In a few hours, Hillary Clinton will announce that she is running for the presidency of the United States. Is she in time? It is clear to the foggiest observer that what the commentator Michael Goodwin calls “Clinton fatigue” is growing apace. Will it have reached critical mass by the time the campaign gets underway in earnest? I think so. At least, I certainly hope so.
The whole phenomenon of the Clintons’ celebrity is something of a mystery to me. Part of the reason it is so difficult to analyze is that it is not all of a piece. The engine of the enterprise is Bill Clinton. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. He provides the pheromones for the enterprise, and absent that, what do we have?
It’s hard to say. On her own, Hillary Clinton has to be one of the least likeable people in politics. I’m talking about her personality, her “people skills.” Does anyone, anyone, believe she competes in that arena? Barack Obama is a chilly narcissist, but next to Hillary he seems like Roy Rogers. It should be, but somehow isn’t, an embarrassment to the feminist sisterhood chanting for Hillary, Hillary, Hillary, that right from the beginning hers was a “coattail career.” Back in 1977, when she became the first female partner at the Rose Law Firm, that was—surprise, surprise—just after Bill Clinton was sworn in as the state’s attorney general. Think there was a connection?
And so it’s been ever after. Although she, not Bill, is the couple’s chief ideologue and Minister of Propaganda, she has always existed in the echo chamber of his accomplishment.
A question to ponder: how was it, exactly, that she, as resident of Arkansas, managed to become a New York senator in 2000? Yes, I know she bought a house in Chappaqua, New York, before the election, but really, what were her qualifications? That she was married to Bill Clinton. That was the chief qualification. The auxiliary credit was her sex: in contemporary American the fact of being female, even if one is only a technical specimen of the genus, like Hillary, is like running in a rotten borough in early nineteenth century England.
But let’s return to Clinton, Inc.’s celebrity. That it exists is patent. Look, if your stomach is strong enough, at the cover of the current issue of Elle, which features a dolled up image of the fruit of the Clinton loins, Chelsea, under the headline “Chelsea Clinton Opens Up About Motherhood and Women’s Rights.” Make-up is a wonderful thing, but note that air-sickness bags are not included.
Still, how do we account for the overall nimbus of celebrity, the slick bubble of invulnerability that envelopes these morally repugnant people? Back in 2013, the New York Times ran a mildly critical piece about the Clinton Foundation, a multi-national device for hoovering up money in exchange for some facetime with Bill or Hillary. In 2012, the Times reported, the foundation’s revenues were well north of $200 million and employed some 300 people in 180 countries. The foundation’s causes are all the usual leftwing clichés: “women’s rights,” AIDS, etc. etc. The donors to the foundation include such sterling paragons of feminist progress as Saudi Arabia (between $10 and $25 million) Qatar (between $1 and $5 million) and the Untied Arab Emirates (between $1 and $5 million). Someday, perhaps women in Saudi Arabia will be allowed to drive over to a local Clinton Foundation office and, assuming that they have been taught to read, can learn all about the Clintons’ tireless efforts on behalf of women’s rights.
“The foundation,” the Times notes, “remains largely powered by Mr. Clinton’s global celebrity and his ability to connect corporate executives, A-listers and government officials.” But what powers Bill Clinton’s “global celebrity”? That he was president of the United States? That’s only a cog in the engine. The octane is supplied by something else, something much more difficult to tabulate.
Bill Clinton is not the celebrity he is because he had icky sex with his twenty-something White House intern, ruining a couple of good cigars in the process, but, for reasons I do not quite understand, he would not be the celebrity he is today absent that and kindred escapades.
Nor—and this is an important qualification–would he be the celebrity he is had he not gotten away with the serial predatory episodes with Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, and the many other receptacles for his satyriasis. Imagine, just for the sake of contrast, if George W. Bush had been listed on the manifest for all those private flights to the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s Caribbean island. The press would have buried him. Bill Clinton had flown at least 11 times on “the Lolita Express.” Result? Crickets. And remember Nina Burleigh? She’s the former Time reporter (remember Time?) who, when the dew of the Clinton sex scandals was still moist, declared that she would “be happy to give him a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.”
I cannot claim to have plumbed the mystery of Clinton, Inc.’s celebrity. It has something to do, I suspect, with the public’s fascination with successful scoundrels—scoundrels, I mean, who seem to be larger than life, above the law, not subject to the same quotidian pressures that we little people are subject to. When it comes to Hillary, there is also the patina—cracked and haggard, to be sure, but still intact—of menopausal feminist rage. That accounts for something among a niche of resentful voters.
But here’s the thing. The public is fickle. The invulnerability accorded to celebrity comes with a statute of limitation. The Clintons are a bit like Captain Hook in Peter Pan: they’re being followed by a voracious creature carrying a ticking clock. The clock is supposed to warn them of the presence of the beast. But it cannot account for the upsurge of boredom, the onset of Clinton fatigue, which is an unpredictable catastrophe just waiting to overwhelm them. Nor can it account for the sudden tsunami of outrage, which Hillary’s long career of lying and incompetence, not to say outright illegality, has been massing off in the distance for years but which just might crest and overwhelm them at any moment.