The Reasonable Reporter can only wonder what it’s like to be so influential that highly-placed campaign officials make a personal appearance to flog you for the tone of your coverage. The vicarious experience is available thanks to Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who shares an account of a meeting where an angry Clinton spokesman cited a skit from Saturday Night Live to a group of major-league political journalists, as proof that they’ve shown a bias in favor of Barack Obama.
(In the SNL skit, located on YouTube, three worshipful journalists grovel before Obama on the set of a debate. He forgives them their favoritism, as Hillary Clinton looks on, never given the opportunity to speak.)
Milbank relates the incident to make a point about the degree to which the Clinton campaign is grasping for a way to explain failure. One way is to blame the media, where Obama shines brighter as a projection of collective hope than Clinton as a workhorse for better bureaucracy.
But who’s fault is that? When they made Hillary less toxic, her handlers also made her less interesting, in the mass-market sense. Having now filed down all the sharp edges that made Hillary fascinating, her pre-campaign bout of self-improvement might be one of her greatest success stories. But it hasn’t been shared.
Eighteen months ago, Hillary Clinton was one of the most cruelly caricatured people in the country. Talk shows used to drop the sound of cawing crows behind her voice. Whole subsections of joke websites were devoted to her. She’s been analogized to the Wicked Witch of the West; she’s been portrayed as a dominatrix dragging a dog-collared Bill around on a leash; she’s been productized as a doll with a nutcracker between her thighs.
Few of the caricatures are surviving at the mass level, because her campaign persona doesn’t support them. And this is the interesting story. You want change? Female viewers could be glued to the tube watching how Hillary Clinton made the transition from perceived she-monster to smiling, accessible PTA mom with a hairdo that never droops and a flattering executive wardrobe.
This is not about fashion, although fashion isn’t an unimportant element. It’s about a Pygmalion-like transition that must have begun with appearance, but clearly extended to voice coaching, cadence training, and body language adjustments. Who knows what else was involved, or how many people played Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle? The point is that it worked.
This is no small accomplishment, and in fact, it capsulizes the strong-woman struggle the campaign has labored in vain to convey. Many’s the tough, competent woman who’s been told to “pull back” if she wants to succeed. To curb her assertiveness, to smile more, to be more feminine. It’s advice that goes down hard for smart women who grew up with the drumbeat of feminism always in the background. It’s also hard as hell to do. Try changing your natural demeanor for even an hour-long meeting.
American women support a magazine industry that thrives month after month, shouting self-improvement instructions to us while we’re in line at the supermarket. Some of the instructions are about our physical appearance, but many are about changing our relationship to the world. We have also supported the creation of a new television genre – the makeover show. Judging from the way those shows are proliferating, we must love them.
Hillary’s problem is her insistence that voters want meat and potatoes when they are showing a clear preference for something more creamy and less filling. Telling the story of her reinvention might seem risky, but it’s no more so than any other imaging gamble. If Obama can run from event-to-event with Oprah on his arm, and still be taken seriously as a potential commander-in-chief of the American armed forces, then why not?