“Why Won’t She Behave?”: The Demand for Hillary to Apologize

During the past couple of months, Hillary Clinton has come “out of the woods” to deliver several speeches and give three fascinating interviews in which she said what everyone who has paid any attention to post-election revelations should know: her loss in 2016 was not due to any one factor, but an over-determined pile-on that few candidates could have weathered—and that she almost did overcome, even so.

There were the factors that would have hobbled any Democrat: gerrymandering, voter suppression, the deplorable—yes, deplorable—appeal of Donald Trump to white supremacist and rabid nationalist anger, and the mistaken belief among ordinary working people that the man who lived in a golden penthouse was somehow “on their side.”

And then there were the factors particular to the assault on Clinton. There was the unprecedented weaponizing of social media, both via fake news and the extraordinarily well-timed wiki-dumps, nicely scheduled to appear just when they would do Clinton the most harm (before the DNC election, fueling the anger of Sanders supporters, convinced the election was “rigged”) and Trump the most good (just after the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, which had his numbers cascading downward and many Republicans jumping ship.)

There were the two James Comey announcements—the first stepping way outside of protocol and fairness to accuse Clinton of “carelessness” while sheltering information about the ongoing investigation into Russian interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, the second reminding on-the-fence voters eleven days before the election to keep Clinton’s EMAILS on their minds when entering the voting booth. Both common sense—and now data—confirms that this was a significant, perhaps fatal, blow.

There was the relentless media focus on those emails, which even Andrea Mitchell admitted amounted to “harassment” and which blotted out virtually any attention to Clinton’s policies and proposals, substituting for them a caricature of Clinton as “untrustworthy,” “deceptive,” “lying,” “not playing by the rules.”

You don’t need to be especially rigorous in your criteria for keen cultural and political analysis to conclude that focusing on Clinton herself as the “core problem of Clinton’s campaign” (as Shattered authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes put it) is a thesis that would earn a “D” at best for any high-school essay written about the election. “Way too simplistic” would appear in red ink on such a paper. “What about Russian interference? Comey? The massive (well documented) amount of negative reporting of the candidate?” “And what about the fact that this was our first female nominee for President? Do you think that had no impact on perceptions?

Apparently, though, the complexity that we would rightfully demand from a high-school analysis—and that hopefully will be reflected, ultimately, in future historical re-tellings of the election—is absolutely not permitted when offered by Hillary Clinton herself. What we instead demand from Hillary, it seems, is contrition, pure and simple. “Hillary Clinton’s Blame Game” read the ticker on MSNBC’s First Look the morning after this past Wednesday’s interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg at the Code Conference, in which Clinton delivered a brilliant dissection of the weaponizing of the Internet. Later in the day, Greta Susterin described her as “bitter” and Andrea Mitchell, clearly feeling pain over being forced to admit that Hillary had made some astute points, was quick to point out that nonetheless Clinton was still “not blaming herself.” Watching Mitchell concede that gendered double standards may have been in play—“She feels…um…and I think the data supports it”—was like watching a child being forced to eat her Brussels sprouts. “Feels”? “I think”? Why so circumspect, Andrea? You certainly weren’t when you harassed Clinton over her private server, and continually chastised her—as did much of the mainstream media—for not “apologizing.”

That “she didn’t apologize” soon enough or extravagantly enough is Shattered’s entire diagnosis of why the email “scandal” continued to dog Clinton. “For months, she tried every approach but confession and contrition,” remaining in “denial” about the “fact that she had not told the truth about not sending or receiving classified information” and instead castigating her staff in a “severe, controlled voice” that “crackled” through the telephone line for not “burying this thing.” In fact, Clinton had told the truth, as James Comey himself admitted under questioning by Congressman Matt Cartwright, who produced a copy of the State Department Manual, according to which the emails in question were not properly marked—just as Clinton had been saying. But forget the facts of the matter; just give us that “contrition”! Won’t you bow down and “confess” all—and then perhaps we will forgive you your sins.

Unlikely. After every Clinton interview this past month, and despite her taking responsibility for the mistakes that she had control over, commentators have berated her for “blaming everything except herself.” It’s come at us from both the right, predictably—in a particularly vicious Op Ed for the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan accused Clinton of lacking “remorse of conscience” and described factors such as Russian interference and Comey’s role as “alternative facts”—but also from the supposedly “center”: In a CNN piece, deceptively titled “Hillary is Right! Her Bad Decisions Aren’t the Reason She Lost To Trump,” Jake Novak goes on to say that she lost the election not because of her (“bad, bad”) mistakes—or any of the other reasons she’s given in her interviews–but because she has “the personality of a perpetual loser.” The same day, Steve Kornacki (who apparently isn’t consulting data the way he once was famous for) complaining that she was behaving like a “victim” instead of taking responsibility for her actions.

