Hillary Clinton’s Poetry Challenge
The candidate grapples with the "art of making possible."
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In early January, Hillary Clinton dismissed the oratorical sensibilities of Barack Obama, her competitor for the Democratic Party’s nomination, admonishing him in the words of Mario Cuomo: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” A month later, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. warned the electorate that Republicans “aren’t going to respond to poetry or lofty language.”
The Clinton camp’s regular attacks on Obama’s “poetry” are surprising, mostly because it has been so long since poetry played a role in a presidential campaign. But, in the course of the last six months, Obama has wielded his significant gifts as a poetic speaker—if not a poet—to win over a majority of Democratic voters. Clinton was forced to respond, taking the position that even the most skilled rhetorician will, in the end, have no effect in Washington, however inspiring he may be to voters.
Yet poetry seems to be edging out prose on the campaign trail, with Obama’s calls for hope and unity filling stadiums, and Clinton’s dry policy speeches drawing yawns. Granted, compared to her husband, “the man from Hope,” whose favorite authors include Seamus Heaney and Marcus Aurelius, Hillary (“the woman from Park Ridge—it’s a suburb of Chicago”) is no bookworm. Normally, that would not be to her detriment. The American presidency has had an uneasy relationship with literature for at least the last century. But this season, despite Hillary’s assertion that poetry and governance make for poor bedfellows, she has been compelled to emulate Obama’s tone. Recently, she received the help of longtime Clinton ally Maya Angelou. On January 20, with Super Tuesday looming, the 79-year-old poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings offered a paean entitled “State Package for Hillary Clinton.”
Angelou heralded the arrival of the Clinton era 15 years ago with a poem entitled “On the Pulse of Morning.” Hoping also to herald the resumption of that era, she recently delivered for Hillary Clinton a succession of blandishments largely in prose form, but beginning with the stanza:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
After recounting the wrongs done to Clinton and enumerating some of her considerable qualities and credentials (she has “been there and done that”), Angelou solemnly declares, “She means to rise.” Then, she offers an unlikely exhortation, considering the subject of her praise:
Angelou’s poem emphasizes Hillary’s transformative experiences and achievements—the legacy of the women’s liberation movement—and reconciles them with the official portrait of Hillary as seasoned, pragmatic politician. It is an attempt to locate the poetry in her, and amplify it.
When people criticize Clinton for failing to inspire, what they often mean is that she has no poetry about her. Her “story”—privileged upbringing, successful law career, singular focus on political ascendance—does not recommend itself to poetry. More important, her career seems to be characterized by a process of depersonalization, apparently to make her less vulnerable to the omnipresent attackers cited by Angelou. Those in search of the “real” Hillary—a figure that recedes farther into the distance with each day of Hillary-the-candidate—are bound to be frustrated, as her biographers have been.
Yet, while Clinton seems at times incapable of poeticizing herself or her message, she has strived to overcome the perception that there is no self there; shortly before the New Hampshire primary, she succeeded in doing so thanks to a few tears, after which she proclaimed, “I found my own voice.”
Regardless of the content or literary value of Angelou’s poem, the uses and abuses of poetry in the campaign are proof that the Democratic electorate does, to some degree, judge a candidate in relation to his or her poetic sensibilities and ability to communicate artfully. That is the legacy of John F. Kennedy, and Obama has emerged as his heir apparent, however their diction differs. For all of Hillary’s jabs at Obama’s lack of experience, many Democrats would rather have a president who fits the JFK mold of an “existential hero” (per Norman Mailer) than one who is a student par excellence of the intricacies of governance.
In 1987, Gary Hart, a connoisseur of literature who ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic nomination, asked a New York Times reporter, “Why is it that somebody like me is thought the oddball?” after being ridiculed for his obscure tastes. “I think I’m the healthy one. I think you ought to be asking all those other guys who have done nothing but hold public office and have no other sides to their personalities [why] they don’t write novels and why they don’t read Kierkegaard.”
Although Obama hasn't written any novels, he has written two memoirs: The Audacity of Hope traffics in many of the platitudes of the political-biography-as-platform genre, but the earlier Dreams from My Father is an emotionally articulate and, at times, highly poetic bildungsroman. As an undergraduate, he even tried his hand at poetry, publishing two poems in the Occidental College literary magazine. The first, called “Pop,” is an evocation of his grandfather, who “takes another shot, neat, / Points out the same amber / Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and / Makes me smell his smell.”
