FLOTUS Blossoms

From a political appendage to a free-standing figure—who is, oddly enough, not really there

If you want to know all there is to know about politics in the time of Clinton, look in your grocer's dairy section. Back in the early days of her New York congressional campaign the future Senator Clinton and the rest of Team Hillary made a crack-of-dawn raid on a supermarket in Rochester, complete with Secret Service, traveling press, local press, an army of Democratic regulars, and a handful of innocents who, God help them, just wanted a gallon of milk. After the greeting portion of the First Lady's visit but before the local-television-interviews portion came the faux-shopping portion, during which Clinton walked up to a huge counter, gazed into a world of Gouda, Swiss, and Cheddar under glass, and exclaimed with no small enthusiasm, "I'm a cheese person!"

It seems odd that this, of all moments to remember in the First Lady's historically unprecedented yet insistently uninteresting run for office, would be among those still blinking neon in the brain so long after the fact—but it isn't, really. Her pronouncement of self-identity as cheese was perfectly emblematic of the First Lady's approach to politics—and not just because it was one of her frequent, almost poignantly stilted attempts to make some kind of ordinary human connection without actually making any kind of ordinary human connection.

The Cheese Declaration revealed an infinitesimal but actual scrap of definitive personal detail—a yellow-diamond rarity. (Memo to self: FLOTUS is unequivocally pro-cheese. Position on crackers unclear.) But in terms of larger themes, the setting is what makes the scene stick. For wandering through the campaign of Hillary Clinton—and through the time of Bill Clinton—resembles nothing more than wandering through an intimidatingly huge, bright, overstocked American supermarket, the kind that gives Third World immigrants palpitations from the varieties of mayonnaise alone. In World o' Clinton as in Food King there is, of course, much that is undeniably good: Choice! Abundance! Comfort! And yet in both places there is a sense that something is not entirely as it seems; that all those labels and colors and bargains cannot be quite real; that one's whites aren't really getting so much whiter, or one's brights so much brighter, as everyone seems to be insisting. What are pressingly referred to as "the issues" not only are test-marketed but also come in convenient, individually wrapped form, like Kraft Singles. Or, perhaps, one might think of them as "issue-ettes": they are to real issues as towelettes are to real wash towels—better than nothing, no doubt, but only barely related to the thing that is truly wanted.

Hillary Clinton has been portrayed by friend and foe alike as all manner of things bold and incendiary—a lightning rod, a firecracker, a trailblazer. As a senatorial candidate, though, she was always a cheese person—or perhaps, to be more precise, a nondairy-processed-cheese-like-product person. She showed up in a lot of places, dressed inoffensively, and spoke in perfect paragraphs. The tone—and, for that matter, the content—of what she had to say would not have seemed out of place coming from Annette Funicello or Florence Henderson in their food-hawking heyday. "Choosy moms choose Hillary!" was not an actual campaign slogan, but only, one presumes, because the Jif people would have gone ballistic.

People who shop are people who vote, and politics has reacted accordingly. No wonder the whole discourse has been shrink-wrapped, rendered fun-size. People have made their fortunes in achieving this. Clintonism and the Republican reaction to Clintonism have given us the Ritz Bitsing of American politics. The debate over "a woman's right to choose" has come to center on a choice about late-term abortion that almost no women will ever have to make. The Social Security debate has been glued to the question of whether all currently elderly people should fear cuts that no currently elderly people will face. The health-care debate has de-escalated—with no corresponding climb down the rungs of rhetoric from a debate about whether all Americans should get health insurance to one about whether Americans who already have health insurance should be able to sue the source of it. (The much-touted Patients' Bill of Rights may be good or it may be bad, but when it comes to the root problem of de-linking how a person is covered from whether and where a person is employed, it is totally irrelevant.) School shootings, semi-literate graduates, and imploding family structures are answered with calls for the V-chip, the school uniform, the Ten Commandments on the classroom wall. Cheese.

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