I didn’t know at the outset of the Town Hall meeting (to give it a pious New England name it didn’t deserve) that Donald Trump had invited two of the women who, years ago, were entangled with Bill Clinton legally and sexually to be interviewed by reporters and photographed. I wish these news hounds had avoided the opportunity.
At some point, I heard Trump say that these women were also in the audience. Then I understood the look I’d seen on both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton’s faces, which had surprised me.
I remembered her sunny smile, her sense of humor and confidence during the first go-around. If her husband was in the audience then, I didn’t see him.
That look and manner was almost entirely gone.
I spent the earlier part of my life around people whose public role mandated that they could show no pain. I know the look of that mask. At deathbeds, no tears; during bruising public battles, a fixed smile. Even the death of a child can’t crack the façade. It is too dangerous to show feeling.
Showing pain cost at least two men their chance at the presidency in the past two decades; one cried, one shouted. Showing his infirmity would have cost Franklin Roosevelt the presidency. His affair with Missy Lehand would have made it impossible for him to govern. The press didn’t reveal it until years later.
Allowing his illnesses to become apparent would have blocked John Kennedy—and his affairs would have, too, but the press covered them up. Acknowledging his serious health problems would have barred Woodrow Wilson; his wife was later excoriated for taking over when he could no longer function.
All public people learn to adopt the mask. It is quite convincing. But if you have been around these people when they are, unavoidably, in pain, you learn to recognize the look.
Inflicting pain is, of course, and acknowledged part of our diseased political process. Those who don’t quite manage to hide their vulnerability often pay a price.
Donald struck low and dirty, as is his way. He’s a bully who would be a street fighter had he not been protected by money and privilege; like most bullies, he is easily reduce to whining, as when he complained, “It’s one against three,” as though he was in a fifth grade scuffle.
But low and dirty works. It hurt the candidate, and it hurt in a way that has nothing to do with who becomes our president.
No one, including Hillary Clinton, makes apologies for her husband’s behavior; I don’t believe he ever excused what he did as the outcome of “locker-room banter.”
Most wives, if we were honest, have had some shred of that experience: the humiliation, the loss of trust, the effort and discipline it takes to patch it up again. Most of us have had at least some glancing experience with drunks, assaulters, liars, betrayers, and most of us have learned how to go on, preserving what is worth preserving, as Hillary Clinton did. Now she had to face the sordid evidence of what happened, right in front of her podium.
Why are there always women ready to throw themselves into this kind of sordid exchange? What did Jennifer Flowers possibly expect she could gain from it?
Attention—the jewel in the toad’s head, and we all know its fatal allure.
Will we be able to regain some dignity in the next three weeks, as a nation?
Will we be able to recognize, and excoriate, the misogyny that more than all the other prejudices fuels Donald Trump and excites and unites his followers?
I have felt from the beginning of this terrible time that the hatred of women that lies like a coal bank under so much of U.S. life, hidden but always there, poisoning and polluting, was likely to break through the surface before the election. Donald Trump is one of the examples of woman-hatred we know too well, candy-coated, boastful, infinitely destructive.
Sunday night, that hatred broke through, and there were certainly people among the 80 million watching the display, women as well as men, who were excited by the sight of blood. The torture of prisoners, the bullring, Christian martyrs torn apart by lions—there is always an eager audience, across time, for these atrocities. Hillary Clinton is not now and never was responsible for her husband’s behavior. But the scab torn off Sunday night by Donald Trump—and as he ransacks all decency, he is surely the one who has “hatred in his heart”—damaged her confidence.
And there are people who will hold that against her.