Archive for December, 2007

HNN, December 27, 2007

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.

The murder of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is an evil act that, on its face, delivers a crushing blow to the forces for democratization and enlightenment in Pakistan – and the world over. Nevertheless, her assassination raises an awful, amoral, terribly unsentimental historical question: do assassinations like this – as shocking and horrific as they are – ever produce unintended positive consequences? This question is not to justify any such crimes. But it is instructive to think about the expected and the unexpected, the predictable and the unpredictable, positive gains that sometimes result from terrible losses.

Assassinations freeze moments – and leaders – in historical time, then frequently place the martyred leader on the national, and even international pantheon of immortals.
Often, naturally, justifiably, we mourn the lost potential, we contemplate all the good the lost leader could have accomplished. We imagine Abraham Lincoln engineering a just post-Civil War Reconstruction that rehabilitated Southerners and welcomed blacks as citizens – in contrast to the hamhanded Andrew Johnson’s failures. We envisage John Kennedy managing the civil rights movement, avoiding the Vietnam War mess, and preventing any serious Sixties youth rebellion, which his successor Lyndon Johnson could not do. And we dream of the kind of warm peace Anwar Sadat would have brought to the Middle East, indulging in the fantasy that he could have moderated other leaders, including the incorrigible Yasir Arafat.

The truth is, as flesh-and-blood politicos become legendary icons they often become more powerful symbols dead than they would have been had they remained alive. John Kennedy was on track to be a rather mediocre president when Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet cut him down. And while Martin Luther King, Jr., had already proved his greatness before being murdered at the tender age of thirty-nine, he died just as the civil rights movement was hitting a particular rocky patch. King’s death in 1968 froze him as the sainted slayer of Southern segregation but insulated him from the ensuing decades’ fights over busing, affirmative action, African-American crime, and how to balance personal prerogative and the need to integrate.

Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in November, 1995, made him an enduring icon of Israel’s hopes for peace – and Israel’s peace camp. He is remembered as a warm fuzzy peacemaker, rather than the gruff, Scotch-drinking warrior he was for much of his life. Who knows if he would have been able to stave off the ensuing Palestinian violence. Who knows how his reactions to that violence might have tainted his now pristine image. In fact, in elevating Rabin to a godlike status as Israel’s martyred mediator, Rabin’s murderer unwittingly gave his opponents a powerful spur for more concessions and more conciliation.

Looking at the heartbreaking images beaming out of Pakistan today, this assassination’s negative consequences are clear. Benzair Bhutto’s death all but guarantees more unrest, euphoria among her violent, Islamist opponents, and a blow to Pakistan’s already fragile democracy. Bhutto’s assassination shows how deeply the culture of violence permeates and distorts so many polities in the Islamic world. Who knows? Perhaps this act of violence will be the wake-up call Pakistanis – and Muslims throughout the world – need to demand a reformation of Islam and expel from their midst the Jihadists and that murderous medieval spirit of Jihadism which is proving so dangerous.

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HNN, December 24, 2007

Here’s what this year’s crop of presidential candidates are hoping Santa will bring — feel free to make your own suggestions:

RUDY GIULIANI: a big bust of a terror ring the day before every primary, to resurrect the fears of 9/11 (without any real trauma) – and a marital record like Harry Truman’s (who was devotedly married to Bess, his Sunday-School sweetheart for 53 years).
MITT ROMNEY: the right incantation for exorcising Evangelical Protestants’ anti-Mormon bigotry – and John Kennedy’s skill in handling religious prejudice.
MIKE HUCKABEE: the same good luck charm propelling obscure governors into the White House that Bill Clinton found in the Arkansas governor’s mansion – and that Jimmy Carter found in the Georgia governor’s mansion.
JOHN MCCAIN: the mantle of righteous iconoclasm he wore so effectively back in 2000 – and George Washington’s manual for using military service to win the presidency.
FRED THOMPSON: those adoring summertime headlines, before he actually started running – and a political career that truly is like Ronald Reagan’s.
RON PAUL: a year-long celebration of the Boston Tea Party’s anniversary (he used the anniversary to set the record for internet fundraising) – and James Baker (Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff), who helped moderate the image of a man deemed to be an extremist.

HILLARY CLINTON: her husband’s magic potion for bewitching America’s voters – and Richard Nixon’s 1968 strategy for winning despite being so disliked.
JOHN EDWARDS: his wife’s good health. Nothing else really matters.
BARACK OBAMA: Joe Biden’s, Chris Dodd’s, or Bill Richardson’s resume – and a posthumous endorsement from Theodore Roosevelt, America’s youngest president ever.
JOE BIDEN, CHRIS DODD, and BILL RICHARDSON: a just world in which decades of governmental experience and real gravitas would make you more than just an asterisk in the presidential popularity polls.
DENNIS KUCINICH: extra-gravity shoes to keep earth-bound (even James Baker couldn’t help).
AL GORE: Mike Huckabee’s diet secrets and the good ole days when conventions deadlocked and dark horses, favorite sons, and party bosses’ choices could emerge as last minute nominees.

