Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.
I saw Hillary Clinton once working a rope line for more than an hour, a Secret Service man holding her firmly by the hips as she leaned over the rope and reached into the mass of arms and hands reaching out to her. She had learned the art of encountering the crowd and making it look personal. It was not glamorous work, more like picking fruit, and it took the sort of discipline your mother instills in you: Those people waited to see you, so by gosh you can treat them right.
So it’s no surprise she pushed herself to the point of collapse the other day. What’s odd is the perspective, expressed in several articles, that her determination to keep going reveals a “lack of transparency” — that she should have announced she had pneumonia and gone home and crawled into bed.
I’ve never gone fishing with her, which is how you really get to know someone, but years ago I did sit next to her at dinner, one of those Washington black-tie occasions that are nobody’s idea of a wild good time, the conversation tends to be stilted, everybody’s beat, you worry about spilling soup down your shirtfront. She, being first lady, led the way and, she being a Wellesley girl, the way led upward. We talked about my infant daughter and schools and about Justice Harry Blackmun, and I said how inspiring it was to sit and watch the court in session, and she laughed and said, “I don’t think it’d be a good idea for me to show up in a courtroom where a member of my family might be a defendant.” A succinct and witty retort. And she turned and bestowed her attention on then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was sitting to her right. She focused on him and even made him chuckle a few times. I was impressed by her smarts, even more by her discipline.
I don’t have that discipline. Most people don’t. Politics didn’t appeal to me back in my youth, the rhetoric (“Ask not what your country can do for you”) was so wooden compared to “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” so I walked dark rainy streets imagining the great novel I wouldn’t write and was still trying to be cool and indifferent well into my 30s, when other people were making a difference in the world.
Clinton didn’t have a prolonged adolescence and fiction was not her ambition. She doesn’t do dreaminess. What some people see as a relentless quest for power strikes me as the good habits of a serious Methodist. Be steady. Don’t give up. It’s not about you. Work for the night is coming.
The woman who does not conceal her own intelligence is a fine American tradition, going back to Anne Bradstreet and Harriet Beecher Stowe and my ancestor Prudence Crandall, but none has been subjected to the steady hectoring and jibber-jabber that Clinton has. She is a major-party nominee who is being pictured in prison stripes by the opposition. She is the first Cabinet officer ever to be held personally responsible for her own email server, something ordinarily delegated to I.T. The fact that terrorists attacked a U.S. compound in Libya under cover of darkness has been held against her, as if she personally was in command of the defense of the compound, a walkie-talkie in her hand, calling in reinforcements.
Extremism has poked its head into the mainstream, aided by the Internet. Back in the day, you occasionally saw cranks on a street corner handing out mimeographed handbills arguing that FDR was responsible for Pearl Harbor, but you saw their bad haircuts, the bitterness in their eyes, and you turned away. Now they’re in your computer, whispering that the economy is on the verge of collapse and for a few bucks they’ll tell you how to protect your savings. But lacking clear evidence, we proceed forward. We don’t operate on the basis of lurid conjecture.
Someday, historians will get this right and look back at the steady pitter-pat of scandals that turned out to be nothing, nada, zero and ixnay and will conclude that, almost a century after women’s suffrage, almost 45 years after Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law, a woman was required to run for office wearing concrete shoes. Check back 45 years from now and if I’m wrong, go ahead and dance on my grave.