On the Rez Watching Hillary

A number of folks have written to ask where I’ve gone. For a number of reasons I’ve chosen to stay quiet during the political season. I’ve needed my writing time for my books, and the political season is so seductive that I dare not write the first word or, like a reformed smoker deciding “just one can’t hurt,” I’ll fall off the wagon and find myself blogging every day about the political situation. So I’ve sworn off blogging while the political pot is boiling.

I would like to make one entry, though. It comes after standing on the windblown plaza in front of the Little Wound school in Kyle, South Dakota, watching Hillary make a speech to a small group of maybe 150 folks deep in the folds of the Pine Ridge reservation. I had recently had the good fortune to hear both her and Obama give presentations in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and I was impressed. This was a chance to see her up close (within about 20 feet) and see what she was like in a truly unfamiliar environment. What would she wear to show solidarity with the sweatshirt and blue jeans crowd on the rez? Would she reach down and pet one of the wandering rez dogs? Would she give a booming “fill the hall” oration to a group of several hundred? Would she have some policy initiatives or just “turn the crank” one more time?

Well, the answers were simple: she wore a well-chosen calf length black coat that was either from Christian Dior or Wal-Mart, thus appearing to be in sync with the rez folks whose favorite color is black; she petted no rez dogs; she started her speech slowly and unimpressively, but became animated and passionate when she hit on the theme of health care and started getting some response from the audience. She had me until she started her usual disingenuous thundering about making every vote count, which, sadly and irritatingly, is just an inversion of a whine about why she should be given the nomination. In that moment she became mean-spirited and unpleasant, and I left to go across the street to get a burrito.

Nonetheless, it was a rare experience seeing her in a small crowd on the rez, and it reminded me of everything that has me frustrated, confused, and, ultimately, dissatisfied with her as a candidate.

First of all, as in Grand Forks, she was uncommonly well-prepared. In Grand Forks, Obama gave one of his stem-winders about hope, with a few vague references to North Dakota sprinkled in. He was galvanizing, uplifting, and likable.

Hillary, running late, was like listening to the professor after listening to the preacher. She was whisked in from the airport and gave a solid, nuts and bolts talk that referenced very specific problems in the Dakotas and farm country. She knew her facts and had her policy proposals well prepared. She seldom referred to her notes. In short, she knew her stuff about a place that, frankly, neither she nor Obama cares one damn bit about. But, as in her talk on the rez, she was alive to the issues and had good, solid, helpful, and practical things to say, far more than did Obama.

As I watched her warm the dour Indian crowd on that plaza, I kept saying to myself, as I had in Grand Forks, “Damn! This woman knows her stuff. We’d do well with her at the helm. She could get things done.”

But just as I entertain this thought, another truth reveals itself: she has convictions but no principles. Anyone who is even mildly objective knows that her grand posturing about making every vote count is nothing more than her way of trying to get the party to include the results of the Florida and Michigan primaries. If there is anyone alive who believes that she would be making the same demand had Obama won in those states, I’d like to meet them. The hard truth is that Clinton consistently wraps self-serving ends in high-minded rhetoric about the common good. It is the curse of the Clintons: their policies and hearts are in the right place, but they have no principles about how they will get themselves in a position to effect those policies.

Such behavior is, of course, part of politics. But one should have moral clarity if one wishes to make claims on principle. If you would not hold the same position if it did not benefit you, you should look closely in a mirror before making grand claims about the high minded principles you are asserting.

In the end, it makes Hillary unlikeable, because it sets her high minded claims in stark contrast to her venal self-serving. In some ways it is no different than Hubert Humphrey, but Humphrey was protected by the simple fact that he seemed to genuinely like people. Hillary does not exude the same feeling. She didn’t seem to care about those Lakotas who were listening to her; she cared about their causes.

This is a valid political position. But she would be better served by taking the political stance of Lyndon Johnson, who said, famously, “If you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” She could grab the political process by the balls and move it to some solid, humane positions that have been lost, if not destroyed, during the deranged reign of George W.

But the unnerving self-serving nature of her movement from position to position to gain electoral leverage is unsettling and, ultimately, unappetizing. She moves her arguments wherever she has to in order to continue toward her goals. I’d be a whole lot more comfortable if she simply said, “I want to win because I’m the most experienced candidate with the best ideas, and I’m going to twist this political process every way I can to get into power to turn those ideas into policy. Watch me work.” But she doesn’t. She’s always asserting some high principle of democracy, but she discards a principle as easily as she discards outfits meant to make her look like the audience to whom she is speaking.

It is, indeed, sad that she sought to grab the hour just as Obama came onto the scene. But it happened. Now she has to accept it gracefully, and she is being anything but graceful. She is being bullheaded and unsavory. Her end game makes you want to hold your nose. Yes, she might still eke out a victory — though I doubt it — but at what price? That is the question. For my money, the ends do not justify the means, because the means will taint the end. It is time for her to withdraw with grace and civility. I hope she does so.

I, personally, moved to the Obama camp long ago. My reasons are simple: he puts hope in the eyes and hearts of young people. My generation was deeply wounded by the assassinations, cover-ups, governmental lies, and Viet Nam. Many of us, myself included, became deeply cynical about the political process. We were troubled by our emotional disenfranchisement and hoped not to pass it on to our children. We retreated to the local, or, in many cases, to the personal. The void was filled by a strange breed that took their cues from Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, David Stockman, and others who made the flawed case that seeking the personal good would ultimately benefit the common good. This point of view still holds sway.

These proponents of the self have hijacked the concept of freedom so that “government” has become synonymous with usurpation of rights, when, in fact, they have used government as a tool of self aggrandizement. Dick Cheney and his minions are among the most polished practitioners of this craft. Blessedly, their moral bankruptcy and self-serving manipulations have become too obvious for even the blindest to ignore. But they have been able to do this because those of us from my generation have either abdicated our political responsibility, gone over to the dark side of flat-out self-serving capitalism, or disappeared into a navel gazing that is wrapped in neo-Buddhist or psychologized claims that one must fix the self before one fixes society. In this latter case, the practitioners never quite get around to society, because the self is an ever expanding and self-renewing need.

Those of us who feel caught in this trap look at the Nelson Mandelas, Lech Walesas, and Vaclav Havels, and say, “May one like you come along and do for our country what you have done for yours.” To me, Obama is the closest we have. And I’ll hitch my geriatric wagon to his star if that’s what it takes to get the kids to look skyward with hope.

So I tip my hat to Hillary. She is a good person who has better and more fully thought out policy ideas than Barack. But she missed her moment. The measure is simple: if Obama gets in, he will reach out for Hillary’s expertise. I truly don’t believe Hillary would do the same.

This is a time when a new vision is needed as badly as new policy. Hillary will only be able to offer new policy; Barack might be able to offer them both. May he win, and may he put hope in the eyes of this current generation.

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