There is a song in South Pacific that the musical’s Broadway sponsors wanted excised because they felt it cut too close to the social bones of 60 years ago. Everyone knows it. It runs, in part, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six or seven or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate/You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
Hate is the new four-letter word in America. There are already hate speech and hate crimes on the statute books and, as my colleague Edward Luce recounted in last weekend’s FT, there are now hate politics, too. Perhaps there always have been, even before the megaphones of the internet and Twitter amplified them. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr did not fight a duel to the death in 1804 because they loved each other.
But my focus here is on the verb — taught. I would argue that Hillary Clinton is what she is, or appears to be, today because America has been taught to hate her for a quarter of a century and if you say something often enough it sticks. This is not a defence of the Democratic nominee or even the cause — I do not know her though I’ve met her husband in a professional capacity — but it is one possible explanation.
It is necessary to go back to 1992, when Republicans were cock-a-hoop and conservatism was seeking to build on the Reagan presidency. The party had held the White House for 12 years, and for 20 of the previous 24, and though George HW Bush was far from the answer to the rightwing’s dream, he was holding the fort. After the first Iraq war, his 90 per cent approval rating seemed to assure him of a second term, during which Republicans would work on wresting control of Congress back from the Democrats.
Moreover, as they surveyed the political landscape, conservatives could see no one on the other side of the aisle to threaten this hegemony — not Al Gore, not Bill Bradley and certainly not Paul Tsongas. Then, out of left field, to be precise Arkansas, there emerged Governor Bill Clinton and he was clearly a different sort of Democratic cat — young, articulate, empathetic, centrist and with a political intelligence to be taken seriously. All the things that the first President Bush, for all his other good qualities, was not.
So decisions were taken to unhorse him before he started galloping and, if necessary, to delegitimise him if he became president, which, of course, he did. They started in the campaign, as women with whom he was alleged to have had affairs were paraded before cameras, and later as the murky details of the Whitewater land deals in Arkansas came to light. It was to dominate his first years in office, as, later, was “travel-gate,” much ado about nothing in the White House travel office. In the end, no one was found guilty of anything, much as Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor, tried.
Who were those behind it? Newt Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House after the 1994 mid terms, was already practised in the darker arts of political destruction which he applied indiscriminately to politicians (and their wives) he did not like — Jim Wright, the Democratic Speaker, and Bob Michel, his own minority leader, were far too middle of the road for his taste. Much of the blame for the lack of civil political discourse in America can be laid at the feet of Mr Gingrich — and he is still at it as a rent-a-quote (and adviser to Donald Trump).
There was the printed press — the American Spectator magazine, a conservative publication that imported a British hatchet hack for more muscle, and the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, one of whose strident editorials was apparently a factor in Vince Foster, the White House aide and long-time Clinton confidant, taking his own life (which was followed by charges from Congressman Dan Burton of Indiana that he was murdered, by or on the orders of Hillary Clinton).
In the mid 1990s, Fox News came into being, directed by Roger Ailes, an old hand in the dark arts and a White House aide in Richard Nixon’s time, giving the anti-Clinton forces a TV presence. On the radio, Rush Limbaugh was drawing ever larger audiences and spawning a host of copycats (Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity etc). Books tumbled in an endless stream out of rightwing publishing houses, such as Regnery.
Hillary Clinton called the cabal “a vast rightwing conspiracy”. The truth is that it wasn’t that big but it was effective and it did not let up. And then the president presented it with a gift — his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern, which led to his impeachment for lying under oath — but not, never forget, his conviction. He left office, after eight years of a robust economy producing an actual budget surplus and ready for the 21st century, with higher approval ratings than Ronald Reagan.
These were heavy crosses for his wife to bear and they followed her for the next dozen years into the Senate and the state department. You do not have to be Jeeves, who solved Bertie Wooster’s problems by applying “the psychology of the individual”, to come to the conclusion that her defensiveness is a product of these experiences — and that her reliance, perhaps to a fault, on a tight circle of trusted consiglieres is also a natural outcome.
Mr Trump is a relative johnny-come-lately to the Hillary-hating brigade (they used to be New York social acquaintances after all, if not actual friends) though calling her a criminal and promising to throw her in jail raises the venom to a new level. But he has been planting his seeds in well-tilled soil. Americans, in fact, had been carefully taught to hate Hillary, and not just her — it hasn’t exactly been easy for the first black president either.
As another part of the song goes, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/of people whose eyes are oddly made/and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade.” That is not an inaccurate picture of too many attitudes in the country today.
Get alerts on Hillary Clinton when a new story is published