No one is looking forward to today’s announcement by Hillary Clinton that she will withdraw from the presidential race more than I. (Okay, maybe Barack Obama; but I’m a very close second.)
Ms. Clinton appalls me, and has ever since she first started running for president back in 1999, as she triangulated her way through conservative upstate New York to earn her Senate-seat-launching-pad. Or before then, during her husband’s presidency, when her delusional, ham-handed political instincts offered a precursor to the Bush-Cheney cult of secrecy, and reminded the rest of us that the cover-up is often worse than the alleged scandal. I find her to be the archetypal politician: a person who believes in nothing so much as their own accession to (or retention of) power, and who will say or do whatever is required in the service of that belief.
I loathe Ms. Clinton. But I also abhor the way in which she has been treated during her impressive (if often impressively Machiavellian) campaign for the presidency, and what that treatment continues to say about America.
Throughout the primary election season, Ms. Clinton drew America’s ubiquitous sexism into plain view: from demeaning hecklers shouting the unfunny laugh-line, “Iron my shirt!” at her rallies to internet sales of the Hillary Nutcracker (featuring “stainless steel thighs to crack the toughest nuts”) to the more subtle, and more pervasive condemnations of such gender-tied trivialities as the quality of her voice and her colorful pant-suits. Her toughness and affection for the political low-road were characterized as stridency and bitchiness in a way no male candidate ever would have been described. Granted, Ms. Clinton’s pig-headed narcissism and brass-knuckle tactics have been frequently breathtaking, particular toward the end of the campaign; but her hideousness in no way mitigates the descent of the national dialogue into the pernicious realm of ugly gender tropes.
Throughout the extraordinary democratic primary season, we have been forced to confront the twin specters of racism and sexism. But the issue has generally been raised –- explicitly by political commentators; in awkward circumlocutions by those shamed that this debate could still be possible in the twenty-first century; and with pointed, repeated, venal insistence by the Clinton campaign itself –- like this: would Americans be more likely to vote for a white woman or a black man? Leaving aside the talents and weaknesses of specific individuals concerned, most people have concluded, as the Clinton campaign never tired of reminding us, that a white woman is generally more electable in America than a non-white candidate. The wide consensus is that, in the privacy of the voting booth, the vestigial racism is stronger than persistent sexism.
And yet, sexism enjoys a lingering public tolerance that would be unthinkable with regard to racism. Can you imagine a heckler at an Obama rally shouting, “Pick my cotton!”? Or the Hillary Nutcracker company selling a figurine of Mr. Obama in pickaninny caricature? Of course not. It would shock the national conscience. We may not vote for him, but we will go to great lengths to disguise our bigotry.
Whereas, with Ms. Clinton, a large and visible segment of American society feels no compunction about denigrating her with time-honored gender slurs.
As always, I find myself completely out-of-step with America. Only in the direst situation can I ever imagine myself voting for Ms. Clinton; and I take great satisfaction in the fact that a sufficient number of others also distrust her so as to bring an end her candidacy. But every time I hear someone call her a bitch or a hysteric, or describe her as emasculating, I cringe.
All of which makes me extremely relieved that Ms. Clinton is finally receding from sight. There is unwanted, unpleasant ambiguity in consciously despising her as a politician and subconsciously wanting to see her rise above the stain of American sexism. Her withdrawal gives me a substantial emotional reprieve.
With today’s formal announcement, both the repulsive Ms. Clinton and the repulsive memes of sexism will vanish from the presidential contest. Sadly, both will continue to be powerful forces in American life for a long time to come.