I like to think Chappaquiddick was the reason Ted Kennedy never became president. That is, when he ran against President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, one hopes voters concluded it would be unseemly to elect a man who had driven a woman off a bridge and left her to drown while he salvaged his political career, as Senator Kennedy had done eleven years before.
That is one plausible version of history. Another is that timing, the power of incumbency, and Kennedy’s inability to articulate exactly why he wanted to be president doomed his bid.
This is called to mind by recent House and Senate reports on the 2012 terrorist attack of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died. Many analysts predict the reports’ revelations will be devastating to the expected presidential campaign of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps Clinton’s failure to provide adequate security, as had been requested by consular staff, or her subsequent misleading of the American people and the families of the deceased as to the reasons for the attack will be her undoing. Then again, perhaps her fate will hinge on matters less consequential.
The circumstances of Clinton and Kennedy are not directly analogous. While Clinton’s misconduct amounts to insouciance and deception – hardly unique in politics, although hers resulted in dead Americans – Kennedy was personally responsible for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Nevertheless, each instance provides opportunity to consider whether America elects or rejects potential leaders on the basis of form or substance.
Ted Kennedy embodied much of what is wrong with the US Senate, as well as American political dynasties. Both offer sinecures to dyspeptic incompetents, affording them immense position and privilege to behave in ways that would get regular people fired or imprisoned, all the while claiming they are engaged in “public service.”
He lacked the wit and bipartisan appeal of his presidential older brother, Jack, to whom he owed much of his political success. John F. Kennedy was, like Ted, famous for indiscretions with women, but his personal charm, the romance surrounding his too-short life, and the fact that nobody drowned as a result of his shenanigans spared him the same opprobrium.
Similarly, Hillary is a less-affable member of a political clan although, unlike the Kennedy brothers, her scandals are often of a different stripe than those of her family members. Ted Kennedy drank too much at a party, then drove off with a woman not his wife. If one could picture a Clinton doing such a thing, it wouldn’t be Hillary.
There is some commonality in the vicissitudes of Hillary and those of her husband, Bill. In modern political parlance, “Clinton” is often shorthand for dishonesty. There are other aspects to the name, of course, encompassing Bill’s two presidential terms and post White House career, Hillary’s eight years in the Senate and four years at State, but a statement or person characterized as “Clintonian” is understood to be blithe with the truth, at best.
Even so, there is an appreciable difference in the manner of dishonesty of each Clinton. In Bill’s case, to take just one example, when he squints defiantly and insists he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” even those appalled by his conduct can appreciate his reasons.
In Hillary’s case, from claiming she was named for Everest-conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary (notwithstanding that Sir Edmund was still a New Zealand beekeeper at the time of her birth), to saying she landed in Bosnia “under sniper fire,” she tends toward easily exposed falsehoods designed to craft an image. In this respect, she is more like Al Gore than Bill Clinton.
Even when fibbing with practical intent, Hillary does so in a way that is insultingly obvious. In her infamous, “What difference does it make?” congressional testimony on Benghazi, her tack was to shift the debate to two options more favorable to her cause (“Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans?”), as though these were the questions at hand, rather than whether she neglected her duty and lied about it.
Add to this that her policies and pronouncements, true or otherwise, are often uttered through a supercilious, Nurse Ratched rictus, and the “inevitable” Hillary remains a tough sell.
Certain aspects of the 2016 campaign are foreseeable. Reliable quarters will characterize any opposition to Hillary as “anti-woman,” casting her as the personification of female aspiration (in stark contrast to their treatment of Sarah Palin). But the effect of the Benghazi episode on the contest cannot be predicted.
There are myriad excellent reasons why Hillary Clinton should not be president of the United States. If she goes from front-runner to also-ran in 2016, as she did in 2008, will it be because of her failures in office, or her personal shortcomings? The answer, to the extent it can be divined, will say much about the discernment of American voters.
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