, was in pursuit. Nussbaum and others batted back each charge. But “for everything they knocked down, the paper would just run with something else,” Stewart writes. “The situation reminded Nussbaum of a recent encounter with a reporter, who, when told he had a story all wrong, responded, ‘But Bernie, this story’s too good to check.’ It had been a joke, but within the increasingly cynical White House it rang true.”
The cynic in this exchange wasn’t Nussbaum. It was the joking reporter. In a preliminary conversation with Hillary for his book, in April 1994, Stewart was taken aback not by her cynicism, but by her seeming naiveté:
She couldn’t understand why reporters would publish allegations by people of questionable integrity and motives in the face of denials by her and her husband. She seemed shocked that when the president and first lady made assertions of fact, they were not accepted at face value. On the contrary, they seemed to be greeted with scorn and skepticism.
The same scorn and skepticism greeted Hillary last March, when she spoke with reporters about the e-mail controversy. Her fumbling extenuations (“I opted for convenience) and elaborate legalisms (“I fully complied with every rule I was governed under)” sounded like Nixon in the first stages of Watergate. But she drew as well on the memory of eight tense years in the White House when she and her husband both learned to treat journalists as adversaries. In 1994, Bill complained to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that the press had come between him and the public. “No President has ever been in this position before. …It’s maddening—a bigger gap than ever existed in modern history …We’ve got to find a way to get information on what we are doing directly to the people.”
By this time, the Clintons were already embattled. The parallels with Nixon had been drawn. The actual crimes, real or imagined, no longer mattered, only the hostilities fed by the permanent war. “The modern campaign relies heavily on espionage (‘opposition research’) and on aggressive tactics (‘negative ads’),” David Broder, the dean of beltway sages, wrote in March 1994. “It is but a short step from them to the ‘enemies lists’ of the Nixon era or the ‘war rooms’ that have been set up under President Clinton.” Broder was himself making a giant leap, equating hardball politics with Constitutional crimes. No matter. The cover-up was the thing. Broder’s prose quickened to the memory of “the all-too familiar words—investigation, subpoena, grand jury, resignation.” He left out “special prosecutor,” but they were implied.
Two of the Clinton’s most trusted advisers urged him to avoid that route. One was Nussbaum. No matter whom the Attorney General, Janet Reno, appointed, the investigation would spin out of control. There would be no Archibald Cox, or Leon Jaworsky, no John Doar, to hold things in check. And so it happened. The first Whitewater prosecutor, Robert Fiske, a moderate, was replaced by the scalp-hunter Kenneth Starr. The real estate story morphed into a sex chronicle, with whisperings of foul play and even murder. It seems absurd in retrospect—a tiny lurid nightmare (but then what will future generations make of the “birther” controversy, or of Trey Gowdy’s characterization of Sidney Blumenthal as Hillary’s “primary advisor on Libya”? Nussbaum himself soon had to resign, accused of thwarting investigators looking into the suicide of Vincent Foster, Hillary’s friend and former law partner. Nussbaum approached these as legal matters. His job, he believed, was to protect his client. This reflected, the Times reported, “an apparent failure to foresee that political dimensions can overshadow legal dimensions”—precisely the admonition he’d given the Clintons in Little Rock.
Another critic was Hillary:
My gut instinct, as a lawyer and a veteran of the Watergate impeachment inquiry staff, was to cooperate fully with any legitimate criminal inquiry but to resist giving someone free rein to probe indiscriminately and indefinitely. A “special” investigation should be triggered only by credible evidence of wrongdoing, and there was no such evidence. Without credible evidence, a call for a special prosecutor would set a terrible precedent: From then on, every unsubstantiated charge against a President concerning events during any period of his life could require a special prosecutor.
