Hillary and history
What will textbooks say about the first female presidential nominee of a major party?
In the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” there is a haunting refrain: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” Before the musical, much of Alexander Hamilton’s legacy was lost. He was a founding father and Treasury secretary, but was known better for having been killed in a duel with Aaron Burr than for his accomplishments.
What will history tell future generations about the woman who would have/could have/should have been the first female president of the United States? She was twice a candidate. In 2008, she ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries against Barack Obama, the man who would go on to become our nation’s first black president. And now in 2016, nearly a decade later, she finally wins the Democratic Party’s nomination — wins the national popular vote — but she does not carry the Electoral College.
Will they tell her story from the perspective of a long-suffering former first lady, whose charismatic husband was impeached but not convicted, the charges rooted in his tawdry conduct with a 21-year-old White House intern?
Will they describe her work representing New York as a senator in Washington, later to be appointed secretary of state? Will they describe her grace under pressure in an email scandal? Will they speak of her love for her only child, Chelsea? How will history portray the Clinton marriage? Did Hillary seal her fate by remaining in it? Or had she made her deal with the devil and seen her husband as an inconvenient but necessary catalyst in her political career?
Right now, I will focus on the photogone-viral of Hillary Clinton the day after her dignified and poised concession speech, posing alongside a young mother with her child in a carrier strapped onto her back. The photo was taken, apparently by Bill Clinton, as he and his wife encountered the young woman during a walk in the woods near their suburban New York home. Hillary appears to be relaxed. (I think she may have even been wearing leggings.) She has on little to no makeup. She could be any of us, looking much as I do on a Saturday as I run errands at the supermarket, the mall or going out for a movie with my husband.
We can speculate that “this Hillary” might have appealed more to the Rust Belt voters. We can come up with all sorts of explanations detailing her inability to connect with the less educated. A Wellesley-educated woman with a degree from Yale School of Law still could not break the glass ceiling to become our first female president. How will history tell her story, should that achievement go to a woman with pop star status? (Michael Moore has suggested perhaps Oprah Winfrey.)
Ultimately, when the 2016 Trump victory is described by historians, Hillary’s fate will be intertwined with his. There will be a supporting character of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a populist with socialist appeal to the young as part of the rising action in the political drama. Political pundits and reporters will serve as a contemporary Greek chorus, chanting key phrases from the sidelines: “basket of deplorables” and “what about her health?”
The denouement will strike many as ironic tragedy. The image of President Obama demonstrating merciful acceptance of the election results, asking the nation to root for the success of the soon-to-be President Trump. Yet not once in his eight years in office did Mr. Obama’s critics and opponents (Mr. Trump among them) ever root for him. President Obama’s exit from office will be life imitating art in its parallel to the scene in “Hamilton” in which George Washington heads home to Virginia.
My sincere hope is that when her story is told, the legacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton will stand on its own merit rather than in the shadows of Donald Trump and his self-proclaimed brand of big is better.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has had a long public life. History books should tell her full story, not just the part involving Donald Trump.