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.

None of this is to say that no questions of enormous importance have been decided in the Clinton years. But the ones that have, paradoxically, have been decided after virtually no debate at all, and, quite often, more or less by accident. In 1996, for instance, the federal safety net for the poor was removed with hardly a peep out of anyone. More recently some of the most reliably pro-labor members of Congress bucked the unions to join Republicans in permanently normalizing trade with China. The much-lamented breakdown in partisan cooperation has occurred in a larger atmosphere of partisan co-optation.

This trend would be fine, even wonderful, if it were occurring as an expression of great public consensus on matters of great public concern. In a stable democracy the centripetal forces should be tremendous. Compromise should be the language of the angels. Evolution should beat revolution every time. Things can taste good and be good for you too! But the trend is in fact occurring as an expression of serious public and political confusion, in an atmosphere of partisan hostility. And the partisan hostility, in turn, would be fine (welcome, actually) if it were not of such a high-calorie, low-content variety—if the level of sound and fury did not, in so very many instances, rise in direct proportion to how near to nothing the outcome signified.

I, for one, do not blame the Clintons for pulling American politics into the gutter (it's been there before—if, indeed, it has ever been out). But I will never forgive them for turning American politics into a Costco. Politics should have clear, or at least visible, edges, where the views of Candidate A end and those of Candidate B begin. Instead, in the world that the Clintons certainly found but then proceeded to perfect, Candidates A and B take the big questions, saw off the more dangerous edges so as not to cut themselves, and then whack each other in the head with big, steady planks on which every normal person would have to agree (Prosperity with a purpose! Working families! Save social security! Whose rally is this, anyway?). This is no way to have a lively conversation about anything, let alone a fight about the future of the country. And look what the willful killing of clarity hath wrought: Al Gore and George W. Bush not only purported to have but actually do have glaring differences on matters of major import. But for an entire campaign they chose to drown those differences in such a pool of platitudes that they tied. Ralph Nader didn't make them do it.

Poised by reputed intellect, temperament, and aspiration to be the ultimate exception to the politics of declarification, Hillary Clinton has proved to be its Exhibit A. As befits a politics in which the purpose of language is to obscure rather than elucidate, the journey she actually made is the exact opposite of the journey she was commonly described as making. What happened as the First Lady made the transition from political appendage to (theoretically) free-standing political figure was shocking, albeit (again, confusingly) boring. As she came to the fore, she faded. Her rhetoric became weaker, not stronger. Her persona became less vivid and compelling, rather than more so. Whatever one thought of the First Lady's 1992 cookie-baking comment, her 1993 health-care testimonials before Congress, her 1995 telling-off of the Chinese government at the UN World Conference on Women, in Beijing, at least one had no doubt that somebody was in there. Now the question is whether she will resurface. My bet is nope.

Tish Durkin covered Hillary Clinton's senatorial campaign for The New York Observer.