Groveling, Backpedaling, and 'Hugging It Out:' The Fear of Being Authentic

Long a role model for young Americans, especially women, Hillary Clinton rewards bad-boy behavior.

National Journal

Throughout her long career as a lawyer, a public wife, and a public servant, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a role model for millions of young people, especially women, entering politics and government. I hope none of them are paying attention now.

The statement she issued Tuesday to calm an offended Obama White House was exactly the type of behavior you don't want your daughters modeling—groveling to a thin-skinned boss, eating her own words, and swallowing her pride by "hugging it out."

It's silly, really, this entire Obama versus Clinton frame. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and former President Bill Clinton never looked smaller than when they were race- and sex-baiting during the 2008 Democratic nomination fight. They never looked bigger than when they covered the scars and formed a genuine "Team of Rivals" in the Obama White House.

Now they're back to the petty. And over what? Hillary Clinton's criticism of Obama was fair and smart—and it might even be right. She rebuked his foreign policy principle of "Don't do stupid shit," arguing that Obama should have armed the Syrian rebels to prevent the creation and growth of an Islamic state.

She didn't call him an idiot. She didn't say he was a bad leader. In fact, she praised the president more than she criticized him, and her critique gave Obama an opportunity to better explain his foreign policy principles. Who doesn't want what Obama plans to do about this scary new world order?

Instead, he acted like a typical politician. Mr. Hope-and-Change dialed the 20th century and sicced his attack dogs on Clinton. His top consultant, David Axelrod, tied her to President George Bush's decision to invade Iraq, as if none of what's occurred in the Mideast these past six years is Obama's responsibility.

I made a mistake at the end of my column Tuesday, "The Audacity to Be Authentic: Hillary Clinton's Risky Hedge Against Obama." For the first 16 paragraphs, I challenged conventional wisdom that Clinton was distancing herself from Obama and that doing so was an obvious political victory. I noted that Clinton's remarks, consistent with her long-held interventionist views, actually ran counter to those of a majority of the public, especially the Democratic base. Why would she be willing to do that? "Call me naïve," I concluded "but maybe Clinton is simply being honest."

I was naïve.

A few hours after that column posted, Clinton issued this statement through a spokesperson:

Earlier today, the Secretary called President Obama to make sure he knows that nothing she said was an attempt to attack him, his policies or his leadership. Secretary Clinton has at every step of the way touted the significant achievements of his presidency, which she is honored to have been part of as his secretary of State. While they've had honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents, she has explained those differences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choosing to hype those differences but they do not eclipse their broad agreement on most issues. Like any two friends who have to deal with the public eye, she looks forward to hugging it out when she they see each other tomorrow night.

There are several problems with her statement.

  • It's inaccurate. Clinton certainly did criticize some of Obama's policies, most directly with the "stupid stuff" formulation.
  • It's inconsistent. She denies attacking "him, his policies or his leadership," and two sentences later notes "honest differences." If you can't be honest about "honest differences," what are you going to be honest about?
  • It's borderline demeaning, like a subordinate trying to get back in the boss's good graces. Clinton is an accomplished person who has challenged glass ceilings. She shouldn't have to come even close to apologizing for her opinions.
  • It's too cute by half, too Clintonian. She's trying to distinguish her policies from Obama's without upsetting all the president's men. She can't have it all.

For young people who might be paying attention to politics, I hope they don't take away the wrong lessons. They're already abandoning government and politics in alarming numbers.

Clinton didn't make a mistake challenging a male authority figure. She wasn't wrong to speak her mind. Her aspirations are not dependent on her "hugging it out." The lesson here is to be true to yourself. Stick to your guns. Be authentic. After all, that's really what Americans want in a leader.