Hillary Is In It to Win It

And I want you to join me not just for the campaign but for a conversation about the future of our country -- about the bold but practical changes we need to overcome six years of Bush administration failures." -- Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, last week
I'm pleased to be able to share this National Conversation, because that is what this election ought to be: not a shouting match, but a conversation with the American people about our ideas, our values, and our plan for a stronger America." -- Presidential candidate John Kerry, remarks to Democratic Leadership Council, May 7, 2004
I first heard John Kerry float his "national conversation" schtick in Dover, New Hampshire, sometime in November of 2003. I remember it clearly because while I usually used Kerry speeches as opportunities to catch up on lost sleep, this one had me awake from the start because it was so bizarre. After months of looking like a stiff disinterested creep, Kerry suddenly came bounding out onstage, goofily caressing the mic like Phil Donahue, imploring the audience that "I really want to have a conversation with you." He said it in a crazed tone that suggested the sentence was unfinished, that maybe the second part originally read, "...and then eat your liver."

He followed the "conversation" line up by asking the audience to "look into my eyes and into my guts" to see if he was just the same old typical Democrat, or if he was something different and perhaps better. Newspapers subsequently changed the "guts" line to "gut" in quotes.

That was John Kerry in a nutshell. He decided to take the big step of inviting his audience to examine him as a person and search out the glistening originality of his character not two seconds after trotting out a "let's have a conversation" line that was not only a hideously-worn old saw of Democratic campaign speechery, but was also a bald concoction of the party's corporate PR slaves at the Democratic Leadership Council, which had been hosting a "National Conversation" annual conference since 1997. The DLC's "national conversation" was actually a series of strategic meetings and plenary sessions between the group's member elected officials and its more prominent (i.e. monied corporate) members; the council's idea of a "national conversation" was probably Bruce Reed and Evan Bayh hitting the links with a pair of Union Carbide executives.

Which brings us to Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton announced her run for president last week. Now, she was hitting the "National Conversation" line four sentences into her first speech as a national presidential candidate. You have to wonder what it says about a political candidate when she runs out of her own ideas less than fifty words into her national sojourn.

Actually, it took less time than that; the very first lines of her speech ("I'm in. And I'm in to win.") were a cheap ripoff of Disney teenie idol Corbin Bleu's "Push it to the limit" lyrics. Think about that; in preparation for what was clearly the biggest and most important speech of her life to date, Hillary Clinton sat down, plucked the inspirational top from a crappy teenie boy-band song, and then plunged right into a student-body-right regurgitation of DLC focus-group campaign gobbledygook, rhetoric that was still bruised and squashed quite flat from the pounding it took on the Kerry campaign trail two years ago. This was her way of introducing the future President Clinton's "new ideas" to the world.

It's somewhat unfair to bash a politician for literary unoriginality these days, mainly because the vast majority of them are guilty of using the same robotic, machine-generated, market-tested campaign rhetoric. But Hillary's opening speech was really remarkable for its computerized coldness even compared to such notorious campaign robots as John Kerry and Wes Clark. It was a surprisingly impersonal, almost defiantly by-the-book recitation of the DLC formula for national Democratic campaigns - bash the incumbent, talk tough militarily, and then try to beat the Republicans in the middle on the issues of health care, the environment, and a balanced budget. Take a look at the opening of Hillary's speech:
I'm in. And I'm in to win.
Today I am announcing that I will form an exploratory committee to run for president.
And I want you to join me not just for the campaign but for a conversation about the future of our country -- about the bold but practical changes we need to overcome six years of Bush administration failures.
I am going to take this conversation directly to the people of America, and I'm starting by inviting all of you to join me in a series of web chats over the next few days.
The stakes will be high when America chooses a new president in 2008.
As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism.
Only a new president can renew the promise of America -- the idea that if you work hard you can count on the health care, education, and retirement security that you need to raise your family. These are the basic values of America that are under attack from this administration every day. And only a new president can regain America's position as a respected leader in the world.
I believe that change is coming November 4, 2008. And I am forming my exploratory committee because I believe that together we can bring the leadership that this country needs. I'm going to start this campaign with a national conversation about how we can work to get our country back on track.
Here's the human translation for that piece of text:

Crappy Corbin Bleu song.
"National conversation." Bold. Change. Bush is a failure.
National conversation. American people. I know how to use the web.
High stakes.
Bush causes damage. Bush made mistakes. Hope and optimism.
Promise of America. Hard work. The New Deal. Family. Values. Under attack.
National conversation.

You'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere in this speech a line that was not used by another Democratic or even a Republican candidate as recently as 2004. "The stakes are high" was a staple of Kerry campaign-trail stumpery three years ago. "The promise of America" is a favorite, believe it or not, of George W. Bush. "Directly to the people" is an old Kucinich standby. "The leadership this country needs" Hillary plucked from fellow DLC creature Joe Lieberman (who generally uses it in a negative sense, as in "I don't think my opponent gives us the leadership this country needs"). The national conversation we've already covered.

