By Stanley Fish
I have been thinking about writing this column for some time, but I have hesitated because of a fear that it would advance the agenda that is its target. That is the agenda of Hillary Clinton-hating.
Its existence is hardly news it is routinely referred to by commentators on the present campaign and it has been documented in essays and books but the details of it can still startle when you encounter them up close. In the January issue of GQ, Jason Horowitz described the world of Hillary haters, many of whom he has interviewed. Horowitz finds that the hostile characterizations of Clinton do not add up to a coherent account of her hatefulness. She is vilified for being a feminist and for not being one, for being an extreme leftist and for being a "warmongering hawk," for being godless and for being "frighteningly fundamentalist," for being the victim of her husband's peccadilloes and for enabling them. "She is," Horowitz concludes, "an empty vessel into which [her detractors] can pour everything they detest." (In this she is the counterpart of George W. Bush, who serves much the same function for many liberals.)
This is not to say that there are no rational, well-considered reasons for opposing Clinton's candidacy. You may dislike her policies (which she has not been reluctant to explain in great detail). You may not be able to get past her vote to authorize the Iraq war. You may think her personality unsuited to the tasks of inspiring and uniting the American people. You may believe that if this is truly a change election, she is not the one to bring about real change.
But the people and groups Horowitz surveys have brought criticism of Clinton to what sportswriters call "the next level," in this case to the level of personal vituperation unconnected to, and often unconcerned with, the facts. These people are obsessed with things like her hair styles, the "strangeness" of her eyes "Analysis of Clinton's eyes is a favorite motif among her most rabid adversaries" and they retail and recycle items from what Horowitz calls "The Crazy Files": she's Osama bin Laden's candidate; she kills cats; she's a witch (this is not meant metaphorically).
But this list, however loony-tunes it may be, does not begin to touch the craziness of the hardcore members of this cult. Back in November, I wrote a column on Clinton's response to a question about giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. My reward was to pick up an e-mail pal who has to date sent me 24 lengthy documents culled from what he calls his "Hillary File." If you take that file on faith, Hillary Clinton is a murderer, a burglar, a destroyer of property, a blackmailer, a psychological rapist, a white-collar criminal, an adulteress, a blasphemer, a liar, the proprietor of a secret police, a predatory lender, a misogynist, a witness tamperer, a street criminal, a criminal intimidator, a harasser and a sociopath. These accusations are "supported" by innuendo, tortured logic, strained conclusions and photographs that are declared to tell their own story, but don't.
Compared to this, the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry was a model of objectivity. When the heading of a section of the "Hillary File" reads "Have the Clintons ever murdered anyone?" and it turns out to be a rhetorical question like "Is the Pope Catholic?" you know that you've entered cuckooland.
Horowitz warns that as the campaign heats up, this "type of discourse will likely not stay on the fringes for long," and he predicts that some of it will be made use of by Republican operatives. But he is behind the curve, for the spirit informing it has already made its way into mainstream media. Respected political commentators devote precious network time to deep analyses of her laugh. Everyone blames her for what her husband does or for what he doesn't do. (This is what the compound "Billary" is all about.) If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she's just play-acting. If she cries, she's faking. If she doesn't, she's too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she's dowdy. If she doesn't, she's inappropriately provocative.
None of those who say and write these things is an official Hillary Clinton-hater (some profess to like and admire her), but they are surely doing the group's work.
One almost prefers an up-front hater (although he tells Horowitz that he doesn't like the word) like Dick Morris, who writes in a recent New York Post op-ed of the Clintons' "reprehensible politics of personal destruction" (does he think he's throwing bouquets?), and accuses them of invading the privacy of opponents, of blackmailing and threatening women, and of "whatever slimy tactics they felt they needed." Morris calls Harold Ickes, a Clinton aide, a "hit man" for the president, and he calls the president "Hillary's hit man."
This is exactly the language of the most vicious anti-Hillary Web sites, and here it is baptized by its appearance in a major newspaper.
Horowitz observes that there is an "inexhaustible fertile market of Clinton hostility," but that "the search for a unifying theory of what drives Hillary's most fanatical opponents is a futile one." The reason is that nothing drives it; it is that most sought-after thing, a self-replenishing, perpetual-energy machine.
The closest analogy is to anti-Semitism. But before you hit the comment button, I don't mean that the two are alike either in their significance or in the damage they do. It's just that they both feed on air and flourish independently of anything external to their obsessions. Anti-Semitism doesn't need Jews and anti-Hillaryism doesn't need Hillary, except as a figment of its collective imagination. However this campaign turns out, Hillary-hating, like rock 'n' roll, is here to stay.
About Stanley Fish - Think Again
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books. His new book on higher education, "Save the World On Your Own Time," will be published in 2008.