POLITICS DECEMBER 19, 2007
When somebody tells you the same thing three or four times, it may be something that you're supposed to understand is very important. When somebody tells you the same thing more than 30 times in a row, though, it means you probably already think the opposite is true--and it's a good idea to figure out what exactly the message is, and why it's being hammered into your brain.
Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign's new site, The Hillary I Know, features dozens of short video testimonials to Senator Clinton as a person. (The campaign has been blanketing liberal blogs with ads for the site.) The men and women featured in the interviews are her constituents, her co-workers, her associates from church, her mom, and, on the first page, "very close friend" Jim Blair. If that name rings a bell, perhaps it's because he was the Tyson attorney who helped her turn $1000 into $100,000 in ten months close to three decades ago.
Tasteful piano music that constantly threatens to segue into Phil Collins' "Separate Lives" plays in the background of all the videos, with one significant exception. General Wesley Clark's endorsement of Hillary remains mercifully music-free--if you've got four stars on your uniform, apparently, you get to have gravitas without bathos. "These are tough times," he concludes, "and Hillary Clinton is one tough cookie!" Even in the context of a political pitch, it's a little condescending--male politicians don't tend to get referred to as "cookies."
Still, Clark's video is one of the few that addresses Clinton's toughness. Another one comes from her former law associate Jerry Jones, who declares: "Anybody who thinks they're going to push around Madame President, they've got another thing coming." Try to imagine the same thing being said about any male politician, with "Mr." substituted for "Madame," and it makes no sense. Why? Not only because "push around" recalls an infamous Nixon press conference, but because "another thing coming" is puffed-up rhetoric, a threat with nothing behind it; to say it is to suggest that everyone knows the opposite is true.
Several endorsers talk about how Senator Clinton's interventions in health care-related matters saved them or people close to them; several talk about her strong religious convictions. Nobody talks about her actual policies (although a few mention that she's got policies in mind)--the point is just for "those who know her best," as the site says, to act as character witnesses for her. But you don't generally need character witnesses unless you've been accused of something. What's she being accused of?
Well, look at what Clinton's friends say about her in these video clips--and specifically a few words that come up over and over. Her advisor Maria Echaveste says she's "a funny, warm, genuinely caring person." Clothing designer Martha Dixon calls her "a warm, caring person." Ann Henry, who hosted her wedding reception, opines that she's a "funny, warm, engaging person." Former Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, on the other hand, argues that she's "a very articulate, wonderful, warm mother." And her old Arkansas associate Joe Purvis, shockingly, claims that "she's a very warm person, an excellent mom."
The subtext is clear: Hillary is so terrifyingly warm she could broil you alive. No, wait: it's that her public persona gives off a chill that could freeze steam in midair, and that despite her years in public life, she seems impossible to know--which seems to be even more unacceptable for a woman running for President than for a man. (It didn't do Al Gore a lot of good.) So the way to sway undecided primary voters is apparently to provide anecdotal, one-person-at-a-time evidence that she's interacted with non-robots. Even her mom thinks she's a sweetheart! The name of the site itself gives the game away (at the top of the page, "The" and "I Know" are in a handwriting-style font; "Hillary" is her campaign logo, underscored by a simplified waving flag with three stars and three stripes). The formulation "The ________ I know" is almost always used to contradict an accusation: "The Dr. Evil I know would never try to take over the world!"
Nobody quite comes out and articulates what's implied to follow the thought, "the Hillary I know would never ..." But it isn't until the box at the bottom of the front page that the site's message really gets tangled up. It's an invitation for viewers to submit their own videos: "Tell us about the Hillary that you know." Perhaps this is a call for testimonials from constituents, old friends, former classmates, and other Friends of Hillary whose e-mail addresses the campaign doesn't already have. But, of course, if you're visiting the site, you almost certainly don't know her, except by the reputation The Hillary I Know is trying so hard to alter. And a politician who's had to deal with accusations of cronyism in the past--and is married to a former President--might want to avoid the suggestion that the most important thing about her is who she knows.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Live at the Apollo. He writes about culture and media for The New York Times, Wired, Salon, and elsewhere.
By Douglas Wolk