By Victor Davis Hanson
Hillary and Bill Clinton were a proud, progressive power couple who came into big-time state politics on promises of promoting “fairness” and “equality.” It did not matter much that very little in their previous personal lives had matched such elevated rhetoric with concrete action. And so the ironies and tragedies that followed were not altogether unexpected.
The theme that united the subsequent tawdry reports about the Clinton cattle futures scam and Whitewater was an overweening lust for money. The Clintons seemed to feel entitled, in the sense that their education, sophistication, and taste deserved the sort of peace of mind, enjoyment, and security that only comfortable circumstances could provide, and which was taken for granted among the rich progressive environments in which the Clintons increasingly navigated. They had arrived and they “deserved” it.
In 2001, we are supposed to believe, the Clintons left office “dead broke” as the result of their sacrifices as first family. In Hillary’s words, they were scarcely able to afford the various mortgages on their homes with which they had been encumbered (“we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses”).
Given an ever greater need for cash beyond a mere government pension, given that from 2001 onward they had something to sell beyond Bill as a “wise-man” president emeritus (i.e., Hillary’s New York Senate career as a springboard to a second Clinton presidency), and given their innate characters (or perhaps their hamartiai), the next years were predictable. After 2001, the long arc of their moral universe bent toward personal aggrandizement through the Clinton Foundation, pay-for-play State Department favors, and $10,000-20,000-a minute rah-rah speeches to rich people eager to leverage the next episode of Clinton influence peddling.
Such smart, capable, self-assured, and haughty people are the stuff of Greek tragedy, and its warnings about the descent from hubris (overweening arrogance) to atê (unhinged madness) to nemesis (divine retribution and downfall). At the denouement of most tragedies, the figures who survive the wrath of the gods—and who are not themselves beheaded or slain by their own hands—are sometimes enlightened by their destruction, rediscover some purpose, acquire an appreciation of pathei mathos (wisdom through pain) and find peaceful redemption.
People like the Clintons—or for that matter Euripides’s characters such as Jason (Medea) or King Pentheus (Bacchae)—are oblivious to the ultimate and preordained trajectories of their fates. Hillary Clinton has ended up a two-time failed presidential candidate, stained with money grubbing scandals and chronic deceit, who blew huge leads in 2008 and 2016, despite being the beneficiary of unprecedented cash, campaign consultants, and party endorsements. She has sacrificed her health, her reputation, and her very life to do everything politically right, which was not only ethically wrong but also proved, in good Athenian tragic fashion, politically disastrous. (Tragic figures, remember, do anything and everything they can to pursue an ambitious sense of self—and thereby only ensure that they can never obtain it.)
A gaunt Dorian Gray-like Bill Clinton in his twilight is indeed tragic. He may have the sins of the flesh written all over his face, but he had also convinced himself at one point in his life that his undeniable political cunning, education, and folksy charm could be put to use for noble purposes beyond the tawdry sex, chronic lying, and narcissism that were his brands. But after the scandals, the impeachment, the pardons, the Foundation miasma, the quid pro quo speaking fees, the Lolita Express, the disastrous campaign interventions for Hillary from 2008 to the tarmac scene with Loretta Lynch, the petty rivalries and double-dealing, optics reflect that there is nothing much left of a once dynamic president but an empty shell.
At the denouement of most tragedies. the figures who survive the wrath of the gods—and who are not themselves beheaded or slain by their own hands—are sometimes enlightened by their destruction, rediscover some purpose, acquire an appreciation of pathei mathos (wisdom through pain) and find peaceful redemption. And perhaps Bill and Hillary, after the wreckage of 2016, might still earn pity and end up like an elderly but sympathetic Oedipus at Colonus.
The departing Obamas should study and learn from the Clinton dual tragedies.
So far they have already shared uncanny affinities to the early- and mid-careers of Bill and Hillary. Like the Clintons, the Obamas were of the middle-class, Ivy-League trained lawyers, and committed progressives. Similarly, they returned to their Midwest homes to establish local political identities, in order eventually to springboard back to the always favored eastern coastal corridor of culture and power.
Like the Clintons, the Obamas had a unique message that reverberated well beyond progressives: the first African-American president trumped perhaps even the selling-point of the first woman president. Both couples were hip, and helped to redefine the new Democratic Party as the natural home of Wall Street billionaires, Silicon Valley masters of the universe, and celebrity activists. Goldman Sachs and rap music are now complementary, in the manner ostentatious golf gear is now iconic of youthful vigor and not of suburban apartheid.
Like the Clintons, the Obamas felt that their education and progressive caring had unfairly denied them just compensation (cf. Michelle’s chronic “raise the bar” lamentations, and her “downright mean” country, “never been proud” unhappiness). And like the Clintons, their marriage seemed at times as much the fruit of professional legal training, shared ambitions and liberal politics as it is of a bond forged in love and devotion.
