As Bernie Sanders threatens to storm to victory in Iowa and New Hampshire – torpedoing the notion that Hillary Clinton is destined to win the Democratic presidential nomination – a key question for 2016 becomes even more pivotal. Which Hillary is running?
For years now, there has been talk – and evidence – of a “new” Hillary Clinton. During her time in the White House, she pursued a “me against them” strategy, battling against the press, trying to deny them access to the White House press secretary’s office and refusing to consider compromise with Republicans on her health care plan.
Then, after saving Bill’s political career one last time by defending him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she embarked on her own political career in New York. Rather than claim to have all the answers, she went on a “listening tour” to find out what her constituents wanted. The “new” Hillary reached out and built bridges to the opposition. Once in the Senate, she befriended Republicans John McCain and Lindsey Graham, advocated consensus and avoided demonizing her enemies.
In reality, the “new” Hillary is the same Hillary who, as a young woman, led both a Methodist youth group and anti-war protests. It is the same Hillary who advocated civil rights and gender reforms in college while maintaining ties with “established” leaders such as the president of Wellesley College and, later, the dean of Yale Law School. It was only later, after defending Bill during repeated political battles, that Hillary the demonizer came on the scene.
A key issue before the electorate in 2016 is the degree to which the “new” Hillary is for real. Has she in fact given up patterns of behavior that created problems for her, and for Bill, in the 1980s and 1990s?
In most instances, the answer is yes. Though she remains suspicious of the media, she no longer vilifies them. Carefully – sometimes almost too carefully – she has made herself more open to reporters and opinion-makers.
But in two areas, the old patterns persist: privacy and money.
From the get-go, Hillary has been determined to keep to herself on matters she considers private. That was the rationale for her decision not to share with the Washington Post her personal papers relating to the Whitewater real estate scandal. David Gergen, a White House aide, proposed sharing the papers with the Post. The Post’s editors agreed to review them impartially, and if they found nothing illegal, to say so publicly, thus erasing a news story that received three times as much coverage in the daily press as health care reform. Virtually everyone on the White House staff endorsed the idea, as did her husband.
Precedence over political shrewdness
But Hillary vetoed it, precipitating demands that an independent counsel be appointed to investigate Whitewater. Ultimately, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr was named and later led the battle to impeach Bill Clinton. It was the Clinton White House’s most crucial mistake, the one decision George Stephanopoulos later said he would like to take back.
Why did Hillary say no, despite all the importuning of White House advisers? Because the papers would have revealed she had overbilled some clients and lobbied state agencies on behalf of her clients while her husband was governor. Her privacy and personal reputation took precedence over political shrewdness.
Her peculiar stance toward money is related to her vigilance about privacy. That reluctance to share personal information – especially personal financial information – made her refuse to explain how she was able to invest $1,000 with her friend and colleague Jim Blair and have it turn into $100,000 overnight.
Today, those same tendencies persist. Hillary insisted on using a private email server as secretary of state, mixing her personal communications with official State Department business. Now there are demands for a federal investigation into what was hidden in that private email server.
Similarly, Hillary resisted efforts to explore possible connections between the millions of dollars in lecture fees she received prior to becoming secretary of state and political causes she sought to advance.
She is also unwilling to deal with the potential linkage between multimillion-dollar gifts to the Clinton Foundation and lobbying efforts by the donors on decisions she made as secretary of state.
On balance, the “new” Hillary is a very different political person from the first lady who occupied the White House. But on issues of privacy, personal privilege and personal finances, the “old” Hillary does not seem far away.
William H. Chafe, professor emeritus of U.S. history at Duke University, is the author of the forthcoming “Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal.”