February 1, 2013

With a few low-key, heartfelt words of farewell, Hillary Clinton just formally stepped down as Secretary of State. She still may run for president, but since she may not, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on her journey, one that embodies the very best and worst about our politics, one that traversed a generation of political and cultural struggles that are slowly receding into history but whose echoes remain with us still.

Those of us who watched the tremendous amount of abuse Clinton endured in the 1990s as First Lady would have been stunned if you had told us at the time that Clinton would end up as a widely respected elder stateswoman with remarkably high approval ratings (nearly four in 10 Republicans view her favorably). The young ones don’t believe this, but the hostility, rage, and deranged conspiracy-mongering directed at the Clintons at the time — especially at Hillary — was, if anything, worse than today’s variety. Yet even though Clinton’s State Department was at the center of the Benghazi frenzy, she was treated respectfully at recent hearings by Republican Senators, and leaves the stage as a popular and unpolarizing figure.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the story is ending this way, given her remarkable level of persistence, a trait even her most ardent enemies would grant her. Politics never came as easily to Hillary as they did to her husband or to the younger man who defeated her in 2008. She has long conveyed the sense that she knows she’s perpetually destined to swim upstream, and has resolved to deal with it by showing more endurance than the water current itself. I recall someone joking during the 2008 campaign that Hillary would become president simply by exhausting everyone so much that they’d finally throw up their hands and accept the inevitable. That didn’t happen, of course, but the joke remains apt. As Ron Fournier put it: “she has weathered more peaks and valleys than the Alps.”

Hillary’s career spanned — and in many ways embodied — the massive political and cultural sorting out that was set in motion by the 1960s, worked its way through violent swings and backlashes in the decades that followed, and now looks to be coming to something of a close with the reelection of Barack Obama. She was an attorney involved in impeachment during Watergate. She and her husband were central to recasting the Democratic Party after a period of perceived fiscal and cultural excess and amid an ascendent conservatism launched by that excess. As First Lady she bore the brunt of a furious cultural backlash set in motion by her chafing at the role of First Stay-At-Home Wife and by lingering perceptions that the Clintons harbored 1960s-style disdain for traditional institutions such as marriage and the military.

This thread continued right up through her 2008 presidential campaign, and perhaps doomed it. Hillary’s bid to become the first female president would have represented a kind of culmination of the feminist revolution that gained steam during her youth. Yet she was defeated by a younger man who rode contemporaneous historic currents into the White House, and who argued — ironically — that it was precisely because Hillary was trapped in the arguments of the 1960s that she could not escape their shadow and move the country forward in the new century. Obama’s reelection seems to suggest that those big cultural arguments are mostly getting resolved, or at least effaced by demographic change, and perhaps Obama was the right figure to move the country past them. Hillary exits the stage with a mixed legacy — she was a very competent manager who traveled the world, yet had no major accomplishments at State — but she leaves as an extremely popular figure with no real remaining trace of the controversy and lightning-rod aura that long surrounded her and embodied her times.

Will Hillary run again? She may find the call of history hard to resist; whether that will be enough, only time will tell. But this quote from her 2008 concession speech seems to capture her decades in public life best, both in terms of what she was able to accomplish and in terms of the sheer amount of brute force and headbanging persistence she put into it:

“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.