I live in a capital city. As in every capital in America, the city’s chief business is government. Government agencies are everywhere—large and powerful ones, small and unnecessary ones; departments, commissions, boards, authorities. Nearly every one of these entities has its own public information officer, or PIO, a person whose job it is to explain the agency’s acts to the public. In most cases, these PIOs don’t actually do much of anything, for the simple reason that the public usually doesn’t care very much what the agency does. The occasional press release and response to a Freedom of Information Act request are about all that’s required of these “communications” specialists.
There is one circumstance, though, in which it matters what a PIO writes or says, and that is when there has been some scandal or fiasco. When an agency director has been arrested on drug charges, say, or when there has been a dramatic failure to provide some essential service, the PIO must stretch his expressive gifts to the limit. What’s needed is a certain style of expression, and the moderately competent ones know instinctively how to generate it. The style is guarded but prolix, conceptually empty, abstract, grammatically contorted, unforthcoming, but technically correct. “We are looking into the situation and will apprise the public and news media of the situation as we learn details. The interim director has asked a team of investigators to get to the bottom of what went wrong and why. From the beginning it has been this agency’s policy to give taxpayers the answers they deserve, and we will make those answers available as soon as we have them.” And so forth.
The point is to say nothing or to restate what’s already known, to give the impression that somebody is doing something, or at least that somebody cares, and to avoid saying anything demonstrably untrue.
That, I think I can say without too much exaggeration, describes the style of Hillary Clinton. It’s not just that her writing is boring and tends toward empty word-level justifications of her own conduct, though it does. In both her logorrheic memoirs, Living History (2003) and Hard Choices (2014), she writes in the anodyne crisis mode of a government spokesman during an agency meltdown—carefully and dryly, never conceding wrongdoing and always interpreting past decisions in the best possible light. Most political spokesmen and many politicians express themselves in this way under pressure, but Clinton has adopted it as a style of communication—and, it seems, as a way of thinking.
When she discusses the scandals and debacles of her own career, she typically relays her side of the story (as is her right) and then concludes by lapsing into some truism that doesn’t make sense in context but affords an easy transition to another topic. Living History deals, for instance, with the early Clinton administration scandal stupidly known as “Travelgate.” It seemed fairly clear—and later evidence confirmed this—that the Clintons wanted the White House travel office staff fired and replaced with cronies from Arkansas. Not an impeachable offense, though a nasty one. The dismissed head of the travel office, Billy Dale, had to deal with trumped-up charges of embezzlement. (He was eventually acquitted.) Clinton concludes her very brief version of the story with this sentence: “‘Travelgate,’ as it came to be known in the media, was perhaps worthy of a two- or three-week life span; instead, in a partisan political climate, it became the first manifestation of an obsession for investigation that persisted into the next millennium.”
Banal, grammatically weird, not quite falsifiable. The controversy did happen “in a partisan political climate,” true enough. When are politics not partisan? But it’s unclear to me what Clinton intends by calling the episode “the first manifestation of an obsession for investigation that persisted into the next millennium.” She seems to mean the press is still trying to dig up stuff on her, as if that observation has any relevance to the controversy she’s purporting to relate. But anyway, digging up stuff is what the press does, so again:
Clinton’s second memoir, Hard Choices, covers her time as U.S. senator and secretary of state. It is an unbearably boring account of the author’s public life and gives few hints that anything she ever did or said was controversial in the minds of anyone but her most unyielding critics.
But of course, something remarkable did happen during Clinton’s term as secretary of state, namely the murder by terrorists of four Americans, one of them a U.S. ambassador, in Benghazi, Libya. Readers will have their own views on Clinton’s role and culpability in the affair. On one of the controversy’s central questions, though—why the U.S. government was incapable of defending one of its most vulnerable consulates—she writes: “Our military does everything humanly possible to save American lives—and would do more if they could. That anyone has ever suggested otherwise is something I will never understand.” She deploys a truism to counter an accusation that hasn’t been made. Nobody blamed the disaster on “our military.” Many, however, blamed the civilian administration in which Clinton served as chief diplomat.
In essence, Clinton—Clinton the writer—acts as her own PIO. All the unsavory controversies with which Mrs. Clinton is popularly remembered—cattle futures, “Filegate,” Whitewater—receive the same kind of dreary and studiously positive reinterpretation.
