Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hillary Rodham Chameleon

In 1983 Woody Allen released the mock documentary “Zelig,” the story of Leonard Zelig, a walking medical phenomenon with the uncanny ability to transform his physical and psychological characteristics to those of the people around him. What at first seems like a gimmick in the film, which stars Allen as this chameleon man of mirrors, takes on a real and nearly tragic organicity as Zelig assumes identity after identity, so suddenly, so often and so totally, over time, that one suspects he’s lost his grasp on the core identity that makes him … Leonard Zelig.

Politics is transformational business; the candidate fights to change or influence voters’ perception of him or her; if the candidate does this right, the voters change the candidate’s perception of himself. Or herself.

We’ve seen this a lot in this crowded campaign year. A mob of candidates has thinned out to less than a handful, practically speaking, and the process of fine tuning themselves to the public taste has also gotten more distilled. We can see clearly now how it’s done. And to this point in the campaign, none has done it more often than Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Her campaign, gamely fighting for oxygen against Sen. Barack Obama in the runup to the March 4 primaries in Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island, has offered the public a number of candidate sub-identities. With 11 straight election defeats in the primary season, Clinton is thought to be near a tipping point for the very life of the campaign. Husband Bill Clinton even said so.

So the latest rebranding of Hillary has started in Ohio. David Postman, Seattle Times political reporter, was on the road there on Feb. 23:

“Voters in Ohio started to see a new TV ad from Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday, one her supporters say shows the real Clinton.

“That’d be the emotional, religious and humble Clinton from the final moments of her debate last week with Barack Obama, not the Clinton full of facts, figures and policies she recites with a dose of braggadocio.

“The 60 seconds of political vérité — an edited clip from the debate — presents voters with the third real candidate Clinton since the New Year.”

Has it been only three? We’d swear there’ve been more. There’s Emo Hillary, who stopped just short of a mini-meltdown in Portsmouth, N.H. Then Wonk Hillary (a favorite) went on the offensive with a command of minutiae.

Strunk & White Hillary weighed in with pronouncements on plagiarism. Kum Ba Yah Hillary made nice with Obama in last week’s one-on-one debate. Angry Hillary shouted on Saturday, waving Obama campaign literature and crying “Shame, shame!” Then Shakespeare Hillary arrived Monday with sarcasm (the last resource of the desperate), describing Obama as political Pollyanna, her body language sweeping and theatrical, arms open in mock supplication, playing to the cheap seats in the Globe Theater.

Leonard Zelig never changed so fast.

◊ ◊ ◊

It would be laughable if it weren’t true, or seen as true by Clinton’s supporters and those who might be. They ask themselves when she’ll find the right strategy, when the tumblers in the lock will turn. They wonder which Hillary they’ll see today.

They wonder because more and more, it appears, there’s no baseline to Hillary Clinton’s emotional rhythms, no defining persona for voters to get consistently comfortable with. For many voters, the tweaks and morphs that the campaign no doubt first thought were a display of versatility have come to reflect insincerity and calculation.

Hillary Clinton’s talent for triangulation — for seeking the spongy, comfortable, navigable middle amid less-politically palatable extremes — may have finally found its most logical expression, in Hillary Clinton herself. Maybe when you do that long enough and often enough, sooner or later you can’t express who You are anymore.

By now, after 11 straight contests, voters have sent the message that they want more than just someone to agree with, they want someone to believe in — the direct reflection of the inspirational desert the country’s wandered in for almost eight years.

This is Clinton’s dilemma, and there’s a test tonight in Cleveland, at the next one-on-one debate, what some are calling her last chance. That’s the opportunity not for another guise, but to tap into a necessary candor about Clinton the woman, the candidate, the American.

The politician, we already know her. This time, it’s not about expressing a reason for being. It’s about expressing a reason for being Hillary.
Image credits: Clinton: Agence France-Presse. Poster and still image ©1983 Orion/Warner Bros.


  1. Nice work! Love your post with the emphasis on "chameleon". This has been one red hot campaign trail. I don't appreciate how the campaign trail has turned into a celebrity festival. And Obama comparing his wife to Jackie O -- really.

    I see you have been blogging for a long time I should be asking you for pointers. I am still a new kid around here.

    I appreciate the way your blog is organized, and not plastered with a bunch of meaningless ads.

  2. The Love Collective2/27/2008 4:14 AM

    I like this! Blogroll, please? Me do the same.



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