Frank Rich Decries Billary

I love Frank Rich’s columns in the New York Times. I look forward to them. But this week I was a little surprised by his thoughts on the role of Bill Clinton in Hillary’s campaign for president. As I have written about, it seems weird to me how every time Bill disagrees with a reporter, he is described as angry, as lashing out, etc. Frank Rich echoes this theme:

In the Democrats’ case, the full-throttle emergence of Billary, the joint Clinton candidacy, is measured mainly within the narrow confines of the short-term horse race: Do Bill Clinton’s red-faced eruptions and fact-challenged rants enhance or diminish his wife as a woman and a candidate?

I still haven’t seen any eruptions or rants from Bill, and the purported examples of such behavior have seemed to me more like intent—but calm—argument. In fact, the developing problem seems to me not to be Bill’s behavior but the media interpretation of his behavior.

Rich reasons that, since Bill has become so aggressively involved with his wife’s campaign, he is now back on the table as a target for full Republican attack. As he puts it,

For the Republicans, that means not just a double dose of the one steroid, Clinton hatred, that might yet restore their party’s unity but also two fat targets.

Again, though, there are really two levels of this discussion. There are, first, the things that actually happened, i.e. Bill Clinton’s actual statements, and things of that nature. On top of those things, there are the interpretations, spin, mischaracterizations, and representations of those things that come from various sources in the media and throughout the culture.

Of course, it does seem to be the case that the emerging problem of Bill’s role in Hillary’s campaign influenced voters against Hillary. To what extent, though, could that influence be based, not on Bill’s actions, but on the relentless characterization of his actions after the fact? The underlying problem, I think, is that our culture doesn’t quite know what to do with a female candidate for president, specifically in terms of the role of the spouse.

In fact, a psychological tool called the Implicit Associations Test (described here, and here, you can take the test here) shows us that, in our culture, it is more difficult for most of us to associate leadership with women. This is an unconscious bias, which would explain the gravitation of attention and importance away from Hillary to her husband. The effect is much more pronounced because of the charisma, fame, and previous associations with leadership that Bill possesses.

There is a dissonance, though, in our conscious thoughts about Hillary and Bill. Why, we wonder, is Bill trying to steal the spotlight from Hillary? In reality, he may not be—the spotlight of our cultural attention may be hunting him. After all, we could have more coverage of the day to day activities of Elizabeth Edwards or Michelle Obama, but we don’t.

Of course it is a particularly touchy problem, how a former president would act as a First Gentleman (or whatever his role would be titled). In fact, I think it was unwise of the Clinton campaign to continue to use Bill after it became clear that the narrative of Angry Bill Lashing Out At Reporters was established—tactically, they should have recognized that his effectiveness would be impaired. At the same time, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the underlying cultural forces at work in this strange emerging dynamic.