The comparison of her style with that of Donald Trump is almost too obvious to remark. Whereas Clinton’s style is careful and boring, his is heedless and bonkers. More illuminating, I think, is a comparison between Clinton’s style and that of another ferociously ambitious and calculating politician: Richard Nixon. When Nixon examines his mistakes, he displays, despite all the efforts at self-exculpation, a directness and honesty that Clinton lacks. Here, for instance, is a passage from his memoirs, RN, in which the former president reflects on the scandal that destroyed his administration.
I gave the impression that I had known nothing at all about the cover-up until my March 21 meeting with Dean. I indicated that once I had learned about it I had acted with dispatch and dispassion to end it. In fact, I had known some details of the cover-up before March 21, and when I did become aware of their implications, instead of exerting presidential leadership aimed at uncovering the cover-up, I embarked on an increasingly desperate search for ways to limit the damage to my friends, to my administration, and to myself.
I talked of responsibility and the fact that “the man at the top must bear responsibility . . . I accept it.” But that was only an abstraction and people saw through it. Finally, I clung to excuses. The fact that they happened to be excuses that I really believed made little difference. In a sense Watergate had grown out of the end-justifies-the-means mentality of the causes of the 1960s. It was also true that if we often made the mistake of acting like an administration under siege, it was because we were an administration under siege. And I believed it was true that if I had not been preoccupied with Vietnam and other policy issues, I might have probed until I sensed the full dimensions of the cover-up and perhaps precipitated action sooner—if not on ethical grounds, at least because I would have recognized that we were marching headlong into a trap with no exits.
Perhaps the reality of Nixon’s near-impeachment and resignation obliges him to admit some blameworthiness, and anyhow, his admissions are hardly unqualified. There’s also the fact that his public life is over at this point, while Clinton’s isn’t. Both, however, are concerned in their respective explanations of past conduct to uphold and repair their reputations. Nixon, too, might have adopted the empty tone of a PIO attempting to say nothing, but he doesn’t. “I clung to excuses,” he admits, but then enunciates those excuses with feeling and eloquence. Even so, he is confronting the agony of self-knowledge in ways Clinton does not and, I suspect, cannot. He is at least trying, however imperfectly, to acknowledge wrongdoing and take responsibility for terrible decisions.
There is a kind of baby-boomer Pharisaism in Clinton’s outlook. It’s an outlook that recognizes the existence of evil, yes, but the evil is always located in other people, never in oneself; it’s always out there somewhere—in society, in discriminatory practices, in “backward-looking policies,” in partisan climates, in “an interlocking network of groups and individuals who want to turn the clock back on many of the advances our country has made” (this last an explanation, in Living History, of her notorious reference to a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in 1998).
Clinton is the product, first, of the midcentury Protestant liberalism of her upbringing—she was raised in a solidly mainline Methodist church outside Chicago—and, second, the countercultural protests of the 1960s. These are very different cultural phenomena in many respects, but both tended to locate human wickedness in institutions, social trends, historical processes. War, consumerism, social injustice, poverty, the “military–industrial complex”: the problem was always some kind of social or political circumstance, never man himself and certainly not one’s own heart. For Clinton, an honest admission of wrongdoing isn’t something to avoid doing; it isn’t a thing at all. Except in some extreme case in which the individual admits his part in an institutional or political sin (Lee Atwater’s late confession of cruelty to political opponents, perhaps), decent, right-thinking people can’t admit to wrongdoing because wrongdoing isn’t really the result of individual decisions.
Nixon had many faults, but baby-boomer Pharisaism wasn’t one of them. He could obfuscate as well as Clinton—indeed, he was better at it—but his worldview was Christian and Carlylean rather than radical or determinist. “The History of the world is but the Biography of great men,” Thomas Carlyle wrote, meaning that complex historical circumstances don’t dictate individual behavior but are themselves the outcome of decisions made by a few “great” individuals. Chief among those great individuals in Nixon’s mind was, of course, Richard Nixon: He aimed to be one of history’s great peacemakers. He was a product of Quaker severity and he missed out on anti-bourgeois radicalism altogether. He would have liked Margaret Thatcher’s offhand remark to an interviewer: “Who is society? There is no such thing!” For Clinton, there is nothing but.
Barton Swaim is the author of The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.