How Hillary Clinton Became a Postmodern Menace

The former presidential candidate is in the news again. Why do some find that so troubling?

There aren’t many certainties in this world; one thing you can depend on, however, is the fact that, at nearly any moment, someone is punctuating a post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with a #GoAwayHillary hashtag. (Cindy Ord / Getty / The Atlantic)

In late January, the Washington Examiner published an unsigned editorial with a plaintive headline: “Why Won’t Hillary Clinton Just Go Away?”

The paper’s question was at once timely—Clinton, that week, had been making media appearances for the premiere of the Hulu docuseries Hillary—and timeless. It is the same question that is asked pretty much anytime Clinton is in the news again, which is to say very often, expressed through headlines like “The Real Reason Hillary Can’t Just Shut the Fuck Up and Go Away” and “Hillary Clinton Just Won’t Go Away”—and through arguments like “Hey, Hillary Clinton, shut the f--- up and go away already.” Nanette Burstein, Hillary’s director, told my colleague Shirley Li that one of the many reactions she’d been anticipating to the documentary before its release was “Please go away.” She had good reason to expect that. There aren’t many certainties in this world; one thing you can depend on, however, is the fact that, at nearly any moment, someone is punctuating a post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram with a #GoAwayHillary hashtag.

The vitriol is revealing. Bill Clinton has been part of the national conversation for precisely as long as his wife has, but Americans have not spent years publicly expressing their desire for him to disappear. Nor have cottage industrialists spent years producing “Go Away Bill” merch (T-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs) to monetize the ire. It is Hillary, uniquely—a little bit Rorschach, a little bit Rashomon—who rankles people. It is Hillary who is imagined, by many in the American public, as a conspiracy theory incarnate.

And it is Hillary, in that sense, whose treatment as a living fiction is timely yet again, during a Democratic primary that found a large group of capable and electorally viable female candidates steadily eliminated from contention. (#DropOutWarren may have its own electoral particularities; it is also spiritually similar to #GoAwayHillary.) Presidential politics will always involve some strains of magical thinking. Women candidates, though, often inspire something more akin to paranoia. They are often treated as interlopers, their presence regarded, in ways both subtle and astoundingly obvious, as an encroachment. American culture talks a big game when it comes to women’s equality, but it has not, traditionally, been terribly good at following through on the slogans. And Hillary Clinton—who won in 2016 but also very much didn’t—is a reminder of the depth of the lie. That might help to explain why so many people would prefer that she stop doing the reminding.

The month was February, and Sean Hannity was doing what Sean Hannity so often does: delivering, to his millions of viewers, an indignant speech about Hillary Clinton’s emails. This particular screed was notable for the graphic that accompanied itCLINTON SERVER SCANDAL, it went, against a dizzying backdrop of 1’s and 0’s—but it was even more notable for its date: February … 2020. Clinton, by that point, had long been cleared of any wrongdoing related to her State Department email server, and had returned to her status as a private citizen.

In Fox’s preferred cosmology, however, Clinton remains in power—not in the presidency, but as a figure of postmodern menace. On its air, as in many other outlets, she has become a character about whom anything might be true, even if the thing, strictly speaking, makes no sense. Is she covering up a chronic disease? Did she murder Vince Foster? Is she hiding the body of a reptile under all those colorful pantsuits? Who can say? (The answer, apparently, is that Sean Hannity can say: In September 2019, Media Matters reported that he had mentioned Clinton in 505 of the 587 episodes of his show since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. If the number of mentions included Hannity’s guests, the total Clinton invocations jumped to 536.)

There is one very simple answer to the question of “Why won’t Hillary go away?”: Many people don’t want her to. Their hatred of her is lucrative. It is also expedient: Casting her as a thing rather than as a person, it is freed of the need to remember that a human being is on the other end of it. A 2016 Washington Post story about Clinton’s time as first lady included a telling anecdote. A staffer of Clinton’s once read aloud from a magazine article that repeated one of the many rumors that swirled around her: that Clinton had had sex with a colleague. Hearing it, or rather mishearing it, the Post’s Marc Fisher reported, “Clinton’s eyes filled with tears.” She asked the staffer, “It really says I had sex with a collie?”

Burstein’s docuseries is an answer to that sort of conspiracism. Hillary evinces a notable cheeriness. Each of the show’s four episodes begins with a quick-cut montage of still images from Clinton’s life set to the Interrupters’ frenzied anthem “Take Back the Power.” (“What’s your plan for tomorrow?/ Are you a leader, or will you follow?/ Are you a fighter, or will you cower?/ It’s our time to take back the power.”) What follows are interviews with old friends and colleagues and, often, moments of macabre humor. (Someone once asked what she wanted written on her gravestone, Clinton says at one point. Her reply: “She’s neither as good nor as bad as some people say about her.”)

