Hard Choices, Hard Questions for Hillary

Suzanne Fields

7/4/2014 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

We once believed that successful politicians made sacrifices for us, that when they chose public service it meant tight finances for most of them. No longer. They get fame through being in the public eye, and then cash in. When they're the center of their own financial universe, they find it difficult to see the rest of us, moving like ants in the streets outside the darkly shaded windows of their limousines. Modern leaders make an investment in politics as a stepping stone to future riches. Since many are relatively young when they hit the exits from the public arena, and if they haven't been eaten alive by scandal (or sometimes even if they have), they can expect a second life as lobbyists, consultants and expensive speechifiers with stories from the inside. Those who grow richest create charitable foundations, which give them the patina of moral superiority and, more important, big salaries for their children, friends and those who helped them get where they are.

Hillary says she remembers being "dead broke" when the first couple left the White House with their bags stuffed with souvenirs. "Dead broke" included Bubba's $200,000 pension, and soon they were born again with greater earning ability, leading to collecting $163 million between 2001 and 2012. Nice poverty, if you can get it.

Hillary now concedes she was "inartful" in characterizing her finances, but Bubba, as usual, is "artful" enough for both of them, spreading blarney in abundance. In an interview on "Meet the Press," he assures us that Hillary is "the most gifted public servant I've ever worked with," and thought so -- even believed -- this after he asked her to marry him and she first said no. (How cute.)

"It is factually true that we were several million dollars in debt," he says. "Everybody now assumes that what happened in the intervening years was automatic; I'm shocked that it's happened. I'm shocked that people still want me to come give talks."

Bubba is as shocked as Captain Renault discovering gambling in the back room at Rick's Cafe Americain in "Casablanca." Bubba can get away with sizzling hyperbole that's too hot for Hillary to handle. He has the glib gab of the smooth-talking womanizer who seduces the public as easily as he seduces an intern. Besides, memories are short. Hillary reminds him that half the people asking questions couldn't even vote when he was doing those things that are in question.

But many can, which is why some people are saying the country is suffering "Hillary fatigue," as in chronic fatigue syndrome, but with an identifiable root cause. Hillary has been in the public eye since she was Bill's first lady in Arkansas, but she never projected the roguish charm of the original. Carl Bernstein observed in "A Woman in Charge," his biography of Hillary in 2007, that when she was put before the public she was either "elaborately prepared or relatively soulless." She was trapped in an emotional girdle of her own construction. That hasn't changed.

Critics blame a poor rollout for her book and the accompanying interviews for the bad weeks since, but Hillary's problem runs deeper than skin deep. She's spent more time in public life than in private and has had little time to "know thyself."

Self-perception is difficult for most of us, and even more difficult for politicians surrounded by hanger-ons who shower them with praise and adulation while at the same time constantly confronted with hostility from those who don't like their politics. Hillary's dilemma was compounded in her last job as secretary of state, where she couldn't disagree in a profound way with her boss without resigning. President Obama knew what he was doing when he put her in a high-profile job where she couldn't talk back.

In her book she hints at policy differences between them, but she played it safe in her book "Hard Choices." That's why those who have read it describe it as bland, gluten free and low calorie, something Winston Churchill would recognize as his famous "pudding with no theme." What we want is for Popeye to tell us to eat our spinach, or at least to scream out, "I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam."

That's not Hillary's style. In her evasive interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, she said she takes "responsibility" for what happened at Benghazi, but tried to hide behind girlish ignorance. "I'm not equipped to sit and look at blueprints to determine where the blast walls need to be, where the reinforcements need to be," that's why we hire people who have that expertise." That's boy stuff. But the buck stops at the blast wall.

She says young women question themselves more than young men do, before tackling a new task. "They ask: 'Do you think I can?' or 'Do you think I'm ready?'" Those are just the questions we're asking her.