On his last night as president of the United States, Bill Clinton issued a pardon for a man named Marc Rich. Later Clinton would write a long op-ed piece on the reasons, but the reason seemed obvious to observers: the fugitive financier was what just plain folks call stinking rich, and his ex-wife had given nearly a half-million dollars to Clinton's presidential library. Even the president's customary allies did not find it in their hearts to jusify his action. Yet in some way the pardon was an apt coda to an administration that seemed to veer from constructive to self-destructive so often that the American people developed whiplash.
The Family and Medical Leave Act, and Monica Lewinsky. The elimination of the deficit, and the Rich pardon. The supremely eloquent speaker, and the man who said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Bill giveth, Bill taketh away, mainly from his own reputation. A presidency with an ace domestic agenda somehow became a dizzying slip-and-slide that made you want to scream:
Legacy, legacy, legacy, legacy, legacy.
It never seemed likely that the highly disciplined Hillary Rodham Clinton would require the same message. But now it's her turn.
In recent weeks Senator Clinton has gone down a dark road from a Democratic perspective. Whether embracing a bogus gas-tax break, vowing to "totally obliterate" Iran if it goes after Israel or noting that hardworking white folks like her better than her black opponent, she seemed to be running a tutorial in Karl Rove 101, the Republican primer of diversion, aggression and division. Behind all this was clearly a means/ends argument: she would do what she needed to do to win, and then later do the right thing. The problem is that usually by the end, you've become the means.
The question now is not when this race will be over, but who exactly Senator Clinton will be when it is done. She is a historic figure, no question, smashing the glass ceiling for future female candidates. For years advocates have worried about whether women could be seen as tough enough, whether men would vote for them, whether their only support would be among the left wing. Senator Clinton neatly disposed of all those questions. In the same way that the sight of the woman cop on the beat makes bystanders accept all women in police work, she took an aberration and made it normative just by showing up, day after day after day.
She handled much of this race with grit and grace, especially when she publicly acknowledged, as she often did, that as a black man her opponent brought history to the table as well. She's also seemed positively bionic, a 60-year-old woman who despite the rigors of campaigning projected the vigor and glow of someone who has scored a facial, a good night's sleep and enough delegates to actually win. Her unwavering enthusiasm made it possible for her to sell the argument that this prolonged engagement on policy issues has been good for the party and good for the country.
But policy is one thing and pandering is another, especially when your opponent has been sure-footed on the high road. When Senator Clinton started to style herself as a dab hand with guns in Pennsylvania and an enemy of the intellectual elites in Indiana, she began to validate the opinions of all those who believe the Clintons—no matter which—would do anything to win. Her candidacy has had special resonance for many women, no question, but that means she has special obligations, too. And one of those obligations is to see that the lesson learned is not that women running for office can be just as skeevy as their male counterparts.
That's not the legacy she wants, one of old-style politics in jewel-toned jackets: more spoiler, less stateswoman, more Ralph Nader, less Eleanor Roosevelt. She's better than that. And she has an example always before her, that of the last Democratic president, her husband, who tarnished his luster because he acted in the moment rather than taking the long view. Senator Clinton is the most prominent woman in America. She needs to think outside the hermetically sealed bubble of her campaign and begin to develop a strategy now for the ways in which she wants to use that: to unify the party, to galvanize her base of voters, to make certain the Democrats prevail in November and perhaps to play a powerful leadership role in government in the years to come.
Everything we thought we knew for sure at the beginning of this contest was wrong. Who believed the woman would be the one to snag the support of working-class men? Who realized her gender wouldn't seem a bit historic to young people reared on equal opportunity? Who knew the money would go to her newbie opponent despite her network of contacts and her lifetime in the political trenches? And who thought the progressive feminist with the Ivy League credentials would ever take a campaign detour in which her slogan might as well have been "the candidate of white folks who believe despite all evidence to the contrary that the other guy is a Muslim"? When her husband pardoned Marc Rich, one supporter said it was no worse than what the Republicans had done in the past. That's not what I call a defense. And it's no kind of legacy for a woman as formidable as Hillary Clinton.