Early on, though, Hillary makes clear that it will go beyond complicating the caricature of Clinton, and beyond placing Clinton within the history of American feminism. The series does something both more basic and more revealing than any of that: It argues for Clinton’s humanity. It offers a reminder that Clinton is a person—with a human body and a human heart—to the many who are inclined to forget. Decades of life in the public eye have made the film’s subject a very good student of herself. “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” Clinton has said, “but I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself. You need to keep steady. But at the same time you don’t want to seem walled off.”

“Authenticity,” with all its unanswerable demands, hovers over Hillary. The film features several shots of her getting her hair and makeup done, and several other moments of her discussing the shots of her getting her hair and makeup done. (“I calculated it, and I spent 25 days doing hair and makeup,” she says of the 2016 presidential campaign, laughing.) Burstein’s camera is also intimate in its sweep: It is there to catch a scene of Hillary and her husband on a plane, he reading and she sleeping. She’s holding his arm in her hands. It’s there to capture another scene on a plane: one in which Hillary is reading Elizabeth George’s novel A Banquet of Consequences. (Another novel written by George, one can’t help but note, is The Punishment She Deserves.) It’s there to capture the moment on Super Tuesday of 2016, when Hillary and her staffers get word of the states she has swept and call Bill to relay the news: “We just wanted you to share in our hysteria!” she shouts, gleefully.

Clinton’s interviews with Burstein (who does not appear on camera) suggest a similar sort of openness. She addresses the conventional wisdom that she is bad at campaigning by explaining that she doesn’t want to promise something she can’t deliver: “I don’t like to say something that I know is not true,” she says, contra decades’ worth of media assessments of her. “I don’t want to say I’ll do something that I know is undoable. That is just anathema to me.”

At another point, she says of the media’s treatment of her, “I couldn’t figure out, you know, what is it they wanted from me?” The line has echoes of the indignation that pulsed through Clinton’s bluntly titled 2017 memoir, What Happened. “What more do you need?” she asks in it.

Other women in politics might ask similar questions—particularly at this moment. Hillary Clinton is a very different candidate from, for example, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, or Kamala Harris. Her treatment, though, foreshadowed what the other women would face as they made bids for the presidency in 2020. “She is especially poor at the podium,” the columnist Peggy Noonan argued in 2016, “where, when she wants to emphasize an applause line, her voice becomes loud, flat, and harassing to the ear.” Andrea Tantaros, then a host at Fox, likened Clinton to a “thoroughbred horse” who is “on her way to the glue factory.”

These were echoes of assessments that had been lobbed at Clinton when she was first lady. Just after the 1992 election, a cover of Spy magazine superimposed Clinton’s head onto the body of a dominatrix, the composite figure posing in the Oval Office. The New York Post ran a cartoon featuring Bill Clinton as a marionette—with Hillary pulling his strings. The American Spectator called Hillary the “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.” Barbara Amiel, of Maclean’s, declared that “the first lady has emasculated America” and compared Hillary to Lorena Bobbitt.

The philosopher Kate Manne argues that sexism is best understood not as an individual trait, but rather as an ideology—one that is intent on limiting women’s advancement and power. This theory is particularly relevant in Clinton’s case. “Why won’t Hillary go away?” is, after all, a milder version of that Trumpian standby: “Lock her up!” The question might suggest political strategy or psychological ennui. What it also suggests, though, is that Hillary Clinton intruding into a space where she does not belong. It suggests a frame of mind in which Joe Biden runs for president three times because that is his right—but in which Hillary Clinton runs for president twice because she doesn’t know when enough is enough.

Almost independently of Clinton’s particular politics, her time in the public eye has often doubled as a warning to other women: This is what might happen to you. This is how you will be treated. It anticipated the mistreatment of Michelle Obama. It anticipated the mistreatment of Katie Hill. It anticipated the mistreatment of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It anticipated the mistreatment of Elizabeth Warren. “The past is never dead,” the line goes. “It’s not even past.”

No wonder so many people—even people who once counted themselves as her fans—would prefer that Clinton simply disappear. No wonder the reaction to her continued presence is so visceral and angry. The matter is not merely that Americans have a habit of treating older women as inconvenient and invisible and expendable. It is also that Clinton herself—the very persistence of her presence—is a reminder of all the progress that wasn’t. She is a reminder of how possible it is, in the America of the present moment, to win and lose at the same time. And she is a reminder of how easy it is, in a culture that celebrates “elder statesmen” but prefers to ignore their counterparts, to overstay one’s welcome.