As for "hope and optimism," well... I think I can say without reservation that if there was one phrase that turned my stomach with the most regularity during the '04 campaign season, it was that; not only Kerry but especially his perma-grinning makeup-addict running mate John Edwards humped hope and optimism so relentlessly throughout the latter stages of the '04 race that at times I worried that one of them might tear a hamstring. And I wasn't the only one to notice. Here's what Slate's Chris Suellentrop had to say about hope and optimism back in July of '04:
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.--John Kerry and John Edwards still believe in a place called Hope. And its sister city, Optimism. They also swear by a town called Opportunity, a village called Values, a burgh called Responsibility, and a couple of lakes called Family and Faith. But really, it's mostly Hope and Optimism.
What kind of places are Hope and Optimism? Strong. Strong and American. Strong and American and middle-class... That was pretty much the message during the first few hours of the germinal Kerry-Edwards campaign... the emphasis on hope and optimism, or at least on using the words hope and optimism a lot, was noteworthy because Edwards, the new man on the ticket, made his name in the primaries as Mr. Optimism.
Suellentrop had better order an extra shipment of barf bags for the '08 season. If Hillary's opening speech is any indication of what we're facing, we're all destined for campaign cliché hell. Check out her speech's ending:
This campaign is our moment, our chance to stand up for the principles and values that we cherish; to bring new ideas, energy, and leadership to a uniquely challenging time. It's our chance to say "we can" and "we will.
Kerry used to be the master of the focus-word-list style of campaign speechifying ("My fellow citizens, elections are about choices. And choices are about values..."), but Hillary blows Kerry away. You seldom caught Kerry lumping more than four focus words into a sentence, but check out Hillary's penultimate line. It's a six-word list: Principles, values, new ideas, energy, leadership, challenge. In fact the only focus words that Hillary left out of her speech, as far as I can tell, were freedom, pride, and truth. The key words - values, principles, change, heroes, future etc. - were mostly all double- or triple-represented.

Will the 2008 campaign see the world's first ten-focus-word sentence? I used to think that was an impossibility, but I'm beginning to wonder. Would you put a sentence like the following past Hillary Clinton?
The promise of America requires bold new leadership, leadership based on the principles and values of hope and optimism -- leadership with the vision to honor America's heroes and stand up to any challenge.
Hm, maybe I'm underestimating these people. That was too easy, insultingly easy in fact... Can we reach for a fifteen-word list maybe? I have no doubt that if it happens in the next two years, Hillary will be the record-setter.

What's so tragic about Hillary's political evolution is that her decision to morph into a caricature of a Washington stuffed suit seems so clearly a conscious decision on her part, a way of overcompensating for the abuse she took when she first arrived on the Hill over a decade ago to push her health care plan. Whether you love her or hate her, Hillary is a compelling story and an iconic figure in the history of modern feminism. Hers was a journey marked by intense public humiliation and the most savage kind of abuse. En route to her current status as a favorite for the Democratic nomination she has had to navigate, publicly, all the most dangerous minefields that exist for the modern professional woman - the dilemma of whether or not to put her husband's career over her own, the burden of having to work overtime to be taken seriously in a male-dominated professional environment, the specter of abuse and discrimination by closed-minded people who see strong women as a threat to older traditional values, being rewarded for one's success by sexual humiliation at the hands of a husband more attracted to youth and feminine vulnerability than loyalty, strength, and achievement, and so on.

Had Hillary embraced head-on her undeniable role as an unwitting martyr/archetype for the modern professional woman, had she opened up her campaign by actually showing us what her private thoughts have been throughout all of these trying times, and what she might think the meaning of her journey has been or could be, she would have instantly established herself as an extraordinarily interesting and compelling story, at the very least. Instead, Hillary is clearly so spooked by the experience of not being taken seriously by the Beltway establishment that she's gone overboard in the direction of being a typical Inside-Baseball, full-of-shit Washington hack, spraying cardboard cliches like machine-gun fire. She's Joe Biden without the hairplugs.

It's obvious that Hillary sees the pursuit of the White House by means of the tireless upchucking of hollow, computer-generated horseshit as the ultimate man's game in Washington, and she wants to show she can play it with the big boys. So she's slinging twice as much crap, twice as much bullshit. What she fails to see is that, while she's playing the game right, the game is the problem, it's a crock of shit. It would have been nice if she'd had the courage to be different, which she incidentally already is, by default. Instead, she's choosing consciously to be just another lousy corporate politician -- one who'll deserve all the abuse she'll get for playing that same old tired game.

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