In his New York Times op-ed column today, entitled “Goodness and Power,” David Brooks uses Hillary Rodham Clinton as his example. (Guess which of the two parts of his title she exemplifies.) He begins by summarizing the results of a recent Quinnipiac poll: Sixty percent of independent voters feel Clinton has “strong leadership qualities.” But 61% felt that she is not “honest and trustworthy.”
Brooks uses this microdatum to argue that political leaders should be moral persons, i.e., “honest and trustworthy.” (Brooks, for some time America’s self-anointed #1 pop psychologist, has recently transformed himself into our national moralist.) But before accepting his assessments and prescriptions, we need to question his assumptions. While Brooks does not say anything that is explicitly false, a great deal of his column’s argument rests on some interestingly skewed facts.
Brooks has never, in my opinion, demonstrated a firm understanding of how to use and not use survey data in doing responsible social science. A problem about which serious social scientists have been aware is that polls may be unreliable. How much credence is it wise to put into a poll that asks questions about Clinton’s morality, when she has been under public scrutiny for almost a quarter of a century, mostly negative? When the media, over all this time, has tirelessly condemned her as “ambitious,” “greedy,” “unwomanly,” and “unnatural”? When she functions for much of contemporary American society as an object of terror – the strong woman? When the question itself suggests that a negative response is the “right” one?
The poll’s findings – the 61% figure – may nonetheless be correct, in the sense that the figure accurately represents the percentage of respondents answering negatively. But that does not necessarily tell us what 61% of Americans actually think. And Brooks gets sneaky – he moves surreptitiously from what 61% of Americans tell a pollster they feel, to the argument of his column, that a “dishonest and untrustworthy” person is a dubious choice for president. What 61% of Americans purportedly feel (and possibly the form of the poll question itself is deceptive) is not equivalent to what is really the truth about Clinton. To conflate the two kinds of assessments is the business of the propagandist, not the moral truth-teller, and Brooks, by taking this stance, puts himself in the former camp. Beware of what you read, even in the New York Times!
The column offers an unhappy clue about how the 2016 election will roll out: there will be a lot of this stuff for the next 18 months. Wishes will morph into realities; beliefs will be truths. Just as Thucydides wrote that language and meaning were debased in Athens under the pressures of the Peloponnesian War, they will suffer the same fate under the pressures of the Gender War on which we are about to embark more fiercely than ever before. The Athenians, with good reason, feared the Spartans. Americans fear women like Hillary Rodham Clinton. The responses are similar.
Brooks is a first-rate propagandist: Goebbels could have picked up a few pointers from him. Note his methods: he starts out by asserting an incontrovertible truth: the results of a poll. That is fact, and we have no reason to disbelieve it, or him. “Apparently there are a lot of Americans who believe that Hillary Clinton is dishonest and untrustworthy.” This is, then, still a belief. A more honest and trustworthy analyst might have pointed out that beliefs based on relentless media harassment over 25 years might be questionable. Not Brooks.
Let’s set aside her specific case for a second. These poll results raise a larger question: Can you be a bad person but a strong leader?
HRC thus becomes the specific case of someone who is (not, is judged to be) “a bad person but a strong leader.” The column goes on more generally in this vein, arguing that someone with “bad private morals” will have trouble “attracting and retaining good people to their team.” Decent persons will be loath to associate with them. Yet I have read many stories about the loyalty of Clinton’s supporters. Are they all bad people? More problematically, Brooks does not examine the claims of dishonesty and untrustworthiness. If we were to sift through them (Whitewater, Travelgate, Benghazi, and emailgate come at once to mind, never mind the Bosnia thing, the claim that her grandma was Welsh, and other matters of extreme national importance), we would find that very few if any have stood up under real scrutiny: they were charges trumped up by the conservative media, and eagerly swallowed by the lamestream “liberals.” Why so eagerly? Why do you think?
Leaders who lack humility are fragile,
Brooks continues. Yet Clinton has persevered for 25 years in the face of relentless attack against all aspects of her person: her biography, her politics, her marriage, her female self. She may lack humility (she is certainly not as humble as a good woman ought to be), but she is anything but fragile.
