Did you know that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016? You may have seen #theresistance types reminding us of this every day since November 9th. But Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham, the new novel where Hillary rebuffs Bill's marriage proposal and launches a political career as a single woman, takes this grievance further by creating an alternate universe for Hillary to thrive in. It's meant as a commentary on American politics, but it comes across as a bizarre form of escapism that doesn't augur well for 2020 unless you sell $37 t-shirts that portray Trump as an overweight Chester the Cheetah wearing a diaper.
Rodham has received positive coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and other publications that don't let me say things like "gluttonous dong," despite the fact that it features scenes where a young Bill regales Hillary with nude saxophone performances and explores her "honey pot" while he's driving. But there's far more to Rodham than Hillary dumping Bill because of his gluttonous dong, and you might as well be baffled by it now before you hear stirring endorsements in your book club.
Rodham opens with a relentless examination of why Hillary was attracted to Bill at Yale -- she appreciates that he considers her an intellectual equal, but also that she has "such a strong sense of wanting him to come inside me, wanting no barriers between us" -- before they move to Arkansas to pursue Bill's political career. But, in witnessing Bill kiss another woman despite him telling Hillary how great her nipples are, Hillary is forced to wonder "Had his erection been inside another woman's body and then had he pulled out and come on her stomach, or had he taken the risk of coming inside her?" (Meanwhile, the reader is left pondering the reaction of the real Hillary, whenever someone gets around to telling her this passage exists.)
The turning point comes when Hillary is approached by a volunteer on Bill's 1974 House of Representatives campaign who says Bill "forced [himself] on her." Eventually, a tearful Hillary leaves him. This unnamed woman is a proxy for Juanita Broaddrick who, in 1999, accused Bill of raping her in 1978, when Clinton was Arkansas' attorney general and on the cusp of becoming governor. Hillary Clinton always had little to say about Broaddrick's accusation, but Hillary Rodham gets to walk away.
Rodham presents this as Hillary learning about Bill's darker side before it was too late. But it's never too late to do the right thing and, in trying to reform Hillary, Rodham conveniently absolves her. By 1999, Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the country, but in 1974 he was just some shmuck who couldn't beat a Republican in what was a blue state a few years after Watergate. Hillary struggles with walking away from love, but she doesn't have to struggle with walking away from power. Since the only President to ever cheat on me was President of the high school chess club I can't begin to imagine what the real Hillary was going through, but "Wouldn't it be better for America if a lack of obstacles made everything conveniently fall into place?" is a running theme in Rodham.
Without Hillary's guiding hand, Bill's 1992 Presidential primary campaign implodes after a disastrous 60 Minutes interview challenges his ravenous cock, and he retreats to Silicon Valley to re-focus Ask Jeeves into a porn search engine, or something. Bush Sr. eventually wins a second term, angering Tom Harkin superfans everywhere, while Hillary becomes a respected law professor turned Senator, with her first electoral victory coming after she defeats Carol Moseley Braun in the primary. Braun, for the unfamiliar, was the first African-American woman to become a Senator. We're told she's a "sweet person" but whose campaign -- victorious in reality -- was having "big problems" that forced Hillary to step in and save the day for the Democrats.
Hillary's token black friend objects, but Hillary reassures her that it "isn't about race." To be fair, an older Hillary does revisit her usurpation of Braun... as an important moment in her life that launched her career and heroically helped her overcome her naivete to realize, "Hey, maybe black Americans are important." Rodham chides Hillary's missteps, but it never punishes her for them. It is not, to put it mildly, the most self-reflective novel.
In 2016, Hillary runs for President but is opposed in the primary by none other than billionaire tech-bro Bill Clinton, who has supposedly developed a predilection for Silicon Valley drugs and orgies. Once you've recovered from the image of Bill slapping balls alongside Mark Zuckerberg you realize that he morphed into an analogue for Trump (who is not running in this reality and appears so we can beat "Haha, look at how dumb he is, wouldn't it be crazy if he ran for President?" gag so far into the ground that it reaches the Earth's mantle). It's Bill's supporters who chant nasty things, it's Bill who gets to dodge the hard questions, it's Bill who enjoys obsessive media attention that glosses over his past misdeeds, and it's Hillary who once again has a ridiculous scandal blown out of proportion by axe-grinders.
Sittenfield isn't wrong when she argues that the media and electorate are far harsher on women candidates than the abusive men who oppose them, but her fake election isn't about anything. Bill's vague platform is similar to Hillary's vague platform and aimed at the same Democratic voters. There's no grappling with the rage that Trump tapped into, with the fallout from the recession, with the long-simmering xenophobia that rushed to the surface, with a growing age and class gap, with the Democratic Party's inability to understand and accommodate its growing progressive wing (an absent Bernie Sanders has apparently been erased from existence, Butterfly Effect style, by the actions of Bill's magic schlong). In this world, Hillary's greatest sin is that she's an awkward person who flubs an attempt to jokingly say "on fleek," not that her Senate votes contributed to piles of dead Iraqis. There are no actual issues. It's like a what-if sports scenario that asks "What if last year's NBA Finals had been played by different teams but the baskets were 72 feet high and LeBron got to ride a cool bicycle on the court and the prize was the Stanley Cup?"
Oh, and remember when Hillary learned valuable life lessons about alienating minorities from the Braun incident? Reflecting on that, as well as suggestions from her staffers that young voters need a younger, more progressive candidate to support, Hillary passes over the bland Tim Kaine as running mate to select... uh, middle-aged Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe. That's the absurd punchline to the book's unintentional running joke of Hillary being surrounded by diverse supporters who have no personality beyond "I'm a lesbian single mom who thinks Hillary is great and doesn't mind at all that Hillary dragged her feet on LGBT rights while destroying social programs that helped single parents, because in this reality she's a boss babe and I exist only to style her hair!" Hopefully the real DNC can learn from this ingenious political equivalent of "drinking all this whiskey makes me wake up with a hangover every morning, so I'm switching to rum."
Again, that could be criticism, but Hillary gets everything she wants without difficulty or sacrifice. She even finds love, in the end. All of her flaws vanished with Bill, like he was an anchor supressing her real opinions. So when, spoiler alert, Hillary wins over America with a stirring debate performance, you feel like you've just read Hillary fanfic. She gets to deliver zingers, she gets to demolish sexist journalists, she gets to be thought of as an intellectual President whose many achievements are summed up in a single paragraph at the end of the novel with no explanation of how they were implemented. The actual election is glossed over because hey, who wouldn't vote for her over Jeb in a sane world, right? It's smug masturbatory material for the kind of white liberals who dream about going viral for helping an immigrant while refusing to walk through the "bad" part of town.
America has long had a bizarre fascination with Hillary Clinton, both as an outsized supervillain for Republicans to hate and fear and invent conspiracies about and, perhaps in reaction to that ridiculousness, a perpetual "What if?" machine for Democrats. There are books and documentaries about how her campaign could have been different, shows like Veep offer commentary on her, and there are even piles of children's books about Hillary Clinton to teach little girls around the country that they too can grow up to support an escalation of drone warfare. One 2018 children's book, incidentally, opens by recounting Hillary's great triumph: winning the 2016 nomination.
Clinton certainly would have been a far better President than Trump, if only because one of those giant cannibal skeletons from Japanese mythology would have been a far better President than Trump. It's a low bar, and maybe she would have cleared it by quite a bit. We'll never know. But obsessively re-litigating the 2016 election while 2020's looms on the horizon is like insisting that the serial killer has left your house while you can still hear his chainsaw, and inventing an alternate reality where Clinton never had to confront the scenarios that created her flaws is the literary equivalent of declaring that the future is female because the CEO who just announced mass layoffs is a woman. It's a fantasy about getting to pick mediocrity instead of idiocy, because fantasizing about demanding better is apparently too ridiculous.
Over the last four years there's been a pathological desire to ask "What if 2016 had been different?" instead of "How can we make 2020 different?" and Rodham is the culmination of that wishful thinking. Searching for inspiration in it is like searching for inspiration from the quarterback who hangs around his old high school, telling uncaring students that just one bad break kept him from going pro. The question Rodham poses is, essentially, "What if Hillary had been a better person in an easier time?" But she wasn't, and no amount of escapism will change the reality that has to be faced in November because of that.
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