By Imogen Runswick-Cole
Despite having had one of the most extensive political careers in the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s relationship with the media has always been less focused on her job, and more about her personal life. Commented on by Clinton herself, she once remarked, ‘If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle’.
Aside from some remarkable haircuts, Hillary has made her mark on the US political scene, most notably with her work for women’s rights, and the rights of children and families. However, thanks to the media, the public are quick to focus on Hillary Clinton’s morality, over her political decisions, and instead of picking apart her achievements and legislation, they attack her personality.
The purpose of this piece is to look at how this tendency came about, and why the world is so intent on knowing Hillary, and not Clinton as Secretary of State or Senator for New York. In this piece, I will unpick the boundaries between person and policy to give attention to Clinton’s work and to understand the public fascination with everything but.
The media has approached Hillary with the intent of picking her apart since Bill Clinton was governor in Arkansas. She was once told in an interview, ‘You don’t really fit the image we have created for the governor’s wife in Arkansas.’
The prescribed notion of what Hillary ‘should’ be has chased her throughout her career. And one of the simple facts for this, is that her career rivals her husband’s. The joke ‘two for the price of one’ in regards to her role in Bill Clinton’s presidency is one that acknowledges Hillary’s political and legal competency. Her work with the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, the New World Foundation and the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee as Bill rose from Governor of Arkansas to Democratic Presidential nominee was not forgotten by the media. Throughout Bill’s presidency, those such as Robert Cornwell commented on how ‘Never has a first lady, not even Eleanor Roosevelt, been as powerful… No first lady has ever been sent to Capitol Hill to present so vital a programme, and carried off the feat so dazzlingly.’ (Rupert Cornwell 1994). But her work in health reform and her success in passing the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan, was never enough.
In her 1992 campaign, Hillary attempted to affirm her public image as assertive and outspoken when she stated, ‘I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.’ (Hillary Clinton, 1992)
This snapshot was enough for the media to ask questions: was she a compassionate mother? Did she value the role of women in the home? Was her marriage ‘true love’, or a political partnership? Wrapped up in the issues of the ‘woman’s role’, these questions dogged Hillary and slated her approval ratings as First Lady (they dropped to 42% in 1996). The question of whether or not she was a dutiful wife to the President was thrown around, however her friend Susan Thomases argued, ‘She had more choices than any woman in America, but she chose this and chose to make her life with him.’ (Politico Magazine, The TV Interview that Haunts Hillary Clinton’ 2016) Nevertheless, this remained the start of the sentiment that she was dishonest in love, and therefore untrustworthy.
But if we separate the wife from the politician, the mother from the lawyer, we can assess Hillary in the light of her own political successes and failures. Over the years, Hillary has been appointed Senator of New York, Secretary of State, and the democratic presidential nominee. She has produced and passed eight pieces of legislation to expand access to reproductive health for women, in addition to the pay check fairness act and introducing legislation to restore funding to the UN Population fund. She also became one of the most well-travelled US secretaries of state in Libya.
However, accusations of her ‘untrustworthy’ nature reared their head again 2012 with the Benghazi incident, where security lapses led to the attack on the Benghazi US diplomatic mission and to the death of the US ambassador and three other US citizens.
An eight-hundred-page report found no new evidence of wrongdoing on Clinton’s part, but was critical of ‘government agencies like the Defence Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department — and the officials who led them — for failing to grasp the acute security risks in the Libyan city, and especially for maintaining outposts in Benghazi that they could not protect.’ Despite this, many right-wing news networks, such as FOX, produced the same rhetoric; ‘If Mrs. Clinton was unable to fulfil her security obligations to the federal employees she was legally obligated to protect as secretary of state, how can we trust her with the security of our entire country?’ (Fox News, ‘What the Benghazi attacks taught me about Hillary Clinton’ September 2016)
The consensus seems to be that as soon as Hillary fails, any trustworthy actions, such as her leading of extensive diplomatic efforts in connection to the Arab Spring and Military Intervention, become irrelevant. This was the case when Hillary took professional emails on a private email server. Accused of jeopardising secure information, she was also thought to be hiding something. J. B Comey, director of the FBI investigation, stated that, ‘Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ (J.B Comey July 2016) This caused a resurgence of distrust, and a point of attack for the Republican party in the 2016 election.
Both Hillary’s personal and political life thus played into her public reception during the election. The opposition focused heavily on perceived flaws in Hillary’s character when Donald Trump referred repeatedly to ‘crooked’ Hillary to forward the depiction of her dishonest and unyielding character. In addition to this, there were a specific number of adverts attacking Hillary’s health – one ad from October 2016 read, ‘Hillary Clinton doesn’t have the fortitude, strength or stamina to lead in our world. She failed as Secretary of State’ [author’s emphasis].
The accusations about her health were founded on a series of small events; a persistent cough, which led to the coining of the hashtag #hackinghillary, and the fact she needed a pillow to support her back. The language that suggested Hillary was weak, inefficient, and incapable, undermined her proven capability as a political force. Her various illnesses were that which would inconvenience any sixty-nine-year old. Little focus was given to her engagement with key demographics; LGBTQIA+, REM, and female voters. Key aspects of her opposition were addressed to a perceived personal flaw, only bolstered by actions they disagreed with, not caused by them.
However, the sexist treatment Hillary suffers in the media is not especial to her person. A 2017 Daily Mail article entitled ‘Never mind Brexit who won Legs-it!’ compared politicians Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May’s legs, rather than addressed what political reason for which they met. The media is full of numerous comments on how fashionable female politician’s outfits are; on whether or not they are effectively ‘power dressing’ or if their outfits are too ‘sexy.’ Journalism like this diminishes the careers of female politicians, but also reflects the barriers set by the media that they must battle in order to be taken seriously. As we have seen in this article, professional careers often become overshadowed by their physical and personal attributes. If we cannot separate sexist media portrayal from actual political action, we continue to belittle these women’s abilities.
The distrust and distaste for Hillary’s actions comes from the public representation of her personality. Deprived of the respect she deserves for her political actions and achievements, Hillary deserves to be valued as something more than that of the wife of a President, regardless of whether she chose to stay with Bill, or leave her children at home. I am not saying that she affords the approval of every action she has ever made – she is only human, after all, and all humans make mistakes – but her political achievements should be judged for what they are, and separate from who we believe her to be as a person.
As members of the public, when we consider Hillary Clinton, we should look upon her as a politician. Our perception of her personal morality should not cloud our judgement of her professional actions and choices. Her character, speech, health, and personality, are not her profession, which has many highs and lows of its very own.
First Hillary Photo: https://www.biography.com/people/hillary-clinton-9251306
Fox New Photo: https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2013/02/06/fox-news-speculates-that-hillary-clinton-had-a/192547
Daily Mail Photo: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39416554