Whom does Brooks set up in opposition to the immoral HRC? George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. But Washington owned slaves; Roosevelt killed everything he encountered on four legs; and Churchill seriously mistreated British suffragists as Home Secretary. Few politicians have, or have had, clean hands. It’s curious how often Clinton is pilloried for her purported misdeeds, while her male colleagues get a pass. Brooks naively suggests that effective leaders like these have a sort of duality: “an earnest inner moral voice,” and a “pragmatic, canny outer voice.” I’m not sure this dodge is really persuasive, but if so, it should involve the same standard for both male and female leaders. That seems not to be the case.
I don’t know if Hillary Clinton possesses this double-mindedness. But I do know that if candidates don’t acquire a moral compass outside of politics, they’re not going to get it in the White House, and they won’t be effective there.
In these final sentences, Brooks again implies (rather than stating openly) that Clinton has no “moral compass,” and will if elected make an ineffectual president.
Not irrelevantly, on KQED’s Forum this morning, Brooks and host Michael Krasny vied with each other in urging Jerry Brown to enter the presidential race. There’s a guy with a moral compass: long-time Californians may recall his turnabout (anti to pro) on Proposition 13 as reelection approached. Since its passage in 1978, Prop 13 has done significant damage, maybe even more than Clinton has done with Bosniagate.
Also not irrelevant is another bit of lexical semantics now entering the primary debates: the use of “queen” as an epithet applied to Clinton. I started thinking about queens after hearing about a forthcoming Hillary hit-book to be entitled, The Queen. (Apparently not, but it started a train of thought.)“Queen” per se is not a naughty word; it can merely refer to a female monarch, more or less equivalent to its male counterpart, “king.” But as so often when a language has two words that in their literal senses are semantically equivalent except for gender reference, when the words acquire metaphorical senses, the female one gets the semantic shaft. Thus the histories of “master” and “mistress”; and, indeed, “man” and “woman.”
Recall Ronald Reagan’s diatribe against the “welfare queens” who drive up to the welfare office in their Cadillacs. No one ever spoke of “welfare kings” doing the same. Leona Helmsley was disparaged and discredited as the “queen of mean”; while Donald Trump, who has certainly behaved unkindly (and been lionized for it), was never called the “king of mean.” Such epithets have no meaning; we can’t make sense of them, as we can for their feminine counterparts. It’s good to be a “king”: Elvis was The King, a purely positive attribution. In Nat “King” Cole, “king” is an epithet to be proud of.
The semantic shift of “queen,” but not “king,” works like this: Kings rule by divine right; when there are queens, as happens only seldom, they acquire their status and power by luck and/or brutality. Queens are hyper-entitled. They are not good women, and should be brought down. No divine right for queens!
Think of the queens in the Alice books, whom many people think of when they hear “queen.” Unlike their consorts, the King of Hearts in Wonderland and the Red and White Kings in Looking-Glass, who are weak and inept, the Queens are too powerful, murderously inclined, and full of rage. That is what a Queen is, and anyone so called – at least anyone who has not fairly inherited the throne like QEII – must be an object of both fear and derision.
So I invite you to Google “Hillary queen.” You get some interesting results.
Apr 16, 2015 – Queen Hillary travels by van and eats at Chipotle to connect with everyday Americans.
(Note that “the little people” was a term of disparagement favored by Leona Helmsley, the queen of mean.)
Fox News Channel
Feb 3, 2015 – As Hillary Clinton prepares to make her official announcement of a … York City borough of Queens, and they could move in within two months.”
www.washingtonpost.com › Opinions
The Washington Post
Oct 7, 2007 – Hillary Rodham Clinton be the front-runner for the presidency? She has now pulled well ahead of Sen. Barack Obama, both in polls and in …
(An oldie but goodie.)
The New York Times
Mar 14, 2015 – Maureen Dowd … If you, Hillary Rodham Clinton, are willing to cite your mother’s funeral to get sympathy for ill-advisedly … You seem like an annoyed queen, radiating irritation at anyone who tries to hold you accountable.
Maureen Dowd….now that’s a surprise!
So you get the idea. Fasten your seat belts. Bumpy ride.