Hillary Clinton has endured decades of scrutiny more often embarrassing than adoring. But now Hillary love has gone viral, with the very youthful demographic that scornfully dismissed her as a presidential candidate ready to embrace her. Much like the unprecedented campaign to put geriatric comedienne Betty White on Saturday Night Live, Texts from Hillary crowned the secretary of state “head b***h in charge.” Now too cool to accept Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook friend request, or recognize Jay-Z’s phone number, she has left the decades of headbands, healthcare and “harpy” in the dust of her C-17 military plane, perhaps for good.
To top it all off, Hillary submitted her own text exchange, complete with photo proof, to the Texts From Hillary creators, crowning the meme and destroying it in one deft move. (Finally, her sense of humor and genuine confidence were displayed in a way that Hillary the candidate would have loved to achieve during her campaign.) With the fourth wall broken, the creators, who say they realize their project had peaked, will no longer update TFH, leaving it as an artifact of Hillary Clinton’s pop culture ascendancy. Spotted on Tumblrs and Facebook pages after Madame Secretary’s contribution: “OMG <3 HER,” “Hillary is amazeballs” and even “please, please let her be our next President.” With all this buzzy adoration from the 18–34 demographic, many, including Maureen Dowd and TPM’s Benjy Sarlin are now wondering if 2016 could find Hillary on a Shepard Fairey poster after all. A recent Gallup poll has her near her all-time popularity high.
Hillary winning the Internet didn’t come out of nowhere, though. First, there was the viral appreciation for her speech on gay rights as human rights and as an integral consideration in US foreign policy. Her reception at the Women in the World conference was equally warm, with a glowing introduction by Meryl Streep and a standing ovation. Then the William Jefferson Clinton library released these Instagram-tastic photos dating to the Clintons’ breezier days of youth. The pictures of midriff-baring, volleyball-toting Clintons reminds me of another Tumblr hit, Eliot Glazer’s My Parents Were Awesome, which features portraits of pre-kid boomers as the “free-wheeling, fashion-forward, super awesome” people they were before carpools and weekend Costco runs.
Speaking as a millennial, I wonder whether the belated celebration of Clinton emerges out of that same impulse that inspired Glazer and the many contributors to his site to appreciate our parents as people, rather than foils against whom we can only rebel. Be honest, folks—no one thought Hillary was cool in 2008. Reams of column inches (and eventually, for Rebecca Traister and Gail Collins, book chapters) were devoted to her lack of cool, often credited to a discomfort with a woman so earnestly ambitious, Tracy Flick–style. Amy Poehler played her alongside Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin as an exasperated, long-suffering victim of comments like “shrew” and ‘boner-shrinker,” transparently frustrated by her defeat in that year’s Democratic primary.
Four years later, Poehler still performs as Clinton’s pop-culture doppelgänger, now via her beloved character, the equally ambitious and proudly feminist Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation—a show that is, no coincidence, a steady hit with younger audiences. This time, it’s comedy mixed with no small dose of homage.
Yet the lessons the young, newly energized left learned after Obama ceased being a candidate and started being a president still apply: memification carries its own pitfalls. In 2008 it was Obama who had the pose, attitude and sangfroid perfectly suited to the Internet’s vocabulary of symbols, body language and hyperbolic shorthand. Obama was the candidate who was both pilloried and celebrated for being a “celebrity.” Yet after he took office, it was his very beatification during the campaign that seemed foolish. Many who fell for the Hope-Change-Yes-We-Can brand, burnished by poster art and that Will.i.am video, felt that their sincere belief was revealed as overeager projection.
So once we absorb the sheer irony of Hillary being the a Post-Teen Choice Favorite, we should consider whether or not she, were she holding elected office, would be doomed to disappoint her young fans in the same way. After all, as Joe Biden knows, looking good in sunglasses is just one of many criteria for strong leadership.
Even Traister, a Clinton supporter in 2008, noted last August in the New York Times that
visions…of Obama as an appeasement-happy crypto-Republican and Hillary as a leftist John Wayne who would have whipped those Congressional outlaws into shape — they were all invented…. She was…a senator who…[co-sponsored] legislation with Republicans, who voted to go to war in Iraq, who moved to the center on everything from Israel to violent video games.
Much of Clinton’s record as secretary of state is admirable, starting with her diplomatic philosophy, as quoted in The Economist: “In the 21st century, a diplomat is as likely to meet with a tribal elder in a rural village as a counterpart in a foreign ministry, and is as likely to wear cargo pants as a pinstriped suit.” Yet for progressives, Clinton’s aggressive militarism is still a problem. Her presidential campaign received far more money from defense contractors than any other candidate—Democrat or Republican. In both her 2007 and 2009 speeches before the Council on Foreign Relations, she called for a “tough-minded, muscular foreign and defense policy.” Clinton engineered the US intervention in last year’s Libyan conflict, in a move that won her accolades for her celebrated resolve, but set a precedent for aggression justified by humanitarian objectives. Is a fantasy of a take-no-prisoners unilateralism—the sort Obama, for reasons good and bad, hasn’t embraced—the real attraction behind the viral sensation?
In many ways, Clinton has earned her late-breaking adoration. Out of the harsh spotlight of a competitive political race, her genuinely likable, funny and self-confident personality has come through, all while she maintains a grueling schedule and forcefully advocates for women and sexual minorities. Clinton has been so thoroughly vetted, and so genuinely evolved in her comfort with the spotlight, that we may be celebrating a real person more than an attractive cipher. Come 2016, however, if Clinton returns to the national stage as a presidential candidate, we may have to reconcile ourselves again to the three-dimensional character, and not her superfly persona. Considering how Obama’s tendencies to compromise and equivocate in the name of bipartisanship frustrated his young supporters, we should gird ourselves for even greater disappointment in store with Clinton—after all, she was the first lady of the Third Way.
But don’t get me wrong—I come to praise Clinton, not to bury her. If all it took for Obama to regain his younger fans was some off-the-cuff Al Green, surely a tweet or two from brunch with Meryl and all will be forgiven—that is, until the tough decisions of a presidential workweek begin.