Many faces of Hillary - none a winner

Jonah Goldberg

1/27/2006 12:05:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

Liberals are sizing up Hillary Clinton for the umpteenth time, and they don't like what they see.

To be honest, I never understood what they saw in her in the first place. The amazing thing about Clinton is that she's so unappealing. She isn't a particularly gifted speaker. She's smart, but in a conventional and lawyerly way. She doesn't connect well with audiences. Her idea of improvisation seems to be leaping from the prepared text to prepared note cards.

However, she has defied the rules of nature and gotten better looking over the years, which, along with her soap-opera marriage, probably explains some of her success with supermarket checkout-aisle publications.

Indeed, her greatest success has been at exploiting expectations others have for her. For some fans, she was the struggling career woman who could bring home the bacon. For some detractors, she was "Lady Macbeth," cold and calculating in an obviously political marriage. She was also the apotheosis of the 1960s, for friends and foes alike. For the Children's Defense Fund crowd, she was the baby boomer idealist who worked her way through the system. For the American Spectator gang, she was the former Black Panther sympathizer and acolyte of Chicago radical Saul Alinsky who finally achieved power. After the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Hillary - who was no stranger to her husband's weaknesses - suddenly became the victim in a culture with a fetish for victims.

At every turn, Hillary Clinton's Zelig-like public persona has been a fabrication - either by her fans, her enemies or herself. One telling episode came when she published her massively successful autobiography, "Living History." The book tour was nothing short of a coronation, confirming her gravitas and commitment to "the issues." She portrayed herself as resigned to the fact that she'd have to answer Barbara Walters' questions about her personal life, but she always made it seem like she'd rather wrestle with the hard issues of public policy. But when the Washington Post actually tried to ask her about something other than how she cried over her husband's sexcapades with an intern, the senator from New York "declined to be interviewed about the political content of her book."

Hillary Clinton's latest reinvention paints her as a moderate, even an Iraq war hawk. Few people buy it. Reporters regularly assume her motives are opportunistic rather than sincere, focusing on how every pronouncement will position her for the 2008 presidential race. National Public Radio's Mara Liasson, for example, recently observed, "She certainly sees it in her interest to get to the right of the president on many issues, especially in the area of national security."

Whatever the reason, some liberals have had enough. "I will not support Hillary Clinton for president," wrote Molly Ivins, the voice of conventional thinking on the left. "Enough. Enough triangulation, calculation and equivocation. Enough clever straddling, enough not offending anyone." The segment of Democrats who sanctified Cindy Sheehan can hardly countenance a presidential candidate who unapologetically voted for the war and positioned herself to the right of President Bush on foreign policy.

The New Republic offers perhaps an even more devastating critique of Clinton for Democratic pragmatists: She can't win. Marisa Katz dismantled the myth that Clinton can appeal to "red state" voters because she won in upstate New York. Turns out former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry each did better in upstate New York than she did. And Gore, a Southerner, couldn't even win his home state of Tennessee. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll showed that 51 percent of Americans won't even consider voting for Clinton.

All of this could change. But there's a great irony here. Hillary Clinton's success over the last decade and a half has been in pretending to be her own woman while really playing one part or another for the benefit of the media, her husband or various feminist constituencies desperate for a role model to confirm all of their comfortable stereotypes.

That's why there's something oddly satisfying in the possibility that Clinton being herself is politically disastrous. And, if she's really just playing one more role according to some classically Clintonian political triangulation, there's something equally satisfying to the prospect that even her fans aren't falling for it anymore.