The Clintons were the first Democrats to come under steady assault from a counter-journalism on the right that made little or no attempt to disguise its intention to take down a president, through a kind of Watergate in reverse. Robert Bartley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, which helped lead the charge, suggested that Clinton wasn’t a legitimate president since “he won the election with 43 percent of the vote”—the same percentage Nixon got in 1968. The author of the Troopergate stories was, of course, David Brock, who later recanted them and also repudiated his entire season in the ‘90s as a “right-wing hit man” in his memoir, Blinded By the Right, which remains the best account, by being ubiquitously on the scene, of how the Republican party and its allies in the conservative worked through the media—the collusions that drove the Clinton pseudo-scandals—the sums poured into the “Little Rock Project,” the radio campaign of Rush Limbaugh, backstage maneuverings in Congress and by lawyers like Theodore Olson. Brock has since been atoning on Media Matters, his watchdog website, which combs the vast comment-sphere in search of every unjust nit and plucks it out, and in the constellation of pro-Hillary PACs he has formed (including American Bridge). In a new book, Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary Clinton and Hijack Your Government, Brock’s subject is the steady infiltration of mainstream media by the right-wing factories of disinformation. The same newspapers that recycled canards and smears in The American Spectator now launder the canards and smears of Fox News and Breitbart.
Watergate may have vindicated newsrooms, and the liberals so often in charge of them, but the Republican Party only got stronger. With the exception of Carter’s victory in 1976—shockingly narrow, considering Nixon’s resignation—Republicans won every election from 1968 to 1988, four of them in landslides. The sons and daughters of “Woodstein” went into retreat, showing deference to Nixon’s Republican successors, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Liberation came with the Clintons—fresh and juicy targets. Who could claim ideological bias when the liberal media set off in pursuit of a liberal president and his do-gooding, faintly leftish wife, both of them also uber-Boomers bristling with ambition? Bill’s facetious “buy one, get one free” in the 1992 campaign likewise hinted of a strategic “partnership,” a transactional marriage, ripe for ridicule for a press corps that had become a new elite.
Suddenly a “hit man” like Brock was elevated to respectability. His book The Real Anita Hill, which he now describes as a wild farrago of unsubstantiated smears and innuendo, many of the choicest nuggests provided pby Republicans in the first Bush administration and on Capitol Hill, was praised in the Times and became a bestseller. “As it concerns Clinton coverage, the Times will have a special place in journalism hell,” Brock now writes. Some Times readers are equally outraged and have been complaining for months to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who has herself criticized sloppy reporting on Clinton and especially the e-mail-server controversy, some of which seems based on leaks from Trey Gowdy or others on the Benghazi Committee. Meanwhile, the news editor responsible for most of that coverage has dismissed Brock’s complaints—rather dismissed him, as a foot soldier in the Clinton army, “reflexively skeptical of any criticism.” Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew once gave an epoch-making speech denouncing the network news, its “instant analysis and querulous criticism,” a lesson which by now has been thoroughly absorbed—news coverage is a form of “criticism.” You thought it was a newspaper. In fact it’s The New York Review of Hillary Clinton.
When it comes to the press, Hillary and Nixon seem to be of one mind. “Look. She hates you,” one of Hillary’s team explained to Politico in May 2014. The difference is that the Clintons inhabit the same cultural world as their critics, and have been able to pull intellectuals into their war room. Blumenthal, who popularized the term “permanent campaign” in a book on the rise of political consultants, published in 1980, is one example. The Benghazi inquisitors got that relationship entirely wrong. Blumenthal is neither Hillary’s Rasputin nor her Svengali, no matter what stale “intelligence” he passed along. He is a paid courtier, as the captured e-mails show; and his main function seems to have been to divert Hillary with gossip and “inside” chatter. There is also “Hillary’s historian,” Sean Wilentz, a Princeton professor and author of an excellent book on 19th-century politics, who emerged as a visible member of the Clintons’ intellectual bodyguard during the impeachment and has since embarked on new missions, flying after new targets (Obama in 2008; Bernie Sanders this time around).
The most striking passages in Brock’s new book describe the Clintons’ eager courtship of him after he confessed his sins—the phone calls and dinner invitations, the seven-figure sums they raised to get his website and its offshoots under way. We might expect wariness, given his admitted history of defamatory reporting. Brock himself says he was astonished by Bill Clinton’s warm overtures. But the Clintons seem to have viewed him as an intelligence “asset” who had “flipped” and could now funnel them helpful secrets while also educating his new allies in the techniques used by the other side. After his break with the right, Brock writes, he began feeding nuggets to Blumenthal. The collaboration yielded Hillary’s “vast right-wing conspiracy” remark in 1998, as both Brock and Blumenthal have separately noted.
