You would think the dauphin currently occupying the White House pretty much would have put to rest the notion that ability to govern could be imputed to a president’s family members. But along came Hillary Clinton, whose central campaign claim is “thirty-five years of experience.” Unless she means to include her high school years, Hillary must be claiming that in eight years as First Lady she somehow acquired derivative executive experience, as if one can absorb it merely by being in proximity to executive power.
The mainstream media largely have not bothered to scrutinize this claim. Nor have they challenged her campaign’s vague assertions that she was a major player in Clinton administration successes, leaving it instead to people who were there to speak out spontaneously. The latest was Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, who called it “silly” for Hillary to claim a role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland. We will never know how many others with enough personal knowledge to refute her claims have kept silent. But we know this much: when the Clinton administration laid out its successes in a tome posted on the White House website just before Bill Clinton left office, Hillary Clinton’s name was never mentioned. Not once.
As long as Hillary’s claimed involvement in Clinton administration successes goes unchallenged, it serves another, more subtle purpose. Each time she refers to her experience during the Clinton years, she subliminally reminds nostalgic Democrats about theirs. Her need to tap into this nostalgia wherever she can find it, however, has placed noticeable constraints on how she talks about her husband’s administration and presents herself in relation to it. It’s fitting to consider this phenomenon in the light still cast by another nostalgia-tinged presidential campaign, which quadrennially looms mystically over the Democratic nomination process – Robert Kennedy’s 80-day candidacy forty years ago.
RFK’s campaign clearly evoked Camelot. Hillary’s regularly invokes the Clinton years, as if to suggest she would pick up where Bill left off. She presents herself in essence as the bridge back to the twentieth century, without ever conveying the image that she stands on Bill Clinton’s shoulders. Try to imagine Hillary Clinton saying anything as frankly self-deprecating as RFK’s account of how he became Attorney General: “I started in the Department of Justice as a young lawyer in 1951. The salary was about $4,000 a year. But I worked hard. I was ambitious. I studied. I applied myself. And then my brother was elected president of the United States.”
The Clinton campaign’s alternative construct is strangely Arthurian: a woman who would be president based on her own merits, no matter who her husband happened to be. The tricky part of this, of course, is that, without linking herself to her husband’s administration, Hillary Clinton could not claim any advantage over Barack Obama in – here’s that elusive word again – experience.
There’s no question that Hillary Clinton knows her way around the White House. Not just in the sense that she could tell you where they keep the hide-a-key, but also that she has observed the workings of the Executive Branch up close. Close enough to have heard the “red phone” ring at 3 a.m. But mere propinquity to decision-making does not translate into experience making decisions.
Her claimed edge over Barack Obama in foreign policy is, she implies, largely due to her involvement in that arena during her husband’s administration. Yet, while the American public is well aware of her domestic policy involvement because her 1993 health care initiative played out publicly, Hillary still has not let us in on any tangible and verifiable contributions she made to her husband’s foreign policy.
In contrast, RFK possessed self-authenticating foreign policy credentials, which he had earned as his brother’s most trusted advisor. He personally had looked into the nuclear abyss, playing a pivotal role in resolving this country’s most significant post-war foreign policy challenge, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Presidential candidates trying to appeal to voters’ nostalgia for an antecedent administration in which the candidate played a prominent role must somehow find language that reminds voters of the good but not the bad in that administration. To this thorny task, Hillary takes a disciplined approach. Whenever challenged with one of her husband’s policy decisions – for example, signing NAFTA and adopting “don’t ask, don’t tell” – her mantra has been that the policy was poorly implemented. It’s as if she’s convinced that acknowledging Bill Clinton made some bad policy choices would tarnish her candidacy.
Few would have faulted RFK for similarly going soft on his late brother’s administration. But the difference is that, long before running for president, RFK liberated his political fortunes from Kennedy administration failures, just as JFK himself had deftly done as president. As vigilant as RFK could be in protecting JFK’s legacy, as both a senator and a presidential candidate he was willing to concede Kennedy administration errors, even when he had helped shape the particular policy.
Contrast RFK’s handling of his era’s hottest issue, Vietnam, with Hillary’s handling of the hottest issue today, Iraq. The Hillary Clinton embroiled in this primary season is unwilling to admit that the war Democrats detest was wrong. And she refuses to admit she was wrong to vote for it because – and this is the remarkable part – after all this time she refuses to admit she voted for it. “It is absolutely unfair to say that the vote,” she said earlier this year, “was a vote for war.”
Resisting such revisionism, RFK stepped out front and made a clean break from his support for the war in Vietnam. A full year before announcing his candidacy for president, when most Americans still favored staying to win in Vietnam, RFK had seen enough. On March 2, 1967, with Vietnam hawks clinging to the hope that our bombing of North Vietnam would force it to sue for peace, the junior Senator from New York rose to say he’d had a change of heart. “Three presidents have taken action in Vietnam,” he said. “As one who was involved in many of those decisions, I can testify that if fault is to be found or responsibility assessed, there is enough to go around for all,” quickly adding “including myself.” He offered an even blunter self-appraisal during the 1968 campaign. Taunted for saying in 1962 that America would stay in Vietnam “until we win,” RFK replied: “I made a mistake in 1962. I would feel better if President Johnson would admit he made a mistake, too.”
The fully evolved RFK running for president in 1968 was given to such straight talk. When a college student asked who was going to pay for his poverty proposals, RFK responded, “You are.” By the time his brief presidential campaign ended, Robert Kennedy had parlayed straight talk into a transformation: he had grown from iconic reminder of a better time into the best hope for taking the country in a new direction. In contrast, Hillary Clinton seems content with a far less bold proffer to Democrats: a restoration to power, with the promise, for good or ill, to re-fight some old political battles. Partly because she cannot separate herself from her husband’s administration, without which she could not even posit her experience-by-proximity theory, Hillary Clinton has no more upside this year than Hubert Humphrey did in 1968. Her candidacy started out and remains as hobbled by Clinton fatigue as Humphrey’s was by LBJ fatigue.
Into the vacuum stepped Barack Obama, whose candidacy is noticeably redolent of RFK’s in its energy. More significant, though, Obama’s campaign embodies a transformation that appears to fit the public mood. When a presidential campaign accomplishes that – as happened with FDR in 1932, JFK in 1960, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Bill Clinton in 1992 – opponents’ claims of superior experience, whether well founded or concocted, make no difference in the outcome. This history lesson should not be lost on Hillary Clinton or John McCain.