Though he has since abandoned verse, the combination of vernacular poetry and liberal-arts catchphrases has proved a winning political formula. Obama’s tendency to speak abstractly, emphasizing a certain tone above any specific platform, is consistent with his emphasis on what President Bush has derided as “the vision thing,” whereas Clinton’s artless style conforms to her understanding of politics as a process of hard work and incremental change. As such, Obama slogans like “We are the change we seek” have earned him occasional derision from the Clinton camp. Although both leaders would like to claim the mantle of Roosevelt and the New Deal, FDR saw the presidency the way Obama does, as being “more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.”
Clinton claimed to have found her voice during her New Hampshire triumph, but she has so far failed to find a rallying call. After Obama’s decisive victory in Wisconsin, Clinton stopped trying to beat him at his own game and renewed her attacks on his oratory, asserting that “while words matter, the best words in the world aren’t enough, unless you match them with action.”
In looking for her own poetics, Clinton would have done well to revisit her graduation from Wellesley in 1969, when her speechifying tendencies were in full bloom. Addressing the graduating class after a conservative U.S. senator who had chastised students for protesting the college’s administration, she read a poem by a classmate, Nancy Scheibner, that insisted students “be free” in order to “practice with all the skill of our being / The art of making possible.”
While Hillary has spent much of the last 40 years sanitizing any predisposition toward self-expression, her husband never cared to quash his own poetic tendencies, which have hurt him (and her) as much as they have helped over the years. Like the early presidents, Bill Clinton looked to poetry for a vision of the nation, and of himself as its steward. On the way to his inauguration in 1993, Clinton stopped at Thomas Jefferson’s ancestral home in Monticello, Virginia, where the first Democrat, and perhaps our most intellectual president, cobbled together a vision of the inchoate republic’s principles and characters from the poems he read. At the time of the founding fathers, poetry provided the raw material for imagining the nation. A creature of the Enlightenment, Jefferson looked to the classics to better understand a nation still in formation. As well as writing extensively on British verse, he read Homer in the original Greek and often quoted from Theocritus and Virgil, who spoke to the pastoral ideal Jefferson hoped to cultivate in America and later articulated in Notes on the State of Virginia. (It was Jefferson who suggested that “E Pluribus Unum,” attributed to one of Virgil’s salad recipes, become the nation’s motto.) Clinton came to bask in Jefferson’s authoritatively American voice, which he claimed to be the framework for “the populism of this campaign.”
Bill Clinton has advertised his affinities for T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats and claimed a deep attachment to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s patriotic “Concord Hymn.” But it was Walt Whitman who articulated Clinton’s all-encompassing (and all-penetrating) democratic spirit, exuberant will to expand beyond one’s borders, and all-too-catholic sense of empathy. (He famously gave Leaves of Grass to Monica Lewinsky.) And it was, in effect, Clinton’s poetic proclivities, broadcast to the world during the Lewinsky scandal, that humiliated Hillary—his inability to reconcile poetry and public life.
Poets are allowed idealism and a degree of distance from mundane concerns. In her political career, Hillary Clinton has never allowed herself to be anything but defensive and practical. Obama, on the other hand, represents the middle ground between poet and politician; his idealism is essential to his political acumen. Until equivocating in the face of Obama’s surge, Clinton seemed intent on turning herself into the antithesis of the blustery populist who rolled into the White House in 1993.
It is not as if Clinton has no love for poetry. Though her literary appetites do not parallel those of her husband, Hillary shares his enthusiasm for T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. For her Wellesley senior thesis on radical organizer Saul Alinsky, she turned to “East Coker” for an oddly inauspicious epigraph. “And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,” Eliot postulates:
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The cyclical nature of the metaphysical struggle in Eliot's poem becomes, in this context, an evaluation of Alinsky's methods; Clinton approved of his aims but wondered if his radicalism, his unwillingness to be conciliatory, hampered his efforts. But it can also be read as a reflection on Clinton's own intellectual journey from kind-hearted but sheltered Goldwater Girl to worldly Wellesley graduate with existential dilemmas on the mind—a story that ends, as we all know, with a hard-fought ascension to the highest tiers of national power. It is the early stages of this journey, as Angelou reminds us, that now seem worth reviving for Clinton, as Obama's challenge compels her to reconcile herself to poetry and populism. It is these "undisciplined squads of emotion" that must be recovered, the "mess" of feeling that must be accessed, the "trying" that must be transcended—if it is not already too late.
[Correction: The article as originally posted mistakenly referred to Maya Angelou as the only poet since Frost to read at a presidential inauguration. James Dickey read at Jimmy Carter's Inaugural Gala in 1977 and Miller Williams read at Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997.]