Getting to Know Her, Getting to Know All about Her

The other day Jaime Fuller and I wrote about RNC chair Reince Priebus's complaints about the fact that NBC is planning to produce a miniseries on the life of one Hillary Rodham Clinton, who could well be a candidate for president in 2016. The objection isn't completely without merit, though there's no way to know yet whether the miniseries (if it ever gets made) will paint Clinton as a hero, a villain, or something in between. But would it really matter? Is a miniseries likely to change how we think of someone who has been a national figure (and a divisive one at that) for over two decades now? My guess is that, like most movies and TV shows about politics, it'll end up being hackneyed and unenlightening. But this does touch on a more interesting question about how our perceptions of political figures evolve over time and what does and doesn't have the power to alter them. Ed Kilgore has some thoughtful words on this:

When HRC ran for president in 2008, I thought her biggest problem was that she had become—through no fault of her own—a pop culture icon as much as a politician. Everybody "knew" her, or though they "knew" her, and had formed impressions of her, positive and negative, that were very difficult to change. Through her Senate tenure, her 2008 campaign, and her subsequent service as Secretary of State, however, she managed to do something very difficult for someone in her position: reboot, or at least refine, her public image. She became a lot more than Bill Clinton's First Lady, embattled symbol of all sorts of controversies involving marriage, morality and ideology.

A miniseries is likely to bring back that culture-war-and-tabloid optic of HRC the brave martyr or the sinister harridan, the ultimate marital survivor or Red Queen. Maybe that would be good for a presidential campaign—depending on how the writers and directors handle her "story"—but I wouldn't just assume that to be the case. It is pretty clear she doesn't really need the attention. So perhaps she should consider making it known she's not any crazier about the project than is Priebus.

I certainly agree with Ed that a miniseries, even one that treats her gently, wouldn't necessarily help her. But I also think that Clinton being reduced to "the brave martyr or the sinister harridan" is all but inevitable if she becomes the Democratic nominee for president. Like it or not, she inspires from some corners of the right a degree of sexist venom and pure, boiling hatred that almost no one else can match.

Having said that, no matter how well we think we know her, our views of Clinton are still subject to change. In 2008 we would have thought we couldn't think differently about her, but opinions about Clinton certainly moved around as the campaign went on. It wasn't so much that people changed their opinion of her in the sense of liking her more or less, it was more that their opinion of her got placed within a context that grew more and more complex as time went on. For instance, some middle-aged women saw in the dynamic between her and Barack Obama a repeat of scenarios that had played out in their own professional lives, where their diligent work seemed to count for less than the charisma of the young hotshot man who breezed into the office and elbowed them aside. That was a new way of thinking about her, and it wouldn't have made sense just a few years before.

It's true that few people are going to undergo some kind of radical transformation in their beliefs about as familiar a figure as Clinton, but a new campaign can bring a nuance and depth to the relationship it didn't previously have. It's kind of like going travelling with a friend whom you had only spent time with in certain places around your home town; seeing them in new situations gives you a more complex picture of them. A new campaign will have controversies and conflicts we can't yet foresee, and as Clinton reacts to them she'll become an even more complicated figure in our minds.

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