In 1994 Diane and I and our two young boys were living in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Every day I drove a half-hour into Missouri where I parked next to The Country Club Plaza, the first shopping mall in America designed for automotive traffic. On a hill to the south of the Plaza were two 14-story towers where I was getting settled into my job as Senior Writer for what was still called Twentieth Century Investors, now American Century Investors, one of the largest mutual fund companies in the U.S.
The company had been founded by James Stowers in the 1950s, and flourished as his innovative use of the first computers powered the company’s quantitative approach to stock picking. It was a great place to work and to learn the business. One of the perks was the company’s steady supply of special events tickets, which were allocated by lottery.
That November I drew two tickets to the American Royal Rodeo at Kemper Arena, an event I would have never otherwise considered attending. But my first-born son was seven and I was always eager to expose him to new experiences. On a cool fall evening we made our way through the cowboy-hatted crowds into the arena and to our mid-tier seats. I remember a bit of the bronco and bull riding and the barrel-riding side event for the cowgirls. But most of all I recall a break in the action, near the middle of the show, when one of the circus clowns came out to entertain the crowd.
The clown strolled to the center of the dirt-covered arena floor towing a donkey, which he introduced as a specially talented ass. Her name, he announced to hearty laughter, was Hillary. I don’t recall all the specifics of the routine, although a theme was the animal doing exactly the opposite of what he requested. In any case, each of his little bits was met with raucous laughter. I remember looking around helplessly, befuddled in my discomfort over this brazen attack on our First Lady. Bill Clinton had been elected to his first term three years prior in 1991, and had immediately appointed Hillary to a taskforce to reform what was widely accepted to be a broken health care system. The proposed revisions were widely divisive, with the health care industry spending millions on anti-reform ads. The eventual proposals, even in compromised state, were all rounded rejected by Congress and the hugely profitable heath care industry breathed a sigh of relief.
The Hillary jokes piled on, one after another. At one point my seven-year-old got my attention and asked, “Dad, what’s so funny?”
“I have no idea,” I responded, quite honestly.
Keep in mind this was not only long before Benghazi or email servers — it was long before email. It was years before Lewinski or the Clinton-presidential era scandals of Whitewater and the impeachment. Social media-driven conspiracy rumors were still the thing of science fiction. But already the rodeo crowd was on the hate-Hillary bandwagon, fanned, no doubt, by the growing popularity of conservative talk radio and the fear-mongering over a government itching to tell your doctor how to treat you (supposing you could afford to go to doctor in the first place).
So why was Hillary, so early in her nationally public life, already the object of such scorn and bile? It’s not as though this was the norm for first ladies. Think of the previous Democratic First Ladies. Jackie Kennedy was virtually worshipped in a Princess Di sort of way. I don’t believe Rosalyn Carter took up much mind space in the body politic one way or another. On the Republican side, even Nancy Reagan, with her astrological charts and conspiratorial whisperings into Ronnie’s ear, might have been roundly criticized, but was hardly the material for circus clowns.
As this most recent round of primaries began I remember telling my son, now grown and on his own in California, about his childhood visit to the rodeo, which he can no longer recall. I said, “I don’t believe Hillary is electable.” Not because she wasn’t qualified, but because to a broad section of America she’d been reduced to a figure of ridicule for more than twenty years, a campaign that never really stopped. To those Americans, like the cowboy-hatted crowds in Kemper Arena, they could no more picture Hillary Clinton in the white house than they could the rodeo clown.
Last week, on Sixty Minutes, a focus group of twenty Hillary and Donald supporters were asked how many of them were primarily motivated by conviction in their candidate. Three raised their hands. The rest were driven by contempt for their opponent.
All of which reminded me of another popular voting spectacle: American Idol. In an interview Simon Cowell, the bluntly charismatic Brit who was the real star of the show, explained that the contest wasn’t really about finding the best vocalist, but rather finding a very good vocalist who people liked. He noted a singer who he thought might be the most talented, and then discounted her chances. When it came to rounding up the millions of votes needed to win American Idol, it was likability which counted most. And whence this likability? Cowell’s assessment: “Either you’ve got it, or you don’t.”
In some quarters, largely those inhabited by the well-educated who understand the difference between fact-based media reporting and the rumor mill, Hillary’s exceptional qualifications and her opponent’s exceptional lack thereof made the voting decision easy. But much of the rest of the country was like that rodeo audience back in 1994, who would be hard-pressed to define why they already hated Hillary. Was it because she was smart, educated, powerful? Because she championed common sense reform of a broken health care system that was leaving huge swathes of America uninsured and at risk of medical bankruptcy? I don’t think so. If you believe in charisma, then you should believe in its opposite.
“I don’t know,” they would have responded if asked. “Just can’t stand her.”
P.S. A version of this post was published as an op-ed in the Madison Wisconsin Capital Times on November 16, 2016. Capital Times