Hillary Clinton has been cast as the “establishment candidate” in this election. But one of the great unexamined ironies of her career is that the destructive narratives about her today are rooted in her early days as an outsider to Washington’s elite political class.
Neal Gabler has a terrific piece in Salon about the media’s unflappable devotion to demonstrably false narratives about Hillary Clinton: that she’s dishonest, unlikable, corrupt, and a minion of corporations.
He thoroughly excoriates the media for their dereliction of duty regarding accurate reporting about Hillary and further documents this fundamental truth: “Whatever you may think of the Clintons, the scandals didn’t create the meme of untrustworthiness about them. The meme of untrustworthiness created the scandals.”
Embedded within his piece is a keen observation about the way the media received the Clintons when they rolled into DC with their Arkansas drawl and Bill’s penchant for—gasp!—eating McDonald’s.
The media never much liked the Clintons to begin with. In this election season of anti-elitism, one reason why is instructive for its condescension. As Sally Quinn, Washington Post writer and society doyenne (she was executive editor Ben Bradlee’s wife), put it in a famous, huffy 1998 article, the Clintons had sullied the White House and Washington had “been brought into disrepute by the actions of the president.” What she was really saying was that they were country bumpkins, not part of the ritzy DC establishment that she inhabited, and they needed to be punished for it.
In a country with strong intersections of race and class, especially visible in Washington, DC—where a disproportionately white governing class and a disproportionately white chattering class cloister themselves in a bubble surrounded by disproportionately Black poverty—it is also important to note that Bill Clinton’s then-historic inclusion of Black people in his administration was viewed suspiciously through a racialized lens, which is inseparable from the prism of class through which both race and elite access are filtered.
As Marcus H. Johnson recalls:
We should always remember the context of the time. As we talked about earlier, Republicans won five out of the next six Presidential elections after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Being associated with Black people was not popular politically at the time… The Clintons were in that political environment, and they still decided to build relationships with Black voters. The Clintons reached out to Black voters in ways that Presidential candidates simply hadn’t done before. President Clinton appointed the most diverse Cabinet in US history when it wasn’t popular to do so. Bill Clinton appointed seven Black Cabinet Secretaries. He appointed more Black people to federal judgeships than were appointed all of 16 years prior to his taking office. In fact, 14 percent of all Clinton appointees were Black — a number that was twice as high as any administration prior. Bill Clinton put Black people in positions of power when it hadn’t been done before, and when it wasn’t very popular with the white working class.
It wasn’t very popular with some corners of the white upper class, either, whose media members disguised their thinly-veiled bourgeois contempt by sneering at the gauche display of Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show and telling an MTV audience that he wore boxers.
It was Bill’s undiluted enjoyment of mingling with the hoi polloi—and his ability to fit in with them—that underwrote the media elite’s hostility toward the Clintons, even as they attacked Hillary for not being country enough. She was too uppity, too feminist, and couldn’t she just bake some cookies or something?
It’s difficult to remember now, in the age of helicopter parents, but there was a time when concern for poor children was itself considered a hallmark of someone who didn’t share the values of the elite class, whose children’s bellies were kept full at posh boarding schools.
Hillary’s career, long centered on children, was anathema to those whose only use for these faceless urchins was rhetorical fodder in apocryphal tales of babes birthed to collect welfare. Hillary’s commitment to the needs of poor children was indicative of her failure to appreciate what really matters to the people who matter.
These children were the concern of Calcutta nuns and preachers’ wives—not a suitable constituency for someone who wanted to breathe rarefied air.
Thus began the long history of discounting, and often virtually disappearing, Hillary’s successes around policy that benefits children: Children’s insurance, foster care reform, advocating for children who are victimized by rape as a weapon of war. And it continues still, because there are still only certain children who are meant to matter, and they certainly aren’t the ones who are starving because their parents are “takers” (in the modern Republican parlance), or the ones who are being subjected to unfathomable torture half a world away.
Her children’s advocacy was, 25 years ago, just another reason to find the Clintons suspect—and insufficiently deserving of their place among the political elite. As was her every attempt to make herself more acceptable to increasingly antagonistic media.
When she made concessions to try to give them what they wanted, they launched into what was to become one of the most enduring character attacks on Hillary: She’s inauthentic.
Her very efforts to try to fit whatever mold to which the media wanted her to conform were used against her, as the shape of the mold itself continually changed. What was apparent was that the Clintons didn’t fit. They didn’t—and wouldn’t—meet with the approval of elite media gatekeepers, who found the Clintons beneath them.
And there they would stay, subjected to ever more vicious attacks if they made any effort to win the media’s approval. They were externally embroiled in repeated “scandals,” the ostensible justifications for which were despicably bare.
Gabler writes: “The irony is that rather than scorn the establishment that scorned them, the Clintons got into some trouble trying desperately to enter it.”
Now we are left with the redoubling irony of Hillary Clinton being dubbed “the establishment candidate” using mendacious narratives created about her by people who wanted to deny her entry to the establishment.
We can trace a direct line back to the media’s aggressive contempt for the “low-class” Clintons—with their fast food palates and Bill’s hillbilly brother—as the genesis of the narratives being wielded against Hillary today.
It is understandable that, two decades and millions of dollars hence, people don’t imagine that the Clintons could ever have been victimized by classism. Especially because they were never the country bumpkins the media perceived and purported them to be in the first place.
But it is a particular cruelty that, in an election where her chief primary opponent is ostensibly concerned with class warfare, media narratives born of the most rank classism are now being used to try to discredit her.
And it is a breathtaking deflection of responsibility that the media which created those narratives to keep her out of the establishment now regurgitate them without a trace of irony as they report on how she is emblematic of the establishment.
That they’ve now been thoroughly divorced from their classist origins does not make them any truer. The concealment abets the appearance of their legitimacy.
But let us be clear: The caricature of Hillary Clinton upheld by the media as an untrustworthy, inauthentic, beholden politician is not rooted in anything real about her. It is rooted in a media belief that she didn’t belong.
And their continuing belief that she still doesn’t.