Under the rubric of “lost weekend”, try this: spending Saturday and Sunday leafing through reams of previously withheld documents released late last week by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library – about 4,000 pages chronicling the former First Couple’s years in the White House, with another 20,000 pages coming in the next few weeks, plus another 7,000-8,000 pages whose fate is yet to be determined.
And what did we learn?
1) The ‘90’s Were a Long Time Ago. Like such other 1990s fixations as grunge, the Macarena and beanie babies, Bill and Hillary Clinton governed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As evidence of that: Clinton aides talking about some new fangled contraption called the Internet – no “the”, merely “Internet” mentioned – in the same futuristic terms as Einstein writing to FDR about nuclear fission some six years before the Alamogordo blast. As Clinton conversations take us to where we once were as a nation – better economic times and never-ending personal scandals – which is the better slogan for her 2016 campaign: “Ready for Hillary”, or “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again”?
2) If Only They (the Obama White House) Knew Now What They (the Clinton White House) Knew Then. An unsigned memo from a Clinton aide included this riff on the selling of Hillarycare in her husband’s remarks: “We have a line . . . that says “You’ll pick the health plan and the doctor of your choice”. This sounds great and I know that it’s just what people want to hear. But can we get away with it?” One wonders if, 20 years from now, something similar will emerge from the depths of the Obama Presidential Library.
3) “You Like Me”. Fitting for a data dump just two days before the Academy Awards ceremony, Mrs. Clinton’s image elves struggled with how to turn the First Lady into the equivalent of Sally Field winning a Best Actress statue. Among the ideas for softening Hillary’s image: turning her 20th wedding anniversary into a friendly couple’s sit-down with Barbara Walters; a cameo on the popular sitcom Home Improvement; a cautionary “be careful to “be real”” when out on the campaign trail; and a recommendation to “look for opportunities for humor” also when out in the public. Yes, people actually get paid top dollar for such advice.
So did this minor glimpse into the inner workings of the Clinton presidency do anything to change Hillary’s long-term political prospects?
Let’s start with the concept of the 1990s seeming ages ago. It’s a problem for the former First Lady in that it’s a reminder of how she’s neither a fresh face nor an agent of change (other than the obvious gender factor) come 2016. The paper-flow from the Clinton Library doesn’t change what Mrs. Clinton’s loyalist already realize: the road to the White House has more than a few potholes.
As for the Hillarycare/Obamacare parallels, they’ve existed every since the current administration started down the same path of national health care. Nor are they going away. What to expect come 2015: Mrs. Clinton defending Hillarycare and Obamacare (the latter, more tepidly), while trotting out what the late John Ehrlichman would have called “a modified limited hang out”: a hybrid message saying she’ll use what she learned in the past with Hillarycare, plus working across the aisle in the Senate, to fix Obamacare moving forward.
It’s the third concept – the Sally Field-like need to be liked – that may be Mrs. Clinton’s biggest hurdle. There’s no arguing the candidate’s qualification – no Republican challenger can match her resume of eight years in the White House, eight years in the U.S. Senate and four years at Foggy Bottom.
That said, presidential elections are popularity contests in which voters also factor in whether they can stomach the winner for four years (feel free to ask Al Gore how this works).
The question of Mrs. Clinton’s likeability emerged in during the 2008 Democratic primary debates, including this interpret-it-as-you-like comment from her main challenger. It will reemerge as she moves closer to deciding whether to seek the presidency.
So what sage advice can we expect from her media gurus?
Should they recommend, now as then, a cameo on the nation’s number-one comedy, that would take Mrs. Clinton to The Big Theory – not a natural fit in that none of the show’s seven lead characters is on the Hillary path of public service and women’s rights.
There are other sitcoms for the former First Lady to pursue. The Mindy Project and New Girl, for example, center around heroines balancing personal and professional lives (the down side: both shows are on Rupert Murdoch’s network). Modern Family is the modern Democratic power base of a diversified California. And there’s The Middle, which makes sense for a candidate trying to distance herself from the Obama Administration while keeping the Obama coalition in her corner.
The suggestion here: let’s keep Mrs. Clinton away from the situation comedies. Prime-time television is meant for escapism – and it’s been hard enough escaping the Clintons these past twenty-plus years as is.
Unless, that is, she truly wants to be Sally Field – and someone agrees to a remake of The Flying Nun.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen