Hillary, Sans Clinton

Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton address the California Democratic Convention in San Diego, Saturday, April 28, 2007. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi) AP

This column was written by Tod Lindberg.

A miniflap recently broke out over a Politico item about a July 9 memo to "Interested Parties" from Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's chief strategist. Penn's memo was definitely designed to foster an impression of growing Clinton strength. Politico's Ben Smith went a step farther in his characterization of the memo, however, saying it implied a Clinton victory was "inevitable." Penn and Co. disavowed that characterization, and Smith subsequently took out the quotation marks he'd put around "inevitable" in his original post. Thus did the Clinton campaign find itself in the enviable position of having established its humility while pressing the immodest line that the candidate's "electoral strength has grown in the last quarter and she is better positioned today than ever before to become the next President of the United States."

Maybe she is. But Penn is subtle, and there were at least two exercises in positioning going on in his memo. The overt one was about the candidate's strength. The second, almost subliminal, was about — well, let's take an exhaustive look at the text's references to the candidate:

" . . . a good time to see where Hillary stands and why . . . Hillary's electoral strength has grown . . . Hillary has the strength and experience . . . Hillary's message: that her strength and experience . . . Hillary's support in the last few months has strengthened . . . as the candidates' name ID's have increased, so has Hillary's lead . . . just how ready Hillary is . . . each debate provides Hillary with another opportunity . . . Hillary's lead in the Democratic primary nearly doubled . . . Hillary's favorability has risen . . . Hillary leads top Republican Rudy Giuliani . . . Hillary leads . . . Hillary is tied or ahead . . . "

We'll stop there. I count a total of 36 references to "Hillary" or its possessive form in a memo of about 1,800 words. When Penn cues up the poll results against her Democratic rivals or the front-running Republicans, they are "Obama" and "Edwards" and "Giuliani"; she is "HRC."

Number of times the name "Clinton" appears in the memo: zero.

Now, it is not as if the use of "Hillary" began with this Penn memo. The campaign has often used the candidate's first name as a second reference to "Hillary Clinton" (for example, unsigned "campaign memos" of April 27 and June 22). And it has sometimes even started with "Hillary" and picked up with "Hillary Clinton" (as does an earlier Penn memo from June 11). Sometimes the purpose of deploying the candidate's full name seems to have been to pack some rhetorical punch. The April 27 memo concludes, apparently in an effort to be resounding: "Americans are looking for a President who will start from strength and be ready to lead from day one. And that person is Hillary Clinton."

What's new about the July 9 Penn memo is that the "Clinton" references have disappeared completely. I am almost tempted to say "once and for all" — except that if I were on the Clinton campaign and somebody wrote an article in The Weekly Standard making such a claim, I'd slip a "Clinton" into the next one just to establish nyah-nyah privileges.

The drift is clear. The brand is "Hillary." The brand is not "Clinton." The candidate's official Web site is hillaryclinton.com. That domain name must have been registered long ago, and unfortunately for the candidate's current preferences, hillary.com is the Web site of a software company.

But if you Google "Hillary" with the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, what you get is the official campaign Web site, and the campaign's logo popping up in the upper left corner of your screen says, "Hillary for President." Click on the button there labeled "Hillary" and you get the candidate biography, where you will encounter the name "Clinton" exactly once. It's about how Hillary spurned offers from law firms in order to follow "her heart and a man named Bill Clinton to Arkansas." Thereafter, he's "Bill" or "her husband," though in truth he doesn't much figure into the Hillary story. But she is "Hillary" and only "Hillary" throughout.

Consistency, they've got. If you follow the link to HillaryStore.com, the merchandise for sale there refers to the candidate only as Hillary (with an occasional "H," à la George Bush's "W" bumper sticker). The "Super Size House Party" pack ($185, plus $2 for oversized shipping) contains 1 baseball cap, 1 travel mug, 5 lapel pins, 25 campaign bumper stickers, 25 campaign buttons, 10 campaign rally signs, 10 yard signs with wires, and 1 pack of 20 balloons, each of which says "Hillary," none of which mentions "Clinton," except when providing the Web site address.

Walter Shapiro, in an interview with the candidate in Salon, found himself tied in a bit of a knot over the "Hillary" question. He inquired of the candidate, "Let me ask something that comes up every time I write about you. I sometimes refer to you on, say, the fifth reference as 'Hillary' instead of 'Clinton.' I always get three or four letters saying that I am demeaning women by referring to you by your first name. But your campaign materials refer to you as 'Hillary' and the word 'Clinton' might also apply to another well-known public person. Do you have any feelings about this? Am I offending you every time I type 'Hillary, Obama and Edwards'? Or do you have an open mind as long as I spell Hillary correctly?"

Essentially, Shapiro is concerned about referring to the candidate exactly the way Mark Penn wants him to refer to the candidate. But rather than worrying about taking semantic instruction from the campaign's chief strategist, Shapiro is worried about giving offense. And you had better believe that when people are prepared to fret to this candidate about giving offense, she will rise to the occasion. Replied the candidate: "I probably have more of an open mind. But I understand the point people are taking because if you also refer to Rudy and Mitt and John then that would be even-handed. I get the same indignation from a lot of women who read you and others and say, 'They never call the other candidates by their first name.' And I think that in print — as opposed to building a campaign that really does use my first name because it is so identified with who I am — that's the concern that people have."

It's not everybody who can be Cher or Madonna or Hillary. But let's get serious about the "Clinton" problem. Contra Shapiro, there is no plausible context in which referring to the candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as "Clinton" would create an opportunity for mix-up with the former president; in any discussion of the two of them, the use of "Bill" and "Hillary" makes sense as needed, but it is by no means necessary in most articles about her.

Rather, the "Clinton" problem is this: The set of associations the name brings to mind when people are reminded of it. I think the extent to which animus toward Bill is a drag on Hillary is seriously overstated: People who can't stand him tend to have a well-formed and free-standing negative impression of her as well. The real problem is the impression of dependence.

Mrs. Clinton is where she is today not incidentally because she married Bill Clinton, but for that reason essentially. It is no disparagement of her skills as a politician to say so. He merely opened the doors; she had to walk through them. But open them he did. The Clinton campaign has every reason to avoid reminding people of the extent to which her political career and prospects derive from his.

The decision to adopt "Hillary" and drop "Clinton" has nothing whatsoever casual to it. It is part of a solution to, or at least an attempt to ameliorate, a genuine problem. Before her, the last person to face a problem along these lines was none other than the current occupant of the White House. The family nickname of the son of George Herbert Walker Bush was not "W" but, ahem, "Junior." That would not do. It took the political skill of Karl Rove to insinuate "Dubya" into public consciousness. (That's what the real insiders call him, don't you know.) People bought it. Penn is betting that they will buy "Hillary," and my guess is that everybody will be calling her that (and nothing else) in colloquial speech by November 2008.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans have the nerve to buck this trend — by referring to the junior senator from New York as "Mrs. Clinton."


By Tod Lindberg
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  • Kristin Dross

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