By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Among so much about American politics that can impress or depress a friendly transatlantic observer, there's nothing more astonishing than this: Why on Earth should Sen. 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 fundraising. If the Democrats can't win next year, they should give up for good, so she must be considered the clear favorite for the White House. But in all seriousness: What has she ever done to deserve this eminence? How could a country that prides itself on its spirit of equality and opportunity possibly be led by someone whose ascent owes more to her marriage than to her merits?
We all, nations as well as individuals, have difficulty seeing ourselves as others see us. In this case, I doubt that Americans realize how extraordinary their country appears from the outside. In Europe, the supposed home of class privilege and heritable status, we have abandoned the hereditary principle (apart from the rather useful institution of constitutional monarchy), and the days are gone when Pitt the Elder was prime minister and then Pitt the Younger. But Americans find nothing untoward in Bush the Elder being followed by Bush the Younger.
At a time when Americans seem to contemplate with equanimity up to 28 solid years of uninterrupted Bush-Clinton rule, please note that there are almost no political dynasties left in British politics, at least on the Tory side. Admittedly, Hilary Benn, the environmental secretary, is the fourth generation of his family to sit in Parliament and the third to serve in a Labor Party cabinet. But England otherwise has nothing now to match the noble houses of Kennedy, Gore and Bush.
And in no other advanced democracy today could someone with Clinton's r¿sum¿ even be considered a candidate for national leadership. It's true that wives do sometimes inherit political reins from their husbands, but usually in recovering dictatorships in Latin America such as Argentina, where Sen. Cristina Fern¿ndez de Kirchner may succeed President N¿stor Kirchner, or Third World countries such as Sri Lanka or the Philippines -- and in those cases often when the husbands have been assassinated. Such things also happened (apart from the assassination) in the early days of women's entry into British politics. The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Lady Astor, by birth Nancy Langhorne of Danville, Va., who inherited her husband's seat in 1919 when he inherited his peerage, but we haven't seen a case like that for many years.
In one democracy after another, women have been enfranchised, entered politics and risen to the top. The United States lags far behind in every way. A record number of women now serve in Congress, which only makes the figures -- 71 of 435 House members and 16 of 100 senators -- all the more unimpressive. Compare those statistics with Norway's, where 37 percent of lawmakers are women. In Sweden, it's 45 percent.
More to the point, women who make political careers in other democracies do it their way, which usually means the hard way. Not many people had fewer advantages in life -- by birth or marriage or anything else -- than Golda Meir, born in poverty in Russia and taken to the United States as a girl before she settled in Palestine. She was one of only two women among the 24 people who signed Israel's declaration of independence in 1948. After serving under David Ben-Gurion as foreign minister, she became prime minister in 1969 -- stepping into a man's shoes, it's true, but those of her predecessor, Levi Eshkol, who died unexpectedly in office.
Four years later, Meir showed that a woman could lead her country in war as well as peace, an example that Margaret Thatcher would follow. Thatcher made her way from a lower-middle-class home to Oxford at a time when there were few women there from any background. She then had not one but two careers, as a barrister and as an industrial chemist. (One of the gravest charges against her is that she helped invent a noxious concoction called "Mr. Whippy" squirtable ice cream.) After the traditional blooding of British politics -- fighting and losing a parliamentary election -- she entered Parliament in 1959 and served there for more than 30 years, working her way up as a Conservative backbencher, junior minister and then cabinet minister, speaking, debating, listening (yes, even Thatcher sometimes listened), pounding the streets at election time and attending dreary meetings in her constituency.
She not only had no advantages, but she was at a disadvantage in what was still very much a chaps' party -- dominated by men who had attended the same schools, served in the same regiments and belonged to the same clubs. But she ignored all that. In 1975, she was the only Tory with the guts to challenge Edward Heath for the party leadership, and in 1979 she led her party to victory in the first of three general elections.
To be sure, some women in politics have been less successful than others. France's first female prime minister was ¿dith Cresson, who lasted less than a year in office, and the first Canadian was poor Kim Campbell, who held the job for less than six months before leading her party to catastrophic electoral defeat. But Helen Clark in New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany have fought the political fight on equal terms, neither expecting nor receiving any favors because of their sex.
What a contrast Hillary Clinton presents! Everyone recognizes the nepotism or favoritism she has enjoyed: New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has written that without her marriage, Clinton might be a candidate for president of Vassar, but not of the United States. And yet the truly astonishing nature of her career still doesn't seem to have impinged on Americans.
Seven years ago, she turned up in New York, a state with which she had a somewhat tenuous connection, expecting to be made senator by acclamation (particularly once Rudy Giuliani decided not to run against her). Until that point, she had never won or even sought any elective office, not in the House or in a state legislature. Nor had she held any executive-branch position. The only political task with which she had ever been entrusted was her husband's health-care reforms, and she made a complete hash of that.
No doubt she has been a diligent senator, even if the cutting words of the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier about "the most plodding and expedient politician in America" ring painfully true, and no doubt her main Democratic rivals have only quite modest experience themselves: Obama's stint in the Illinois state legislature before entering the U.S. Senate in 2005, John Edwards's one term in the Senate. But both men are unquestionably self-made, and no one can say that they are where they are because of any kin or spouse.
Predictably enough, Sen. Clinton's husband has tried to defend her with his quicksilver tongue, speaking recently on BBC Radio here, where he's plugging his new book, and on television back home. Dynasties mean the kings of France, Bill Clinton told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," whereas Hillary has had "a totally different career path" from his, "from a different political base" to a different "set of expertise areas."
"And I think the real question here is not whether she's establishing a dynasty," he went on. "I don't like it whenever anybody gets something they're not entitled to just because of their families. But in this case, I honestly believe . . . she's the best suited, best qualified nonincumbent I've had a chance to vote for." (Really? Better qualified, in terms of experience, than Hubert Humphrey or Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis?) "So I just don't want to see her eliminated because she's my wife," the former president added. The gentleman doth protest too much on behalf of his lady, methinks: This is the best Clintonian evasive style. No one for a second thinks Sen. Clinton's marital status should be held against her. The question is whether she has any other serious claim to high office.
By way of what English barristers call a bad point, the former president mentioned that, after Robert F. Kennedy had served as his brother's attorney general, Congress made it illegal for a president's family member to be in the Cabinet. "I actually agree with that," Clinton said. "I think it would be a mistake for Hillary to give me a line policy-making job." So was it a mistake for him to have given her the health-care job?
All in all, "Democracy in America," not to mention equality or feminism in America, can sometimes look very odd from the outside. We've seen Jean Kennedy Smith made ambassador to Dublin (and a disastrous one) because she was famous for being a sister, then Pamela Digby Harriman made ambassador to Paris (and rather a good one) because she was famous for being a socialite.
Now Hillary Rodham Clinton has become a potential president because she is famous for being a wife (and a wronged wife at that). Europe has long since accepted the great 19th-century liberal principle of "the career open to the talents." In the 21st century, isn't it time that the republic founded on the proposition that all men are created equal -- and women, too, one hopes -- also caught up with it?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include
"The Controversy of Zion," "The Strange Death of Tory England" and, most recently, "Yo, Blair!"