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HNN, December 21, 2007


Apparently, Hillary Clinton is trying to prove her “likability” to Iowans or as she put it on Tuesday, “to kind of round out who I am as a person.” This latest strategic shift in the surprisingly herky-jerky Clinton campaign is further proof of an increasingly jittery “juggernaut” as the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses approach. Moreover, this strategy is doomed to fail. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, Democratic voters will be banking on her electability or governing ability not her likability.

In political terms, in the public sphere, “likability” is not the same as niceness or goodness. My guess is that if we could look into the future, scan the heavens, and get a gander at the situation at the Pearly Gates when both Clintons meet their maker, Hillary Clinton would outscore Bill Clinton as a nicer and better person. Over the decades, Hillary Clinton has cultivated a coterie of devoted friends and aides who testify to her niceness; her lifelong devotion to Methodism and perennial search for the virtuous path testifies to her goodness – or at least her ability to outscore Bill Clinton in this realm.

Bill Clinton, by contrast, like so many successful politicians, is extraordinarily selfish, self-involved, temperamental, ruthless, and amoral. He is not particularly nice or good, but he plays a pleasant person convincingly on TV. Bill, however, unlike his wife, is blessed with a magical charisma that – as Dan Rather might have said in one of his mangled frontier metaphors — could charm the skin right off of a rattlesnake. Clinton is like another great politician of his era, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was known for his affability but he was remarkably aloof. Even Reagan’s devoted wife Nancy said that emotionally he was like a “brick wall” (although Reagan lacked Clinton’s temper, sloppiness, and self-indulgence).

Hillary Clinton has never been that effective in mass producing charm or feel-good moments. In high school, she was known as “Sister Frigidaire.” At Yale Law School, observers trusted Hillary to have done the homework and be the closer at her moot court trial, while her partner and boyfriend Bill was the schmoozer. She was “tough as nails”; he was “Mr. Softee.” Similarly, in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and in the White House, she impressed people with her IQ, he seduced people with his EQ, his emotional intelligence.

During Hillary Clinton’s first few years on the national stage, she proved particularly inept when it came to practicing the black arts of mass seduction. It was not just that her husband’s extraordinary abilities in this realm dwarfed hers. In 1992 and 1993, Hillary Clinton was frequently brittle, heavy-handed, doing far more to perpetuate the stereotype of the humorless feminist than mimicking her husband, the glad-handing good ole’ boy Southern politician. It is remarkable how intensely so many people hate her – even loyal Democrats, even though so much time has passed. It is possible that no politician has alienated so many so thoroughly since Richard Nixon’s heyday.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has learned – and matured. Having just turned sixty, she is far more settled, sobered and softer than she was as an edgy, anxious forty-five-year-old. Moreover, fifteen years in the maelstrom of national politics and amid the glare of the celebrity culture have taught her how to project that ease onto the national stage. Her tremendous fame helps, generating excitement and brouhaha befitting royalty wherever she goes. Happy to be running her own political career rather than serving her husband’s, she has been more self-assured, resolved, and charming as New York’s Senator than she ever was as First Lady. She appears less remote, impassive, unnaturally-perfect and ruthless. She laughs more frequently and more freely – but still risks falling into the forced cackle that Jon Stewart has mocked (back when the writers weren’t striking and we could enjoy politics a whole lot more by seeing it through his eyes – and through Stephen Colbert’s).

Still, for all her progress, Hillary is surrounded and upstaged by three particular maestros of mass magnetism. Bill Clinton has proven that even at a funeral for Coretta Scott King, he can play the bubbly Bubba while she remains the forbidding schoolmarm. Her rival Barack Obama is also compulsively cuddly, appearing to be every Democrat’s cute younger brother while she seems to be the stiff older sister. And the ever-sunny John Edwards is the smiley-est, seemingly happiest politician since Jimmy Carter’s ultimately deceptive 1976 smile-fest. (Sad but true: gender issues clearly play a role here in shaping public perceptions of both men and women about both men and women on the public stage).

With Democrats like that around, Hillary better do what she has done throughout her career – wow people with her brains, her work ethic, her skills. Meanwhile, she should hope that if she is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans go more with a Bob Dole or Richard Nixon type than with a Ronald Reagan replacement. In fact, Hillary Clinton has much to learn from Richard Nixon, a politician she and her peers so detested. Nixon understood that, at the end of the day, Americans know it is far more important to respect the president than to like him – or her. Hillary Clinton and her people better hope that this remains true, even amid today’s celebrity-sotted culture.

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