Friday, January 25, 2008

Reading between the lines in The New Yorker's story about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

There's not much new in George Packer's article in this week's New Yorker about the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, except for a few little tidbits like the fact that old Clinton friend Greg Craig, who was Bill's defense attorney in the Senate impeachment trial, now is an Obama supporter. Rather, the article is another exposition of the standard mainstream media narrative that the Obama-Clinton contest pits vision against pragmatism, a big-picture visionary against a secretive control freak and micromanager. Again, not much new there.

Every good journalist knows the value of a telling detail in summing up an argument and packaging it so it will be remembered. Packer is no exception. He conjures up the usual cliché that Hillary is driven by the emotional damage of her childhood and youth, which left her controlling, manipulative and withholding -- a view heavily influenced by Carl Bernstein's book, "A Woman in Charge."
In the nineteen-nineties, Republicans, taking aim at an all-too-human Democratic President, liked to say “character matters”—a phrase that has been bitterly reprised by Democrats during the Bush years. If there’s a flaw in Hillary Clinton’s character which could keep her from becoming a successful President, or President at all, it is what Carl Bernstein, her best biographer, described to me as a tendency toward “subterfuge and eliding.” In the deep and sympathetic portrait “A Woman in Charge,” Bernstein’s recent biography of Clinton, a constant theme is her fear of humiliation; as the daughter of a harsh, often cruel father, she learned early to conceal any weakness and, ultimately, to protect her very humanity from exposure.
But that wasn't the end of the paragraph, which instead concluded with a kicker, the telling detail that embodied the "damaged Hillary" hypothesis. What was it? Some new revelation about her troubled marriage? Something about the fear of failure that supposedly drove her every waking moment? Something about the compromises she made in her Senate career to protect her very humanity from exposure? Well, no.
In the recent Las Vegas debate, when Clinton was asked to name a weakness, all she could come up with was her impatience to get things done.
Talk about a Catch-22 reading of the standard employer's trick question. I wonder what George Packer said the last time an interviewer asked him this question. Did he open up? Did he allow his humanity to show? And what about his editors at The New Yorker? When was the last time they gave an honest, revealing answer to a question like that?

The whole point of this kind of question is to test the applicant's social awareness, ability to read unwritten rules and conform to unspoken social conventions. And the social convention is to answer a question like that in terms of a "weakness" that's a safely trivial downside of your key strengths. For Obama to say he has a cluttered desk is a coded message that he's a big picture thinker. For Hillary to say she is impatient to get things done is meant to convey that she gets things done. Any answer other than that to this old chestnut just means you're a loose cannon. Ask any job coach.

Of course, character matters in presidential campaigns, but how about treating readers -- and voters -- like intelligent adults? Maybe then we wouldn't have to inflate meaningless details into contrived, artificial significance and could just settle for some honest political reporting.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Any answer other than that to this old chestnut just means you're a loose cannon. Ask any job coach.

Say, for argument, that 95% of all professional job coaches share this conventional wisdom about the correct way to answer this "greatest weakness" question. Madison Guy is treating this as if following this conventional, mainstream wisdom is the only choice. It's not.

If we lack belief in ourselves, then we end up blindly adhering to some authority, like a job coach. But there's no one forcing us to follow what "any job coach" would say. It IS possible to make independent, honest, creative choices.