Bill always enjoyed good times and was a gifted crammer, in the way that Barack once confessed that he was prone to laziness (“I think there is a laziness in me”). His body man Reggie Love claimed that Obama had a propensity for killing time, such as playing cards on the day of the bin Laden raid.
In contrast, Hillary and Michelle supposedly goaded their husbands onward. Both were sometimes hammered in the press for their dourness, temper tantrums, tough talk, and even more left-wing agendas, and who were protective of their daughters in the sense that they might someday rightfully follow the political pathways of their fathers.
Such angst (as in the case of the Clintons) occasionally led the pre-presidential Obamas to get mixed up with their own petite versions of impropriety (the opportunistic nexus between Michelle’s high-salaried raises and Barack’s steady political advancement) or disreputable Jim McDougal-like hangers-on, such as the felonious low-income housing lord and Obama campaign fundraiser Tony Rezko and his unreported discounted sale to the Obamas of an expanded backyard.
Like the Clintons, the Obamas survived scandals in office that might have imploded doctrinaire conservatives (Fast and Furious, the surveillance of the Associated Press journalists and Fox News’s James Rosen, Benghazi, the NSA taps, the Clinton email fiasco, the politicization of the IRS, the likely unmasking of surveilled political opponents, and assorted tawdry incidents at the General Services Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Secret Service.)
Now, like the Clintons, the Obamas are leaving the presidency at a similarly young age (Bill was not yet 55 when he left office, Barack is 55) and eager to monetize years of public service and apparent progressive selflessness. The Obamas certainly enjoy the same press adulation and popularity that met the Clintons in 2001.
They should now pause and read Euripides.
One of the first things Barack Obama did after leaving office was to jet off to Tahiti to enjoy a month of downtime (for the majority of the sojourn reportedly alone) with sybarite California multimillionaires and celebrities on yachts while staying in multi-thousand-dollar-a-night paradisiac digs. Bill Clinton long ago wrote the primer on all that.
The Obamas—unlike the Carters, the Reagans, and the Bushes—have decided to stay in the Washington-New York corridor. They have bought a Clinton-like mansion and plan to remain directly engaged in domestic politics, by focusing opposition against their successors. The Clintons might remind them that being a hooked political junkie is not as easy or as post-presidential as easing into the role of a senior statesman.
Like the Clintons, the Obamas have signed his-and-hers book deals, reportedly for somewhere between $60 and $65 million, topping the Bill and Hillary volumes that in aggregate won advances of little more than half that sum.
We should assume that, like the Clinton tomes, the Obamas will rely heavily on ghostwriters—and aside from some score-settling and self-congratulation, will publish mostly uncontroversial, “inspirational” Clinton-like accounts of their White House tribulations and their speaking truth to the power of the Neanderthal right.
Like the Clintons, the Obamas have discovered that a presidential couple must have a foundation. And so “The Obama Foundation” now follows in the footsteps of the Clinton Foundation, boasting of its noble ambitions (“we will have projects all over the city, the country, and the world”) in the universal fashion of the once heralded Clinton Global Initiative.
Unlike presidential foundations other than the Clintons’, its potential earnings will be enhanced by the fact that both Obamas are going to stay active in national politics, and that Michelle has been mentioned as both a possible senate candidate (think Hillary in New York) and a national officer seeker (think Hillary in 2008 and 2016). Again, the paradigm may be Clintonian—leveraging big money to the foundation that in the Clinton calculus could serve as a convenient prop to keep otherwise unemployable surrogates paid until the next campaign, and to provide the sort of free private jet travel to which the Obamas now feel entitled.
Of course, central to the Clinton blueprint was big-money from Wall Street speaking gigs. Obama just earned $400,000 for a speech, and, reportedly, has signed on for more. Like the Clintons, he will square the circle that once upon a time, as a progressive in good standing, he fired lots of anti-Wall-Street/free market bullets (“now is not the time for profits”, “at some point you’ve made enough money” [$60 million?], or “you didn’t build that”).
Thus Obama can facilitate that paradox with the proven Clinton wink-and-nod formula (a cynical Wall Street knows that it has prospered as never before under progressives like Obama, that liberal anti-wealthy invective is as scripted as it is irrelevant, and that in the future an Obama may well have political clout worth investing in).
The Obamas, as progressives, are exempt from the hypocrisies of both decrying and leveraging wealth. And they know that the Democratic Party has used hip and cool as cover for rich and privileged. Indeed, they are already half-way along the Clinton post-presidential arc.
Still, they should pause, reflect, and remember where that bend of the Clinton moral universe ultimately ends up.