Our Weird Hillary Clinton Obsession

Why do we hang on her every word?

Since the rollout of Hard Choices, the commentariat has gone from mere obsession with Hillary Rodham Clinton to all-out frenzy. She said/she didn’t say; she will/she won’t; she means/she doesn’t. Over and over they wonder why she said it, what she will say next, what she really thinks.

Consider Clinton’s recent interviews with Diane Sawyer on ABC and Christiane Amanpour on CNN, where the former secretary of state fielded questions about her diplomatic record and her family’s wealth and danced around the fraught subject of whether she’ll run for president in 2016. (“A hard choice,” Clinton said, melding book promotion with seeming candor.)

In truth, however, the interviews themselves are less interesting than the meta-interviews: analyses of the interviews by the punditry.

Yes, the author of a potential blockbuster is typically interviewed to pieces. A person of real-world importance who writes a memoir often receives a lot of attention. But the responses to Clinton’s interviews, especially these, were unusual in a couple of respects.

Interviews with both those kinds of authors generally don’t create much post-interview chitchat, unless of course the author lets slip something truly astonishing (which Clinton has almost always been much too “cautious,” to use a word often and negatively applied to her, to ever do). And even the most newsworthy authors do not generate repeated and lengthy discussions of personality, as revealed (or not) in the interview. But with Clinton, we’ve been subjected to minute analyses of her style and what it presages: She didn’t “engage”; she “hit an inside-the-park home run”; she’s “ready.” The most frequent conclusions: She was not prepared for the Sawyer interview, but had boned up very satisfactorily for CNN. She was declared “ready.” Ready for what? (As if anyone didn’t know.) And what does her “rustiness,” or her “readiness,” mean?

Very little of the what-does-she-mean discussion is new, and still less is illuminating. Much more interesting and important than asking what Clinton means is turning the question back on ourselves: What does our fascination with what Hillary means mean? What does it tell us about who we are?

Our obsession is especially weird because it is virtually unique in the history of American political campaigning. This kind and amount of curiosity about a potential candidate’s intentions practically never arises—especially 2 ½ years before the election itself. And none of the other potential 2016 contenders—not Jeb Bush, not Rand Paul, not Joe Biden—has been subjected to anything remotely like the attention lavished daily on Hillary.

Once we understand what’s going on, we will learn a lot about ourselves. Our frenzy has less to do with electoral politics than with our gender uncertainties. How should we think of a woman who is running for president? What should we expect of her? How do we want her to talk and be to function plausibly in her novel role?

We have been experiencing a partial dress rehearsal since 2008. When Obama is regularly criticized as “aloof,” are critics assessing his style alongside that of the white men who have held that position, or are they implicitly assuming that a man of color “should” be more gregarious? But gender stereotypes have been around longer, are more universal and go psychologically deeper than racial stereotypes, and therefore we —both women and men—experience more confusion and agita when forced to rethink ancient attitudes.

We don’t know how to experience a female presidential candidate. Yes, there have been a fair number of women running for and winning high positions—in Congress, in the Senate, as governors. But none of these positions has anything like the symbolic functions of the presidency. The president is not only the literal executive who does America’s business, but also the exemplar of what it means to be American, the best possible possessor of the most power in the world. So until very recently, Americans could look at a president as a sort of super-us: like us, an American, but just a little bit better than we are.

Since 2008 Americans, and white Americans in particular, have had to ask new questions, or anticipate new answers to old questions. How is the president still like us, and if he isn’t, in the same way, how should we think of him? Answers have not been forthcoming, in part, because we have resisted examining our racial attitudes and still less, explicitly reframing our assumptions.

When the president was different because of race, we could at least pretend that nothing had changed. We hadn’t been asked to do anything new. We were – as we enjoyed remarking for a while – post-racial. Of course, it soon became clear that we really weren’t. But even though we could semi-seriously embrace the ideal of a post-racial presidency, no rational person is about to suggest that we might, in 2016, embark upon one that was post-gendered, much less that we might be becoming a post-gendered society. The very obsession with Clinton belies that suggestion.

Our special treatment of Clinton is based on our anxiety about women’s new roles. The fact that she has made us uncomfortable makes us treat her as an extreme case of “woman.” All too many of our unconscious beliefs about how women talk, what they mean and who decides what they mean, come into play as we listen to her. What she may actually say is immaterial. The fact that she is in a position to say what she is saying, or not say what she is not, is what troubles her listeners.