Before Hillary, There Was Another 'Witch' in Politics

04/20/2016 01:08 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2017
sen. hillary clinton  speaks at ...
sen. hillary clinton speaks at ...

She's "the most cautious" of politicians; disturbingly inscrutable. Who is she really, behind her "expertly coiffed," "airbrushed," and "expensively tailored" exterior? As one pundit put it, she "has many masks but who has seen her face?" Said another: "She is either very conservative or she believes in nothing. We better hope she's conservative." At least with her opponents, you know what you are getting; "whereas with her there is the strongest risk of dissembling." There is a "Machiavellianism just short of mendacity" visible in her demeanor. In lacking an authentic political vision, her policies are based merely on "apprehension of what the electorate might like." And if she "believes in nothing but power," and ruthlessly thirsts to obtain it, then "doesn't this raise the specter, all but unthinkable in left liberal circles," that you should just vote for the right-wing candidate - who "however much you disagree with him, might make the better leader because at least he stands for something?"

You could be forgiven for thinking these remarks were made of Hillary Clinton, given the similarity of the rhetoric surrounding her candidacy, especially in recent weeks. But they refer to Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia, my home country.

These words are taken from a piece by Peter Craven, a prominent Australian commentator, just prior to the first federal election Gillard contested as prime minister in 2010. Craven thereby adeptly crammed into the space of one brief article much of the sexist and misogynist rhetoric Gillard began facing as soon as she took office around six weeks prior, following an internal leadership challenge. Craven managed this partly by having the nastiest remarks voiced by others, who sometimes remain nameless (e.g., "someone [who] said to him recently..."). He also helpfully reminds the reader - with superficial disapproval but ultimately, one suspects, glee - of a "devastatingly unfair" caricature of Gillard as a witch that had recently appeared in The Daily Telegraph. The cartoon depicted her as "old and wizened," "living on the retrospective fat of her parliamentary career," and "pocketing her super packet" of cash to retire on. In other words, Gillard was a greedy, conniving witch who simply could not be trusted.

And it would only get worse from that point onward.

Gillard was subsequently labeled "Ju-Liar" in early 2011, for doing something many male politicians had done before and since - going back on her word, in this case not to tax carbon - without garnering comparable outrage. But Gillard never shook the moniker, nor her reputation for dishonesty. It stuck with her up until her political downfall, just over three years after she took office, following an election where she tried and failed to regain the trust of the Australian people.

After being ousted, Gillard was brought up on charges of corruption, dating back some twenty years. The Royal Commission came to nothing, and was widely deemed a witch-hunt, undertaken by former political rivals. Gillard was guilty of a lapse in professional judgment, not corruption, held the Commissioner.

The historian Marilyn Lake summarizes, regarding Gillard's brief reign:

It is now a truism that history will prove more sympathetic to Gillard's prime ministership... than contemporary commentators have been.

What will mostly attract historians' attention, however, will be how she was treated, the rabid misogyny, the hysteria of men who could not abide the spectacle of a woman in power, who labeled her a bitch, a witch, a liar, a usurper, an illegitimate claimant who refused to bow down before her male rivals.

Remind you of anything - or rather, anyone, as she has been depicted in the media?

But even if the parallels between the portrayals of Clinton and Gillard are allowed to be striking, are they telling? Assuming the allegations directed at Gillard were unfair and gendered, as many Australian commentators would now agree with Lake that they were, Clinton has surely earned her reputation for mendacity, it may be replied by fellow members of the Sanders-supporting left. But that's actually much less clear than it has been made out to be. And we have been troublingly impervious to relevant counterevidence.

Three weeks ago, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, published a piece in The Guardian entitled, "This May Shock You: Hillary Clinton is Fundamentally Honest." Abramson would seem well-qualified to testify to this effect, having covered the Clintons for a decade as Washington bureau chief before becoming editor. If Abramson had a nickel...

I would be 'dead rich'... if I could bill for all the hours I've spent covering just about every 'scandal' that has enveloped the Clintons. As an editor I've launched investigations into [Hillary's] business dealings, her fundraising, her foundation and her marriage. As a reporter my stories stretch back to Whitewater...

That makes what I want to say next surprising. Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.

Abramson granted that Hillary's decision to use a private email server was a bad one, and even called her acceptance of such hefty speaking fees from Wall Street "colossally stupid... but not corrupt. There are no instances I know of where Clinton was doing the bidding of a donor or benefactor."

Abramson argued that Clinton is being held to a gendered double standard in the media, citing her former student Colin Diersing on the norm of purity for female politicians. When Hillary Clinton behaves as other politicians do, or changes her positions, she is perceived as more dishonest and as having less integrity. Yet, as Abramson points out, Clinton has the highest rating on Politifact - reflecting the percentage of her controversial statements that turned out to be true - of any politician in the race, Sanders included (in his case, by a small margin). Nor have the latest round of scandal-gates added to the number of smoking guns - which currently stands at "zilch," as The Rolling Stone put it, in their endorsement of Clinton recently. Rather, Abramson continues, articles on Clinton tend to "raise serious questions" about "'potential' conflicts of interest or lapses in her judgment." Ask these questions often enough, and it's bound to raise suspicions. All the more so when they are feeding into gendered tropes and stereotypes as old as misogyny itself - e.g., of the woman who can't be trusted, and to whom we hence don't have to listen. Nearly six in ten Americans don't trust Clinton currently, and more stories feeding the rumor mill come out on a daily basis.

In view of this, and with its deliberately splashy headline, Abramson's piece might have been expected to get some traction. So the response which it actually received is noteworthy: crickets. Just twenty stories citing it have appeared since it came out, many in local outlets. The few commentators who have responded in larger venues have been skeptical or incredulous. One wrote: ""This may shock you, but the sky is green and the grass is blue." Hillary's terrible ratings for dishonesty? Sexism."

Many people are similarly dismissive of the idea that gender has played an important role in creating and maintaining Clinton's reputation as a liar. (Pulling the "gender card," as it's called, is a verboten move in many playbooks. The "'gender card' card" is often used to enforce this, ironically.) Others don't dismiss this possibility out of hand, but throw their hands up, when it comes to explaining Clinton's disproportionately poor reputation on this score, and high negatives in general. Is she being impugned as Hillary, as a Clinton, as a member of the establishment, or as a woman seeking office?

But insofar as Julia Gillard faced very similar attacks in Australia, the last of these hypotheses gains significant credibility. There was no analog of 'Clinton Derangement Syndrome' to explain the treatment of Gillard - her partner is a hair stylist, with no involvement in party politics. The most obvious commonality between the two politicians is their both being women who sought positions of unprecedented political power in their respective nations, and went head-to-head with a male rival (or a series of them). Maybe all of this overlap is merely a coincidence, or has another common cause. Maybe it owes to the fact that these two women are, in fact, both Lady Macbeth-like characters with similar proclivities and vices. But, frankly, I doubt it.

"Ditch the witch," and "Burn the witch," Gillard's opponents cried in her time, and their wish was soon granted. Now some of Sanders' supporters are chanting, "Bern the witch," in turn - unwittingly echoing misogynistic cries once heard across the Pacific ocean. There are many valid criticisms of Clinton, and legitimate reasons to vote for Sanders instead, whose political goals happen to be more in line with my own. But justifying such means in terms of these ends doesn't survive moral scrutiny. Marilyn Lake asked of Gillard: "How could we have foreseen what would befall her? The relentless persecution by senior male journalists, the vilification, the sexist mockery, the personal abuse and the contempt with which she would be treated..." Lake's question as applied to Clinton is no longer a rhetorical one. May we learn from recent history, lest it repeat itself ad nauseam.