She didn’t mean an uproar to provoke
Saying when they left the White House they were broke.
And now though multi-millions they possess
She tells us they’re not wealthy nonetheless.
The far right in America has been obsessed with Hillary Clinton ever since her husband first aimed at the White House. They kept up a drumfire of criticism accusing her of dishonesty over the failed Whitewater investment. Subsequently, as Ken Auletta tells us in the The Yorker (“The Hillary Show”, June 2, 2014), delusional bloggers have accused her of being an out-of wedlock mother (so Bill is not Chelses’s father); and even a Lady MacBeth (a conspiracy theory about the death of Vincent Foster, one of her former law firm partners). More recently Karl Rove, following up assertions by Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report that she is seriously ill; reported that she had been hospitalized for thirty days after a fall in 2012 that led to a blood clot; she was actually in the hospital for three days.
Auletta suggests that the ferocity of what she once described as “the vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband and herself contributed to the fact that “Hillary has never quite overcome her guardedness toward the political press.” But now, as she engages in a book tour widely assumed to be a prelude to her run for the presidency in 2016, she has no alternative but to invite probing questions. And this process has made her the target ofo a new line of attack which is potentially more harmful politically than all the previous muck-raking.
First she complained that when the Clintons left the White House they were “dead broke.” When the response to this sad prospect was more risible than sympathetic she compounded the error, telling a questioner that, even though she and Bill had indeed moved on from prospective poverty to the accumulation of many million dollars, they were not really “well-off”. Whatever they had they made “through dint of hard work.” Moreover, just like most people, they still paid ordinary income tax.
Each of these protestations set off gusts of laughter by her questioners. Cartoonists found it all irresistible. Mike Luckovich shows her telling a resident of a homeless shelter: “Get off my cot.” Steve Breen counters her statement “”I’m not truly well-off” with Joe Sixpack’s: “Give me a Break.” Koterba has the Clintons panhandling outside the White House, Bill’s sign says “Will Write Book For Massive Advance.” Hilary’s says: Will Speak For Caviar (Plus Lucrative Fee)” And late night host Conan O’Brien brought back the Clinton sex theme: “Things were so bad, the two of them needed to share a bedroom.”
But no-one was more gleeful than the conservative columnists. They were still raw from the outpouring of jokes and cartoons mocking Mitt Romney for his comment apparently writing off 47% of Americans – the ultimate in tone-deafness, according to the liberals. Now a prospective Democratic candidate was making a fool of herself on the same issue.
In the conservative online Hot Air, Ana Marie Cox noted that Americans don’t hate the rich, but that while “simply being rich isn’t insulting, pretending you aren’t is.” And in the conservative satirical website worldswisestowl Jim Berlin evoked an image of Hillary and Bill “living under a bridge somewhere in D.C., warming themselves over a newspaper campfire, rocking a hungry and weeping Chelsea to sleep with mournful lullabies. ‘Don’t you worry, child’ Hillary coos, daddy’s gonna buy an old Chevy tomorrow and go lookin’ for work.’ They slept then, these blue collar patriots, huddled in love beneath a single blanket stolen from the Lincoln bedroom.” Hot Air also noted that Chelsea would never have to sleep under a bridge, since she “was paid $600,000 a year by NBC for some reason” – the reason seemingly unrelated to her minimal product to the network. (The salary has now been translated to a month-to-month status subject to cancellation if her mother runs for the Presidency.)
There was little liberals could say in Hillary’s defense. Alec MacGillis in the New Republic found her remarks offensive, including her plea that they had had to make a lot of money to pay off debts, legal fees, taxes, and family obligations, and “to get us houses.” “Yes, she said, that’s ‘houses’, plural, and yes, she said it twice.” Robert Reich on his web page allowed that the Clintons had made their money legally and, like most ex-Presidents and First Ladies, from royalties and lecture fees. “The problem is that ”all that income from big corporations and Wall Street put them on the side of the privileged and powerful rather than on the side of ordinary Americans.” And that is crucially important politically, because the Democrats’ central issue in the coming elections will be the remarkable widening of the income and wealth gap between the very rich and the rest. And even though the Clintons are still not among the growing number of American billionaires, they are rich enough to make it incumbent on them – especially Hillary – not to play down the fact that that they are, indeed, among the very “well-off.”
Jon Stewart, who had previously taken aim at some of the brutal slanders against her, was now impelled to deride Hillary’s comments about her wealth. He set up a “poor-off” between Hillary and Joe Biden, who had claimed he doesn’t own any stocks and, though Vice-President, is “the poorest man in Congress.” Stewart threw cold water on Biden’s claims to poverty; but Clinton’s reference to having to take out mortgages for”houses”, and the fact that, while both had incomes from books, Biden’s royalties were less than $201, clearly gave the “poor-off” victory to Biden.
Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy demonstrated that personal wealth is not a bar to a Democrat’s presidential ambitions. Kennedy, in fact, was comfortable enough to joke about it: “Just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: Don’t buy a single vote more than necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” However, like FDR he was born rich. The Clintons were not. Certainly Hillary will not want to take on the aura of the nouveau riche, a class that has been the butt of satirists sincc ancient Greece for their awkward efforts to ape the manners of the established rich while scorning those behind them in the social scale. On the contrary she is in denial about here wealth.
If Hillary wants to be President she will have to find a way of being less ambivalent about her wealth, yet demonstrate convincingly her concern for the plight of the many in America who, as Robert Reich suggests, feel they are on “a downward economic escalator.” And no matter how difficult the task of responding day after day to a barrage of often hostile questions, she must at all costs avoid any further responses that reduce her questioners to disbelieving laughter.