Now, I tend to fume about Hillary's Wal-Mart history, too. Not because she's distancing herself from it, but because her relationship with Wal-Mart smacks of, at the very least, the appearance of corruption. Wal-Mart is an Arkansas company; Sam Walton, its founder, was Arkansas's favorite son, a pick-up drivin' billionaire. Putting the little lady from the governor's mansion onto the board could be seen as one way of paying off the governor.
My admiriation for Sam Walton as a man of character is all that causes me pause in suggesting this was a most foul relationship. Can you imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who love Hillary and hate Wal-Mart were Laura Bush added to Wal-Mart's board of directors, or, say, Mrs. Tom DeLay?
But, as rumor has it, Hillary was not exactly Sam's girl. Hillary did at least mention the idea of more health care coverage. I doubt if that fit in Sam's plan. But when challenged at heavily politicized stockholders' meetings, he could point to Hillary and say that, with her help, they were heading that direction. Hillary wasn't an icon for Sam. She was a token.
Hillary doesn't remember this, though. When asked about Wal-Mart's health care policies, she told the reporters "That was a long time ago."
She's a politician now, and not just her husband's payola agent, so it's doubly politic not to remember what was, in fact, a prominent issue at the time. Lorraine Voles, Hillary's communications director, insists that "Wal-Mart was a different company then, and the country was not facing the same health care challenges we face today." There's almost no part of that statement not worth a smirk.
On the issue of health benefits, though, no matter what Hillary chooses to forget, Wal-Mart is more generous to employees today than it was when Hillary graced the boardroom. Was she the cause of any of that improvement? Liza Featherstone, author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart, summarized that "There's no evidence she did anything to improve the status of women or make it a very different place in ways Mrs. Clinton's Democratic base would care about."
That may be understatement. To Democratic Party activists, folks who hate Wal-Mart, her tenure on the board is something akin to treason. "Hillary, how could you?"
In the real world of citizens, workers, and consumers — of people struggling to make ends meet — this issue looks a lot different, of course. Most Americans don't work at Wal-Mart, so we don't have to worry overmuch about its employee policies. We have to worry about our wage contracts, instead, our employers and clients, our health care programs. Our sympathies stretch only so far, and whining doesn't help.
But it's not whining by Wal-Mart employees that we are most familiar with in the current Wal-Mart wars. Its hysterical denunciations by zealots who sound, more often than not, like crusty old unreconstructed socialists, c. 1945.
And now Hillary Clinton is trying to appease these fanatics, people who've convinced themselves that it's governments legitimate job to make things harder on consumers, for their own good. Pay more in prices. Pay more in taxes. Jump through all our regulatory hurdles. And, oh, we're on your side!
Well, if she gets their support, she probably won't get the support of the majority of Americans, who aren't, after all, as nuts as this. They shop at Wal-Mart. (Indeed, a recent poll of New Yorkers found that 63 percent of union households would shop at a nearby Wal-Mart.) And they expect to be able to search for the best deals, for themselves and their families. It has something to do with freedom.
Hillary Clinton, icon or token or totem or what-have-you, doesn't seem to stand for that.