Barack & Hillary: Clash of the Titans

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Mr. Troy is professor of History at McGill University and the author, most recently, of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.

 The twin announcements of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that they plan to run for President mark great triumphs for both the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. The two enter the 2008 contest as the leading Democrats, with his race and her gender appearing as political assets not debits. Let’s put aside the inevitable groans that the American presidential campaign is starting so soon. Let’s overlook the obvious fact that the next 22 months will be filled with ugly clashes, underhanded attacks, and depressing reflections of modern America. Sometimes American politics generates good news, healing headlines, inspiring historical moments.

The two announcements were so remarkable because they had become so predictable – and would have been absolutely fanciful 40 years ago. Hillary Clinton has been the presumptive Democratic front runner for months. One of the most famous women in the world, fresh from her re-election landslide in New York, the fifty-nine-year-old Midwesterner turned Southerner turned New Yorker has been positioning for this campaign for years – if not her whole life. She brings to the campaign, despite only one term in the Senate, tremendous political survival skills, having been in the national spotlight since 1992, when her husband Bill Clinton’s candidacy first gained public attention. Of course, the scrutiny was not always welcome, the coverage often searing. Thus far, Senator Clinton is the most popular Democrat in the race – and the least popular too. An extraordinarily polarizing figure, she is loved by millions, but millions hate her. Her central challenge is to woo the moderates and the undecideds, while keeping her base energized and her critics contained.

Ronald Reagan may have been the Teflon president, shrugging off mistakes. Bill Clinton may have been the nation’s apologizer-in-chief, disarming with his self-deprecating charm. Hillary Clinton, however, suffers from political static cling. She remains more defined by the 1990s – and her husband – than any achievements as Senator. This iconic status, her greatest asset, also risks become a straitjacket, defining her by her past not her present and preventing her from shaping a future identity.

 Although Senator Clinton might dislike the comparison, Richard Nixon faced similar challenges before his 1968 run. Nixon, too, was polarizing, defined most by his controversial service in a previous decade’s administration. And Nixon also played to the center. But Nixon’s campaign presented a “New Nixon,” implicitly apologizing for his earlier rabid ways. Senator Clinton, by contrast, is not apologizing for her past, nor acknowledging responsibility for any unpopularity. “If you lived your life trying to make sure that nobody ever criticized you, you would probably never get out of bed – and then you’d be criticized for that,” Mrs. Clinton had sighed as First Lady.  Even while working with former foes including Newt Gingrich, Senator Clinton still treats most of her opposition as irrational, making it difficult to reengineer her image.

By contrast, Barack Obama is a babe in the political woods, untested and not yet hated. The forty-five-year-old former community organizer in Chicago has been a Senator for two years. His national debut in 2004, when he gave a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention generated tremendous excitement, thanks to his charisma and his vision. In countless media appearances and two bestsellers he has peddled that centrist vision calling for Americans to overcome the divisions politicians and reporters keep imposing. Obama’s cleverly timed book tour for The Audacity of Hope during the 2006 midterm elections upstaged Clinton and propelled him toward the presidential sweepstakes. His boy-scout demeanor and rock star charisma are his great assets; his central challenge is to explain why two years in the Senate offer enough experience for the toughest job in the world.

Knowing that he – even more than Hillary – is floating in the zero-gravity celebrity zone, where today’s hero can be tomorrow’s villain, Obama is trying to get some traction by playing the generational card. His identity as a post-baby-boomer, challenging the nation to go beyond the depressing, polarizing gravitational physics of both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush is doubly clever. This appeal builds on American disgust with the Red versus Blue divisional dynamics of both the Democrats and the Republicans. And it allows Obama to run against the Clintons without having to mention Hillary’s name, thus preserving his reputation as a uniter not a divider.

With these two candidacies, Bill Clinton’s legacy, in essence, has been divided up. Senator Obama inherits Clinton’s mantle as a charismatic political faith healer. And Senator Clinton inherits her husband’s team, his brilliance as a political strategist, and any nostalgia that might exist for the 1990s as days of peace and prosperity.

The twinning of the first serious female presidential candidate and the first serious African-American – with a serious Hispanic candidate Bill Richardson barely getting attention because he lacks the Obama or Hillary celebrity buzz -- reflects the great strides American society has made since the 1960s.  The movements against racism and sexism have always been siblings, with the inevitable synergies and rivalries. In the 1800s, anti-slavery activists such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke, as well as the eloquent former slave Sojurner Truth, advanced the cause of women by being outspoken advocates for blacks in a society demanding silent women.  But some anti-slavery societies after the Civil War fractured as upper-class women resented that the mostly poor, uneducated, freed black slaves were getting the vote before they did – the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution giving blacks the vote was ratified in 1870, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the vote was only ratified in 1920.  

In the 1950s and 1960s, women activists would begin making the connection again between equality for blacks and for women, even as some male civil rights activists inadvertently helped trigger the women’s movement by mistreating women. Back in 1947, a young black women lawyer named Pauli Murray declared that while fighting the “Jim Crow” racial segregation laws, she would also attack the “Jane Crow” discrimination against women. By 1964, women in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee would be issuing a position paper highlighting the absurdity of sexism in a movement devoted to fighting racism. This position paper would trigger the acid response of one leader, the Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, who snapped, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”

Blacks, women, but more important, all Americans should be proudly echoing that Virginia Slims advertising phrase from the 1960s which became a motto: “You’ve come a long way baby.”  Running for president, of course, is not winning. And it is inevitable that these candidacies will stir up some sexist and racist opposition. But for the moment, it is worth enjoying the historical progress these two candidacies represent. Let us hope that if Senator Clinton loses, it is because she’s just too Hillary, not because she is a woman, and if Senator Obama loses, it is not because he is black but because he is just too green.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 1/27/2007

If you're going to invoke the name of Richard Nixon, you should also invoke the name of Albert Gore, Jr. Nixon lost in 1960, came back to win in 1968. Gore lost in 2000, ...??? Besides, I thought the "clash of the titans" was Hillary and David Broder!

Kevin R. C. Gutzman - 1/26/2007

These "titans" have very few accomplishments to their credit. (John Edwards is equally accomplishment-challenged.)

Michael Glen Wade - 1/22/2007

Actually, let us hope [forlornly, no doubt] for candidates able to galvanize support for key issues, topics almost never addressed as we indulge the personality approach to pressing public business. We would be better served by candidates with real plans for energy independence, curtailing population growth, illegal immigration & ending corporate welfare, three topics more important than any particular candidate.