Did your interest in the Clinton biography brew over many years, or did a particular incident crystallise it suddenly?
The Clintons have dominated American politics for the last 16 years and may continue to do so, for all we know. There’s something endlessly fascinating about their complicated and incendiary dynamic. Just when you think they have ceased to fascinate, another personal or political flare goes up or one of them has another near-death experience on the national stage. I’m also very, very interested in the media culture that has both shaped and enveloped them. Bill Clinton’s impeachment, for instance, coincided with the gossip power of the Internet.
How would you essentialise Hillary’s character?
I have to skip this. I may be able to answer it when I’ve written my book.
While on the campaign trail with Hillary what did you see as her strengths and weaknesses?
Her strengths: Unbelievable, imperturbable toughness. Reporters on the campaign trail are all, at this point, beaten down, wheezing and coughing and looking ashen. She can get up at 4am to deliver doughnuts to a shift change at the Chrysler auto plant and keep going till well after midnight the next day, doing town halls and rallies. We did 14 cities in 4 days when I traveled with her last week. Okay, so did Obama but he’s 14 years younger. (And while he can nap in the car she has to get her hair and makeup done and get out looking bandbox fresh.) She’s actually at her best when her back’s against the wall. When Obama attacked her on her healthcare plan, back in December, she said: “Well, now the fun part starts…” And I actually think she means it. There is nothing you can pour over this woman’s head that hasn’t been poured over it already and she’s still standing.
Her weaknesses: All prose and no poetry. People are so desperate for a show of emotion at this point that everybody went berserk when she teared up for a minute in New Hampshire and American women rushed to the polls to vote for her. Hillary thought, when she decided to run two years ago, that as a woman the story would be her exceptionalism but running against an African-American stole away her exceptionalism. A bitter irony which makes her nuts. It’s meant that Obama has been able to own the “change” narrative she believed would be hers. Her campaign also has made the mistake of relying on “experience” as her winning mantra. Americans have never valued experience much. This is a country that’s much more sympathetic to newness and self-invention. Nixon ran on “Experience Counts” against JFK in 1960 and we know what happened.
And Obama’s strengths and weaknesses?
His strengths: Sensational oratory gifts which, after eight years of Bush’s Neanderthal incoherence, makes everybody hysterical with relief. Plus his racially mixed background makes him truly feel like a citizen of the 21st century — a global new face, which is a wonderful message for foreign relations. And there is a smartness and grace there, which is nimbly shown in debate.
His weaknesses: After the tenth rally, the “we are the change that we seek” rhetoric is getting old. Obamamania is beginning to feel like the political version of the death of Princess Diana — the emotion got so out of hand, people look back on it now and think: “What was that all about?” This is getting more true now the economy is tanking. Hillary keeps grinding away with her bread-and-butter positions which play well against the Obama uplift. The satirical TV show Saturday Night Live is having a lot of fun with the girls who keep fainting at his rallies while the press keep fawning all over him. Perhaps, more serious Americans have a hard time seeing him as commander-in-chief. He’s got two generals supporting him while Hillary has lined up 27. You could dial into a conference call set up by her campaign staff and hear them all giving her the verbal equivalent of a 21-gun salute. Of course, when it comes to the general election itself, one of them will be up against Republican senator John McCain — bonafide military hero and prisoner of war for five-and-ahalf years. So that argument is going to be hard to extend beyond the democratic primaries.
What is Hillary’s core constituency?
Women over 50. In Ohio they surged out in a fury of solidarity to take her over the top. It’s a constit – uency that I think of as the “invisible women” who feel spurned by the youth culture we live in over here. They feel disrespected everywhere they look. Advertisers don’t want their demographic. TV networks dump them off the air for a younger face. Employers want to skip them in favour of a fresher face. Movies don’t write parts for them. Nothing gets them more annoyed than if they feel Hillary is being bullied by men in the media. And they are right about this. It’s been extraordinary how biased the coverage has been in favour of Obama. She always gets the toughest questi ons, the meanest commentary. It got so bad right before Ohio that women everywhere were just boiling about it. Apparently, in Ohio they were showing up in droves at the downtown Columbus office volun teering to man the phone banks.
What’s interesting is that their daughters do not share the solidarity towards Hillary. Most of the younger women are Obama all the way. I think this is the fault of the campaign which was so anxious to suit Hillary up in a Kevlar vest so she would be a credible commander-in-chief, it destroyed the romance of a woman in the White House. Also the young generation of women have not gone through all the bruising fights to get into seats of power that their moms did. To them feminism seems incredibly passé because they’ve had it all served up by their mom’s generation. To get the young girls in her corner, I think she needs to get moms and daughters together at rallies. The image of her with her daughter Chelsea on the podium is emotionally empathetic. My daughter is 17, loves Hillary but feels strongly that she doesn’t awaken strong enough feelings of Girl Power.
What are the important pieces of her campaign and vision?
I think everyone understands her passion for universal healthcare. When she argues about it in debates, she’s furiously tenacious, refusing to give up her point. Most critics seem to feel her plan is more inclusive than his and will ensure allAmericans have insurance coverage, if and when they need it. The fact that she blew it in the White House when entrusted with the healthcare brief is probably a positive because it showed her where the mines were and gave her a huge desire to see herself vindicated. When I was on the road with her last week, it was staggering how many hands went up when she asked at rallies “How many of you don’t have health insurance?”
Her most deft moves, her most disastrous moments?
Her best moves have been the involuntary ones! Tearing up in New Hampshire and exhibiting humour when she was asked in a debate, “What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more?” and she replied, “Well, that hurts my feelings.” Showing she could be a good sport by going on Saturday Night Live and doing an “editorial response” to their parody of the CNN democratic debate February 21, 2008.
Obviously voting to go into the Iraq war is the hideous, toestubbing, irreversible fact of life she just can’t get around. When Obama reminds her of it for the 199th time, you can see it vexes her to death. Her campaign has made many mistakes but in many ways she’s a much better candidate than her own campaign. They often give her lines in debates which you can tell are fed, that she can’t deliver with conviction and shouldn’t. For instance the “it’s change you can Xerox” line fell flat and the unfair thing was, she did brilliantly all through the debate and this one bad line was picked up and replayed everywhere.
The Hillary-Obama contest has been the focus of such whitehot attention, it’s almost a dialectic between the nation and them. If you look at it in that way, what do they reveal about America itself?
It reveals something wonderful about America that the fight for the democratic nomination is between a young African-American who literally came out of nowhere and a boomer woman. The American system is so brilliantly flexible and inventive, we can come hobbling out of the Bush years bowed down with the mistakes of neo-con machismo and turn afresh to the prospect of something entirely different.