The Clinton Campaign: Running on Ambien

Just a year ago the hot question was: Is America ready for a black or female president? As the campaigns wear on, the question has shifted to: Can America survive the tedium of its black and female candidates?

Obama, for example, hasn't turned out to be any more challenging to white America than re-runs of the Cosby Show. He was slow to pick up on the Jena 6 case and never showed up at the rally - although, to be fair, neither did Clinton or Edwards. Like the others, he has refrained from noting that Giuliani, in addition to being a cell phone exhibitionist and a 9/11-abuser, presided over a New York City police department famed for its torture and killing of young black males.

But it's Hillary who's causing the citzenry's heads to pitch forward and collapse on their chests. Every time she opens her mouth, her flat, monotonic voice lays out yards of opaque white gauze, muffling any possibility of "discourse." Where does she stand? Over here, and a little to the side, and maybe a few steps to the right. Hers is known as the "flawless" campaign, but no one in it seems to be able to turn off the endlessly triangulating tape in her head.

Lately she's taken to emitting to sudden, inexplicable, bursts of deep laughter - known in the media as "the cackle." Whether this is a deliberate "humanizing" touch or a glitch in the computer program no one knows. According to the New York Times, the "weirdest moment" came in response to a question from Bob Schieffer about Republican charges that her health plan would lead to "socialized medicine." As the Times reports, "She giggled, giggled some more, could not seem to stop giggling -'Sorry, Bob,' she said - and finally unleashed the full Cackle."

Maybe she has a better sense of humor than I'd imagined, because the thought that her plan to turn health care over to the private insurance companies might be "socialist" has me rolling on the floor too.

I just wish I could work up the same degree of enthusiasm for Hillary as my friend Katha Pollitt, who recently told the Times: "If people don't stop saying incredibly sexist things about Hillary Clinton, I may just have to vote for her." But what are these incredibly sexist things? True, there was the whole faux "cleavage" issue, and the occasional whack-job who writes to enlighten me about Clinton's bisexuality or Chelsea's true daddy.

Then, in of all places - feminist Maureen Dowd's column on Sunday - I found a genuinely sexist comment about Hillary. Dowd apparently approvingly quotes Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, saying that Clinton is "like some hellish housewife who has seen something that she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you until finally you say, fine, take it, be the damn president, just leave me alone."

Now I'm all for having literary editors, poetry editors, and the like commenting on our political process, but the "nagging housewife" image is not only a sexist stereotype - it's about 50 years out of date, stemming from an era when most married women were financially dependent on their mates. Besides, male politicians are never likened to stereotypical husbands, even though some of them can be equally hard to dislodge from the recliner in front of the TV or, as the case may be, the Oval Office.

But the "hellish housewife" comment does not make Hillary a feminist martyr, nor does it make me any more willing to listen to her, either now or for the next five years. Trying to say nothing to offend, she ends up saying nothing to inspire or even inform, and Obama, though still far more engaged and human-like, risks ending up with another Ambien candidacy.

Part of the problem is structural. We make our presidential candidates campaign for at least a year at a stretch. Take a normal person and subject him or her to month after month of trail mix and chicken Caesars, sleep deprivation, and the need to be "on," smiling and handshaking, 16 hours a day. No solitary moments of reflection, no walks in the park, no escape into thrillers. What do you get after a few months of this? A golem, the artificial, man-like creature of Kabalistic lore, a personoid incapable of normal responses.

So yes, America is ready for a black or a female president. Just be sure to wake us up when it happens.

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