Hillary-Nixon comparisons abound these days. Even Pat Buchanan (the author of Agnew’s famous speech) has said “She reminds me of Nixon.” Most emphasize Clinton’s shortcomings: her awkwardness with large crowds, her formidable but over-programmed brainpower, her curse of seeming to be captured always at the most embarrassing moment, the deep bag of lawyerly tricks (switching sides—on the TPP and DOMA—without a blink).
But Clinton is also heir to the Nixon who commanded a large, loyal constituency and was the vessel, like all major politicians, of broad if inchoate yearnings. “He embodies much that is held to be precious by a large and growing number of Americans—especially in that segment of the middle class to which he belongs and which is recognized by the Republican party as its best source of cadres at the present time . . .. His general appearance, his dress, his whole style of living and being, commend him to the multitudes who share his aspirations for a clear title to a ranch house, furs for the wife, and pets for the children.” Richard Rovere wrote those words in September 1955. Dwight Eisenhower had just suffered a heart attack and seemed unlikely to seek a second term. Nixon, his vice president, was the unloved dauphin, viewed with suspicion, left and right. Eisenhower didn’t like him much either. All this obscured his obvious abilities, which Rovere itemized: “robust, intelligent, conscientious, ruthless, affable, articulate, competitive, telegenic, and breathtakingly adaptable.”
Revise the adjectives a bit and you’ve got Hillary, who also shares Nixon’s anti-charismatic gifts of steely inner discipline combined with intense ambition and an almost shameless refusal to accept defeat, even as the humiliations pile up. All this binds her to her base. The public approval she seeks, and has won repeatedly, is the approval of women—perhaps not yet the new wave of “intersectional” feminists, but their mothers and, yes, grandmothers, who may vote in prodigious numbers. However high her unfavorable numbers climb, she has also been Gallup’s “most admired woman” 17 of the last 18 years, overtaken just once, by Laura Bush after 9/11. The “failed” campaign of 2008 was actually a grand battle in the greatest nomination contest in modern times. Hillary won 23 primaries and caucuses, got 55 percent in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma and 67 percent in West Virginia, and did it partly on the strength of a raw Nixonlike appeal to the grievances of white working-class voters.
The most effective Nixon was the “fighting Quaker” and “middle American”—more convincing, in every way, than the elder statesman and “New Nixon” invented by his handlers. So too with Hillary. She has humor and warmth Nixon lacked—yucking it up with a bewigged Jimmy Fallon, wielding a bar rag and doing her Trump impersonation on Saturday Night Live. But Clinton the public person, the candidate, rings truest when dissident protest flares up. The best moment in the Benghazi marathon came when her gaze swept upward at “this large, beautiful hearing room, and she reminded her interrogators of the comforts they enjoy even as her “State Department family” of diplomats and foreign service risk and sometimes lose their lives. At that moment St. George met the Godfather. Idealism and injury merged in the dignity of moral rebuke.
One person undeceived by the repackaged “new Nixon” was Nixon himself. “You know,” he said in 1968, explaining why his rhetoric remained flat when the times seemed to demand soaring cadences. “People have known me too long for me to come on all of a sudden like Adlai Stevenson.”
Hillary knows herself just as well. As a woman she must keep her emotions in check (as she was unable to do in the first Benghazi hearing). But she is permitted to smolder on behalf of her silent majority. There will be more occasions to do so in the months ahead—the FBI report on her e-mails is still to come—and as each new stumble springs open the vault of memory and each controversy/scandal/crime comes at her and at us. That is the cost of longevity, of being the First Woman of American politics, as much monument or institution as candidate or person. If Hillary Clinton survives, it will not be because she has put the past behind her. It will be because voters will have accepted that her history is theirs, too.
Sam Tanenhaus, former editor of The New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr.