Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new book out this week, What Happened, is an extraordinary work.
It does far more than address the specific issues of the 2016 election, and if anything, some reactions to it cast the spotlight not on her, but on what has become of our national political discourse. By contrast with her book, it’s sad.
For one thing, if you want to stay in favor with your political friends and “loyalists,” don’t ever lose an election. If you lose, accept all the blame, disappear into the woods and eat big worms. No one on the team you caused to lose wants to hear from you ever again. When Don Beyer lost an election for governor in Virginia 20 years ago, he dared not run for anything again for well over a decade. Folks who loved him the day before that losing election angrily railed against him the very next day.
So, it’s not unique to Clinton. It happens all the time and it’s a reflection on how we as a nation have allowed winning at all costs to cloud and distort our sensibilities of loyalty, resilience and appreciation for the underlying humanity and good intentions of our chosen flag-bearers.
Nobody’s perfect. Let’s start with that. But even the most well-meaning political commentators of our times have fallen into the trap set by cynical proponents of a relatively new national ethic, or should I say, lack of one. In the so-called “postmodern” era, there is no such thing as good intentions in politics. There is only selfish self-interest. It has not always been this way, with the cultural paradigm shift coming at some point following the 1963 Kennedy assassination and the full-court press by the cultural warriors of the U.S. covert intelligence operations to blunt the influence of the sentiment expressed in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s “I have a dream speech” on the national mall that same year.
So, dear reader, I suggest trying to read Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book without that postmodern bias, without the stain of Donald Trump’s despicable “Crooked Hillary” mantra. If you want to single out the most important part of the 495-page work to focus on, I recommend the pages 429-445, a chapter entitled, “Love and Kindness.”
There’s a reason Clinton’s middle name is prominent on the title page. It’s because she takes her adult political career back to her roots, to the formative days of her aspirational identity, her college days at Wellesley College when she evolved from a young Republican to an anti-war and civil rights advocate and delivered her now famous commencement address in 1969. She graduated there the same year I graduated from seminary on the West Coast.
So it is no surprise that she quoted the same theologian who was the focus of my seminary studies, Paul Tillich, in this section of her book. Tillich was famous for his concept of God as “the ground of being.” She was introduced by her youth minister in her high school days, to his concepts of grace and reconciliation.
They mattered to her in those days she calls the Mad Men era of hyper-materialism, the onset of the postmodern age. Tillich, she writes, “sensed a feeling of meaningless, emptiness, doubt and cynicism – all expressions of despair, of our separation from the roots and the meaning of our life.”
She writes that “these questions are ones I’ve been wrestling with and writing and speaking about for decades.”
She cites studying Alexis de Tocqueville and his astonishment at the “habits of the heart” he found in the 1830s among the American people, describing the U.S. as “a nation of volunteers and problem solvers who believed that their own self-interest was advanced by helping one another.” These early Americans, Clinton writes, “came together, inspired by religious faith, civic virtue and common decency, to lend a hand to those in need and improve their communities.”
But “instead of a nation defined by ‘habits of the heart,’ we had become a land of ‘sink or swim,’” she writes, adding that in 1991, she vowed “A new politics of meaning, a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring.”