Hillary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election, but the postmortem continues. Last week, the New York Times revealed that in 2008, Clinton chose not to fire her faith advisor, Burns Strider, after he was accused of sexual harrassing a young subordinate while working on the Clinton campaign. Years later, a subsequent allegation of sexual misconduct got Strider fired from an outside group supporting Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
She released a tepid response via Twitter the day the story broke and a more thorough one via Facebook days later. But it’s not clear whether either said enough. Does Clinton’s handling of this latest story exemplify a fatal flaw?
Opinion writers Christine Emba, Ruth Marcus, and Alyssa Rosenberg discuss.
Christine Emba: Oh, Hillary. What were you doing on Facebook?!
Alyssa Rosenberg: My husband and Sonny Bunch, who writes a weekly column for Act Four, sent me that Facebook statement at the exact same time last night, and I practically screamed in frustration. Obviously, I’d just written a column about the events of the 2008 campaign, which Clinton was trying to contextualize, and so it’s always frustrating, as a writer, when a development breaks after you’ve published something.
Christine Emba: Was it really a statement, or more of a rambling letter to herself? It came across my screen this morning, and my first instinct was to roll my eyes at the self-indulgence of it all.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Yes, there is SO MUCH going on there.
Christine Emba: When I read it, the first thing I noticed was that so much of it was about her — excusing herself, talking about how hard the decision was for her, bringing us into her personal debates about forgiveness and second chances. There was that hoary first line: “The most important work of my life has been to support and empower women,” but very little was about the woman in question. In the entire statement, “I” appears 37 times, and “Sorry” not even once.
Alyssa Rosenberg: But there’s ultimately so much about the woman in question, who is never named, and is not directly quoted, but is marshalled as proof that Clinton’s decision-making process should not be questioned because she turned out okay.
Christine Emba: Yes! I noticed that too, and it rather infuriated me.
Alyssa Rosenberg: And parts of it felt so inevitable, most notably the turn to blame the media.
Christine Emba: The media has long been her scapegoat, and not without reason. But in this case, it was frustrating to see. because ultimately, this wasn’t about whether the media did something wrong — which they didn’t! — it was about what Hillary did (or, as it were, didn’t). And for all her discussion of her feelings and thought processes, she never fully owned up to it. Still!
Ruth Marcus: I saw it in real time last night too, and I guess my reaction was: Better late. Not perfect, but way way better than the initial statement, which expressed Hillary’s “dismay.”
Alyssa Rosenberg: Do you still feel that way this morning, Ruth? Because for me, I think I just feel intensely exhausted by the entire dynamic, which is both incredibly predictable and yet impossible to avoid.
Ruth Marcus: Well, that wasn’t totally the way I felt, for reasons of the unnecessary and fundamentally misleading attack on the messenger (i.e. NYT). For the record, Glenn Thrush is not equal to (wish I knew where that symbol is on my keyboard) Burns Strider. Whatever happened in the Thrush case, it wasn’t someone who was his direct report; it wasn’t at his current employer.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, and the women who are reporting on sexual harassment and assault at the New York Times are not Glenn Thrush’s boss!
Alyssa Rosenberg: The fact that we’re even debating the nuances of the Times’s collective guilt or innocence is sort of the point to me. We can’t actually have a conversation about anything Hillary Clinton has said or done without litigating the past 26 years of national politics and media. And sometimes that’s for good reason! Sometimes those dynamics are actually in play! But a lot of the time, it ends up taking us very far away from the actual subject at hand.
Ruth Marcus: More important, reading the statement, I felt like: Haven’t I watched this movie before? The delay in responding — why oh why can’t she ever get it right the first time. The “in retrospect, I would have handled it differently” — definitely having some PTSD flashbacks to e-mails there.
Christine Emba: Completely true.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, Ruth! I’m burned out, and I don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.
Ruth Marcus: And I don’t know about you guys, but I am just exhausted by the outpouring of why do you hate Hillary (I DON’T HATE HILLARY — I WANTED HER TO BE PRESIDENT, FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE) and the why are you writing about this because Trump is so much worse reaction to what I wrote over the weekend.
Christine Emba: But Ruth, why *do* you hate Hillary? (I’m joking!!!)
Christine Emba: I think that you were both more invested in Hillary and her narrative than I was. I think that she’s an interesting figure — obviously smart, strong, important — but this is another example of how it was always going to be a problem for her to move past years of complex narrative and allow new and interesting things to happen. And despite the fact that she’s a woman, and the first woman president would have been amazing, she is extremely flawed and not always as “pro-woman” as we would like to imagine.
Ruth Marcus: For the record: Trump is terrible. He has done some terrible things where women are involved. I try to call him out all the time although, confession, some stuff slips through the cracks — e.g., the porn star thing I haven’t gotten around to writing about. But I write about Hillary and my frustrations with her — going back to the campaign — not because I hate her but because — like Alyssa before the Big Breakup — I like her so much and I am so disappointed by her seeming inability to change some drawbacks in the way she approaches things.
Alyssa Rosenberg: I hate that you even have to issue that disclaimer about Trump, Ruth!
Christine Emba: Yes. We can all agree on Trump’s manifold flaws, to the point that they become less worth discussing. Because there’s nothing to argue! Truly nothing new there.
Christine Emba: But with Hillary, there is a sense of some sort of promise being thwarted. Although I personally wonder if that promise was ever truly there.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Well, and that’s kind of the big question, isn’t it?
Ruth Marcus: Everything now is seen through the lens of whether it’s good or bad for the Resistance. That’s not the way I think about things, and if I started to I would quit. I think it’s really important for writers, even opinion writers, to call out the people they agree with, maybe even especially.
Christine Emba: Holding those people accountable could make them better. ::cough:: HILLARY ::cough::
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, and I think Clinton’s total resistance to even warranted criticism has made her much weaker as a public figure. It’s genuinely bizarre to me that so many of the people who have been writing to me in the past 24 hours cannot square the circle on the idea that criticism can be motivated by sincere investment and admiration.
Ruth Marcus: As to the big question of the promise thwarted, let’s not forget (and maybe it wasn’t the best strategy for Hillary to be the one to instruct us not to forget) that she has been a life-long advocate for women and girls. That in her office, in the WH, Senate and State, even if she fell short on the Strider front, she did practice a lot of what she preached in terms of empowering women and accommodating their personal needs, for flexibility, etc.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, of course!
Christine Emba: That’s true! Maybe I’m being too harsh on her myself. I think this is so frustrating because it’s such an obvious lapse, coming out at a particularly touchy time.
Alyssa Rosenberg: And a story that’s been lingering for ten years! That’s part of what bugs me about this, PURELY as strategy #metoo is an obvious thing. Sexual harassment has been a subject that’s persistently dogged your public life, and that almost brought down your husband’s presidency. How do you not prepare for something like this to come out?
Christine Emba: Honestly, it sounds like she thought she had it covered.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, and I think this is a pattern. Because the standards applied are often unfair, Clinton and her people have often acted as if they shouldn’t have to meet them, rather than accepting them as a political reality.
Christine Emba: Or, because she’s a unique and politically privileged figure in her own right, she has acted as though the standards simply don’t apply to her. But they do, Hillary, they do!
Alyssa Rosenberg: And I think this is a contradiction a lot of women in public life, including probably all three of us, have to live with. I both want to smash the patriarchy, but I also recognize that I *live* in the patriarchy. And so I have to conduct myself in such a way that my life is livable in the meantime. That doesn’t mean I accept the terms of the engagement, just that I know that life is long and I have to find ways to keep going and be effective, rather than refusing to cooperate in a way that denies me any efficacy at all. And while in a weird way I admire what seems to be Hillary Clinton’s inability to accept that bargain, it’s a choice that doesn’t really work if what you want to do is be in national politics.
Christine Emba: Patriarchy aside, even: Some standards are unfair, but some standards — like how to deal with sexual harassment in an office you manage, and how to behave once it comes out that you’ve botched it — are wise and good.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Right, and it’s not like anyone is guilty of presentism here! Clinton rejected the recommendation that she fire Strider ten years ago. She rejected the standard people were offering her *then*.
Christine Emba: Not accepting unfair terms of engagement is fine. But not accepting that you’ve made a mistake is an entirely different beast.