Foon Rhee

A conflicted history with Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton addresses the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center in Chicago.
Hillary Clinton addresses the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center in Chicago. Philadelphia Inquirer file

I remember the summer of 1996 mostly for two things – Hillary Clinton and the “Macarena.”

For me, the two mashed up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That was where the short-lived dance craze, done badly by party delegates during breaks, was seared into my consciousness, unfortunately.

It was also the first time I saw Clinton in person. I had always thought she was Bill’s better half – smarter, more disciplined and without his human failings. Sitting about 20 feet behind her in the press section I heard the then-first lady deliver the best speech of the convention. Right then and there, I knew she would run for president one day.

Indeed she was pursuing the Democratic nomination the next time I met her, in late 2007. By then, she was a U.S. senator from New York. Leading up to the New Hampshire primary, she was seeking The Boston Globe’s endorsement (which went to Barack Obama).

At a candidate debate a few weeks earlier, the moderator – the late, great Tim Russert – asked her about torturing terrorists to stop a bomb from going off. When she said she wouldn’t because it violated American values, he pointed out her husband took a different position. “Well, I’ll talk to him later,” she said with a slight grin.

So when it was my turn to ask a question at the endorsement interview, I followed up: Had she actually talked to Bill Clinton about torture? Silly me, I hoped for a small scoop or at least a funny story.

Evasive in her answer, she didn’t give up anything, not even a smile. I was sorely disappointed.

A sense of humor, especially being able to laugh at one’s self, is an important quality for politicians. It makes them seem more normal. A president Hillary Clinton trying to get big laughs at the White House correspondents’ dinner could be cringe-worthy. She’s much better at aggrieved outrage and steely resolve.

Now, after joining Obama’s team of rivals as secretary of state and biding her time during Obama’s 2012 re-election, she’s running for president again.

And again I’m disappointed. Like many voters, I have very conflicted feelings about Hillary – and the conflict is getting deeper.

There’s much to admire about her. I generally agree with her on many issues, though sometimes her compassion for the working class doesn’t seem all that genuine. It’s time our nation had a female president, and she’s certainly the most qualified. It’s not too much of a stretch to say she’s been preparing for this her whole life.

I’m even willing to set aside the whole political dynasty problem (the 2012 election was the first since 1984 in which neither a Clinton nor a Bush was running).

But it’s hard to look past the private email controversy, the Clinton Foundation foreign donation scandal, her tightly controlled campaign and her general sense of entitlement. She already seems to be in a defensive mode, trying to avoid any big mistakes while running out the clock.

Supporting Clinton shouldn’t feel this much like drudgery.

It’s no wonder why so many Democrats wish that Elizabeth Warren would run, or why the Massachusetts senator got such a rapturous reception at the recent California Democratic Party convention.

We’re still 19 months from November 2016, so there could be a surprise or two, but it’s wishful thinking that Clinton will change at the core. If her campaign is this discouraging, it’s scary to think what her presidency would be like.

And yet, despite Clinton’s flaws, just a quick glance at the ever-expanding roster of Republican presidential hopefuls, retreads and long shots and she suddenly looks a whole lot better. Many lack experience, especially on foreign policy (Clinton can just recycle that 3 a.m. phone call ad from 2008). Some hold extreme views on key issues. Some fall short on both counts.

If Clinton does become our next president, I’m confident her administration will be competent. But I doubt it will be very inspiring, and I’d bet the farm it won’t be funny.