The “Clinton only has herself to blame” narrative just won’t let go, despite mounting evidence that everything that she cites as contributing to her loss did indeed have a cumulatively fatal impact. I’ve encountered the intransigence of this narrative over and over in interviews about my own book about the 2016 election. There was the Internet interviewer who accompanied the visual of me with the header: “Guest puts Blame on Everything except Clinton Herself.” There was the radio host who spent his half hour with me trying to get me to admit that Clinton had run an incompetent campaign (after the show he confided in me: “I guess you can tell I don’t like her much.” Duh.) And another one who lectured me on his ideas rather than mine, and chastised me in a summary of the interview for “not admitting that she was a weak candidate.”

What is it about Hillary Clinton that makes the media want to bring her to her knees in an orgy of “mea culpa”? Clinton herself has mentioned that misogyny played an undeniable role in the election. In the context of the current wave of Hillary-blaming, I personally would inflect that all-purpose word a bit more precisely. The seemingly relentless desire to extract apology from Clinton isn’t the result of her being a woman, but being a certain kind of woman. The kind that won’t submit just because it’s the route to a woman’s being “likeable.” The kind that is too confident, has too much self-respect, to dissolve into a heap of feminine jelly when what she believes is right is at stake. The kind that is “too damned smart” “for her own good.” The kind that won’t be pushed around by the press (who have resented her both for not being as “available” as they want and for the early “presumption” of her inevitability. ) An uppity woman.

Annoyance with Clinton for being “uppity” has plagued her from the beginning of her public life, when her feminism was caricatured as looking down on housewives and Tammy Wynette, somehow thinking that Clinton had sneered at her personally by referencing her song “Stand By Your Man” in describing what she wasn’t doing in defending Bill, fired back that “I can assure you, in spire of your education, you will find me to be just as bright as yourself.” When Clinton gave a speech as First Lady in 1993, arguing for a “new ethos of individual responsibility and caring,” columnists mocked her as an “aspiring philosopher queen” and derided her for “preaching.” And a continual refrain of this past election season was that “she plays by her own rules.”

Equally telling are the moments when she has won the love of the press and the public. She was slathered with sympathy when she became the betrayed and humiliated wife. And there was the debate before the New Hampshire primary, in which Obama famously told her that she was “likeable enough.” The next morning, in a Portsmouth coffee shop, a woman had asked a depressed-looking Hillary how she managed “to get out the door every day.” Hillary’s eyes filled with tears as she admitted that “It’s not easy” and “very personal for me.” Ah, now that’s the way a woman is supposed to behave! “Clinton has found her groove,” said Richard Cohen of RealClearPolitics, citing Obama’s “cold indifference” and Hillary’s “warm tears.” She went on to win the primary, a win many commentators attributed to those two moments.

Resentment of the woman who refuses to make herself smaller than she is, is not, of course, limited to men. Particularly for women who have worked hard all their lives to play by the gender (and other) rules, it can feel like an invalidation of their own choices when another women breaks those rules and isn’t punished for it.

But, as it was for many, many others of us, it can be an inspiration. Clinton, we should remember, won 94% of the African-American women’s vote. I believe it was not only because of her history and policies fighting for racial justice and the black family, but because of greater appreciation for the woman who stands her ground, speaks truth to power, and won’t be brought down no matter how many obstacles are thrown her way. Her “determination and strength,” said Sharon Reed, a community-college teacher from North Charleston, “has meaning to African American women.” “She has a special place for us because she really gets it,” said Ohio Congressman Marcia Fudge. And African-American women (and men) “got” Clinton, too. That “uppity” stuff has a different resonance for them.

There’s much more at stake here, however, than reactions to Clinton herself. While it may be comforting to both party leaders and media mavens to see Clinton’s loss simply as the result of campaign chaos/candidate arrogance (as Shattered argues) or (as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders would have it) a failure to address the problems of the white, working class male, the model of a “fatal failing” isn’t very helpful in preparing for the future of the democratic party. A far more useful metaphor is that of a perfect storm—precisely the model that Clinton herself has proposed in her recent interviews.

There’s a lot more to be tackled in preventing another disaster for democracy than will be solved by sending a “fresh face” out to be hammered by the GOP. Will we ever see a televised panel discussion of the contribution—to the election and now, post-election–of the gendered expectations and double-standards that humored the naughty boy and revered the wisdom of grandpa but branded the experienced, mature woman as a tool of the establishment? Will we ever discuss why poor people, LGBTQ voters, and black women somehow don’t count when Democrats bemoan the “loss of the base” or failure to address the problems of the “working class”? Will the MSM ever acknowledge the undeniable role it played in creating destructive caricatures of Clinton, eagerly chomping on the red meat thrown out by the GOP while not giving equal time to disclosure of the actual facts? Will we ever start asking why the voters themselves were so vulnerable to those caricatures? No—not as long as we recycle them in the narrative of Clinton’s “blame” and attempt to wash all other responsibility away in the “warm tears” of her contrition.

This blog also appears in Medium.

Susan Bordo is the author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton . She assures readers that the title refers to the media and political forces that cost Hillary the election. Hillary Clinton herself: far from destroyed.