On Hillary Clinton as ‘Congenital Liar,’ and Other Strains of the Campaign

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The late NYT columnist William Safire, in 1996. After he wrote a column saying that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton was a “congenital liar,” then-President Bill Clinton said that he would like to punch Safire in the nose. Hilarity ensued when Safire was given a set of boxing gloves when he appeared on Meet the Press.  (Ho New / Reuters)

Again with minimal set-up, let’s go straight to reader views on why so many people can sound so angry about Hillary Clinton. In the previous installment, we heard from readers who said that the anti-HRC reaction boiled down mainly to sexism. Today, assenting and dissenting views.

Let’s remember the history. A reader scolds me for amnesia:

HRC as "congenital liar" is actually a quote from William Saffire.  Surely you knew that:  [From January 1996]

“Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar.”

Ah, yes, it comes back to me now. On the other hand, to chafe the reader, I also remember that the influential-at-the-time Republican columnist for the NYT was actually William Safire.

She’s too much of a moderate. From a female reader on the West Coast:

I have been supporting Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but only in part because I share his Social Democratic policy proposals. Just as important to me are what I see as some ways in which Secretary Clinton in the past has acted or voted that are evidence of the weaknesses that political moderates can get lost in.

The two prime examples for me are her talk about “super predators" in supporting the changes that led to mass incarceration, and her vote for the Iraq war. In both cases I think she did these partly as a way of influencing Reagan Democrats to come back to the Democratic Party fold. The “super predator” meme is a concession to implicit bias and the vote for the Iraq war to me represented giving in to the fear of being labeled soft on defense.

I am not opposed at all to speaking to the concerns of those Democrats who voted for Reagan; I knew some of them in my days as a machinist.

What bothers me is conceding to wrong ideas or people’s misunderstandings. Those folks were my friends, and where I thought it necessary I engaged them by disputing the inaccurate negative stereotypes such as super predator or welfare queen. She needs to have the courage to openly address these beliefs even as she does so in a way that does not dismiss people. I think she is capable of walking this line, but it requires being self-aware  enough to realize not only that she made a mistake, but all the reasons why they were problematic.… The bully pulpit is a place form which such implicit biases can be changed, but it requires conscious intent. That is one thing I want to see her exhibit in this campaign; that she gets why especially mouthing the “super predator” myth was so destructive.

I am not opposed to political moderation, but like all political leanings it has its benefits and its dangers. To the extent that she acts reflexively to court votes in a way that reinforces implicit bias or makes policy choices to prove she is tough, I think she needs push-back. I will support her if she is the Democratic Party nominee, but I will also continue to speak out if I think she is catering to wrong ideas or bad policy.

***

It’s not just the conservatives:

Another male Dem piling on with another theory/observation regarding Hillary hatred and Trumpism….

Just wanted to let you know (if others haven’t yet) that the Hillary hate is not limited to angry white male “conservatives”, at least not in my Facebook feed. As a lifelong, opinionated  lefty Democrat, my Facebook feed is full of similarly inclined friends, most of whom passionately support Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately your typical angry, misogynist, middle-aged uncle has nothing on many of my Facebook friends when it comes to passing around (mostly) baseless lies and character assassination aimed at Hillary Clinton. Email server and Benghazi memes, mostly culled from right-wing sources are passed around with wild abandon. Breathless Clinton conspiracy theories-- again sourced from the right-- are posted up and shared without a moment taken to ask where they are coming from.

The “Hillary super-delegates are going to steal the election from Bernie” meme is a case in point…. The persistence of the rumor among my Bernie supporter friends against all evidence (for example a quick look at how HRC superdelegates responded to Obama taking the lead back in 2008) would be familiar to anyone on the receiving end of angry Uncle Bob’s Benghazi emails.

In my admittedly anecdotal Facebook experience the Hillary hate coming from progressives isn’t limited to "Bernie Bros”. Some of the worst I’ve seen comes from my female friends, women of all ages (with impeccable feminist credentials I might add). I have two female friends who actually insist they can’t vote for Clinton because her “voice is annoying and she shouts”.

My point is that thirty years of right wing Hillary hate, aided by the Fox News echo chamber and abetted by a “mainstream” media that prefers to discuss the political effectiveness of the attacks rather than the veracity of the claims has been deeply internalized by the left, to the point that even a significant number of feminists can’t vote for a women who “shouts”. Game, set, and match to the consistency and persistence of Republican message discipline.

Of course not all of my circle has bought into Republican nihilism, but that many of my “progressive” friends cite anti-Clinton right wing memes to justify sitting out the election, even at the risk of a Trump presidency or a Supreme Court packed with Ted Cruz appointees is galling. It’s as if the 2000 election, along with the resulting wars of choice and disastrous Supreme Court picks are forgotten. They would prefer “blowing up the system” by electing Donald Trump, the better to rebuild from the ashes rather than see another Clinton president. In that they seem to share more with angry Uncle Bob than anyone should care to admit.

***

Let’s not forget morality. Finally for the day, and returning us to Trump:

One unobserved point about Trump is how far systematic morality has been taken out of the public sphere, and it seems to me out of private calculations as well.

Trump himself exhibits the moral sense of a three year old, minus any apparent empathy for any other human being. Traditional GOP cant has relied on a Trad Vals script which, for all its hypocrisy on the one hand and its truncated Christianity on the other (one of Kasich's problems is that, as a conservative Anglican, he acknowledges a responsibility to the poor), it at least implies the relevance of moral argument. The Dem/liberal side is explicitly grounded in moral imperative.

So here comes Trump, and both his behavior now and his history shows that he suffers under no moral compass whatsoever. "Good" means getting what he wants, and "bad" means anything that gets in the way, and I don't think he lies so much as he simply pays no attention to the truth at all, the poster turkey for "Looking Out for #1" (it's telling that he and Ringer were both in commercial real estate).

People have erected this idol of Hillary Clinton as this liar, which I think partly stems from sheer slander, partly from her not all that appealing manner, but in large part because she's the only one other than Trump who has enough of a history of actually trying to run anything to allow people to pick over her mistakes. I'd rather not have her for her policies, but the hatred of her from the right is more visceral than grounded, out of proportion to her failings.

But this seems to not matter at all about Trump. And I strongly suspect, from the sorts of things I'm reading from or hearing about his supporters, that they to some great degree share his amorality. That's not to say that they lack any moral sense, but that it is no larger than they are, which is to say, they do not seem to be capable of being swayed by any sort of moral argument, accepting no moral authority outside themselves.

This is a huge problem in many ways, but in politics it makes it impossible to work to any greater good, and it makes it plausible to vote for a man who cannot run his own businesses, never mind our government. The consequences of such a vote simply do not matter, and the fact that he lies as he breathes does not matter.