Hillary Clinton: Living History
The second of three columns on books by presidential candidates.
In a move seemingly calculated to tease and titillate Right-wing conspiracy theorists around the globe, Hillary Clinton wrote a senior honor's thesis at Wellesley on Saul Alinsky and then later had it sealed from the public during the eight years of her husband's presidency. The thesis has taken on legendary status since then. Peggy Noonan called it "the Rosetta Stone of Hillary studies."
On the face of it, such hysteria appears warranted. Saul Alinsky was a radical's radical. He spent much of his life doing, and theorizing about, grassroots political organizing. He started in the working-class neighborhoods of Chicago but he dreamed of a national worker's movement with no less than revolutionary aspirations. At the same time, he was obsessed with power: how to get it, how to wield it, and how to manipulate one's political enemies in the ongoing struggle. He was looking, in short, for radical revolutionary change and he thought you had to be wily and Machiavellian to achieve it. This also happens to be, in short, the right-wing fantasy of what Hillary has been up to since day one. "Communism in a Pink Pant Suit" as she was once described.
Like all conspiracy theories, the Alinsky Thesis Affair also carries with it the allure of genuine excitement, the sense of a real story hidden beneath the humdrum of day-to-day matters. I myself discovered Hillary's Alinsky connection in slogging through more than 500 pages of her own day-to-day affairs. This slog has been given a title: Living History . And it was in the acknowledgments at the very back of the book that I noticed the Alinsky reference (though I later realized that she also references Alinsky in her "Class of '69" chapter at the beginning of the book). She writes in the acknowledgments about Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He asked her if he could read the thesis shortly before his death (the one, presumably, being no cause of the other) and gave it back to her with an 'A' grade. I'm not sure what this says about Moynihan, but for the conspiracy theorists it's another clue in the hidden history of the Left and Hillary's secret Socialism.
I suspect, though, that the conspiracy works the other way around. The Alinsky thesis does not reveal the "real story" behind the narrative of Living History . Instead, the monotonous tale told in Living History reveals what was really going on between Mrs. Clinton and Alinsky. She writes in Living History , "I agreed with some of Alinsky's ideas, particularly the value of empowering people to help themselves. But we had a fundamental disagreement. He believed you could change the system only from the outside. I didn't." Read from a conspiratorial mindset there is, of course, a tantalizing opening here. Hillary could be admitting that she is, in essence, more Machiavellian than even Alinsky. It is the old Trojan Horse approach. Destroy the enemy from within.
But it doesn't hold up. The virtue of Living History is, if nothing else, to convince even the most stubborn paranoiac that Hillary Clinton really is interested in exactly the things she says she has been interested in. That isn't to say she is above political scheming. She was, after all, able to sit in a room with Dick Morris, more than once. But the Alinsky model for political action is to take small issues and create conflicts that can be leveraged into larger and larger political battles. In the end, it leads to radical change, systemic revolutionary change. Hillary Clinton is the living opposite of that idea. She is interested in healthcare because she is interested in healthcare. She is interested in children's issues because she is interested in children's issues. Believe it. It isn't just pragmatism. I'm tempted to say it isn't pragmatism at all. It is something different. I'm perfectly prepared, for instance, to accept William James' definition of pragmatism as a way of settling disputes in theoretical matters by focusing on the concrete implications of words and ideas. James called this their "cash value."
But in Hillary's book there are no theoretical disputes. There are no methodological claims. There aren't any ideas (in the fancier sense of the term) at all. There are simply facts, facts as she saw them. That's how things are presented and that's the only way they are presented. I guess we could say that she is a kind of extreme empiricist. Living History is exactly that for Hillary Clinton: history as a series of events that a person lives through. She makes decisions and she has positions but, in the end, the political decisions are no different in kind and status than the decisions about anything else during a day's work. Indeed, one of the odd experiences in reading Living History is the utter lack of transitions. Here's an example:
In Nepal, a plastic sheet for a woman in labor to lie on, soap for the midwife to clean her hands and utensils, string to tie off the umbilical cord and a clean razor blade to cut it can make the difference between life and death to a mother and her newborn.
On a stopover in the Royal Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal, Chelsea and I rode an elephant.
Now it's true, of course, that this is partly the result of careless writing. But I think it is a sign of something else, a kind of facts-speaking-for-themselves extremism that is at the core both of what is admirable and disappointing about the woman. There is nothing to object to, per se, in Living History , and many of the actions and attitudes described therein are to be lauded. But one never escapes, either, the disconcerting sense that every experience is just like every other experience for Hillary. The funny thing is that this is the opposite of the conspiratorial mindset. For the conspirator, small things matter too much. In rejecting Alinsky, Hillary Clinton started down a path in which she stopped making distinctions between big and small things altogether. It's kind of like the dedication to Living History , which starts out thanking her parents and her husband and her daughter, and ends up throwing in "all the good souls around the world whose inspiration, prayers, support, and love blessed my heart and sustained me in the years of living history." You're welcome. • 27 February 2008
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer , Harper’s , and The Virginia Quarterly Review . Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily . Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at email@example.com .