Unliving History

If science fiction is as much about the present as the future, then alternate history is as much about the actual past as the imagined one. That Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, is alternate history as wish fulfillment (or, to echo Laura Miller, as fan fiction) is both more obvious and less interesting than just what kind of wish fulfillment it is. Although this version of Hillary wins the 2016 election, that development occurs only in the last ten pages of the novel and is almost an afterthought. The emotional engine of this peculiar, stilted book is not so much a desire for Hillary’s victory as a desire for her to be morally deserving of that victory, to be worthy in all senses of the historic role of first female president. The intellectual and historical contortions involved in producing that outcome are a reminder of how limited and fragile the role of women in American political life still is.

Rodham‘s conceit, that Hillary declines Bill Clinton’s proposal of marriage and becomes a politician in her own right, doesn’t emerge until more than a third of the way through its 421 pages. First comes a long, dreary summary of their relationship: a passion simultaneously physical and intellectual, but riven by his infidelities and by hints of corruption and worse. Given the novel’s thesis that Bill Clinton is nothing but a political and moral liability for Hillary, the question of why their marriage has endured is obviously an important one, but this material, which is most at odds with the novel’s faux-political-memoir tone, is awkward and deeply unconvincing. Several reviewers have expressed discomfort with the sex scenes, but as Andrea Long Chu astutely observes in an otherwise dogmatic review, the problem is not that the reviewers are prudish but the novel is; a description of sex in which the most explicit word is “erection” doesn’t capture anything about passion. The attempts to convey intellectual ferment through snatches of dialogue are likewise artificial; they suggest only the author’s diligent research into period-appropriate one-line topics.

What actually distinguishes Bill and Hillary’s relationship in Rodham is that it’s the only one in which a man demonstrates intense physical desire for her. There are other boyfriends before and after him, but their attraction to her seems more dutiful, more subordinated to idealized romance. Given where this portrait of Bill Clinton ultimately goes, that’s probably meant to reflect well on the other men, but readers less eager to envision a Hillary surgically excised from the man with whom she has spent two-thirds of her life may note an unintended consequence. This is a view of the Clintons’ relationship that could have come from the crudest Hillary-hater: that they stayed together because he wanted her when no one else did, and that that was only because he wanted every woman he saw, whether she wanted him or not.

That “whether she wanted him or not” is key, because the most important thing about the Bill Clinton of Rodham is not that he’s a serial philanderer and a pig, which the real Bill Clinton unquestionably is, but that he’s also plainly guilty of sexual assault. (The novel’s preferred framing is “credibly accused of sexual assault,” but it exists in that heady intellectual space where a credible accusation is any accusation that’s not obviously false, and where credibly accused means presumptively guilty. One wonders what Sittenfeld makes of Tara Reade.) One of the things that pushes the novel’s Hillary to break up with Bill in 1974 is an encounter with a woman who accuses him of forcing himself on her. Given the novel’s quirk of renaming every character who isn’t an elected politician, she isn’t called Juanita Broaddrick, and the timing is off, but that’s the obvious point of comparison. The novel Hillary of 1974 doesn’t know what to make of that claim; by 2015, she’ll be more confident.

Before 2015, though, the novel makes a stop in 1991, when the Anita Hill hearings and Illinois Democrat Alan Dixon’s vote to confirm Clarence Thomas provide a launching pad for law professor Hillary Rodham’s political career, as they did in the real world for Carol Moseley Braun. Braun also seeks the seat in the novel, and the decision to run against her is one of the few flaws the fictional Hillary is permitted to have, and one of the few moments where daylight seems to exist, however fleetingly, between the narrator and the author. That this moment feels pro forma is a sign of Sittenfeld’s ill ease at giving this Hillary any complexity, but more than that it’s a sign of how unable she is to write about political compromise on a level of issue rather than image. She understands the superficial bad optics of a white woman appropriating a black woman’s challenge to a white man’s dismissal of another black woman, and can capture the white woman’s naive ignorance of those optics, but that’s about as far as she can go. Literally the only thing the novel mentions about Moseley Braun other than her race is that she shows up late to a fundraiser but is an impressive campaigner when she does get there. If Sittenfeld had made any effort to imagine the Clinton vs. Moseley Braun campaign on a substantive level, this reliance on stereotypes about black people being late would be at least a little less offensive than it is.

The other strand of Hillary Rodham’s 1991 life is her quasi-romance with a married colleague. All they ever do is hold hands– you can see why I call the novel prudish– but nonetheless Hillary holds herself morally culpable as if they were having a real affair– you can see what I mean about ill ease with complexity. She ends the relationship when she decides to run for office. That this colleague eventually commits suicide for reasons unrelated to Hillary is, I can only guess, meant to create a sort of parallel to the suicide of Vince Foster, but his character is so thinly drawn that the effect is one of mawkish sentimentality: this is just another tragedy for poor unlucky-in-love Hillary.

By 2015 Hillary Rodham is, like Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Her main opponent, however, is not Bernie Sanders, who goes unmentioned in this novel, but Bill Clinton. In the novel’s universe, Bill’s political career went just as it did in ours until the 1992 campaign, when his 60 Minutes interview about Gennifer Flowers fell apart because his wife, lacking Hillary’s composure, broke down crying, dooming his campaign. Disgusted at his loss, Bill left politics, moving to California and becoming a billionaire venture capitalist. Then, in 2015, he re-enters politics and, despite salacious rumors about drug-fueled Silicon Valley sex parties and darker ones about a history of sexual assault, he becomes a strong contender for the Democratic nomination, one whose supporters express their opposition to Hillary by chanting “Shut her up!”

I think it’s important, especially given how few reviews have done so, to stop a moment and underline what ludicrous bullshit every bit of that is. Unnecessary parallels with real events are a fixture of cheesy, plot-driven alternate history, but the extent to which this novel remixes 2015 with Bill Clinton in the role of Donald Trump is breathtakingly bizarre, especially since Trump himself appears in the novel, in the unlikely (by which I mean “impossible”) role of a Hillary surrogate. A sequence where Hillary accepts an endorsement from Trump that is drawn verbatim from Trump’s own anti-immigrant announcement speech is the capstone of a self-indulgent reworking so complete that “through the looking glass” doesn’t begin to cover it.

I hold no brief for Bill Clinton. The nicest thing I can say about him is that given the state of the country in the 1990s he was probably the best the Democrats could have hoped for, and I’m not even sure I believe that. But to portray him as a man whose entire political career could hinge on his wife’s demeanor in one interview, a man who would turn his back on public service after one failed primary campaign, a man who would indulge gross misogyny at his own political rallies? To take at face value every sexual allegation that emerged from the fever swamp of Arkansas politics? I don’t have to think highly of Bill Clinton to recognize that this is pure scapegoating, an almost ritualistic separation of everything that’s undesirable about “the Clintons” as historical figures into a saintly fictional Hillary and a devilish fictional Bill. That the real Hillary has a complicated political history of her own is, in a context where you can simply wish any unpleasant events away, no problem at all.

In the novel’s 1992, George Bush and Dan Quayle were reelected. The Democrats took back the White House in 1996, but Jerry Brown’s one-term presidency was followed by two terms of John McCain. The 9/11 attacks still happened, and the Iraq War apparently did as well, because the snippet from Trump’s repurposed announcement speech still talks about how we should have taken the oil when we left. But even though this Hillary was a senator in 2002, there’s no mention of how she voted on the AUMF, or of any effect that vote might have had on her political future. That Trump quote is the only appearance of the word “Iraq” in the novel, and Hillary Rodham’s great political error in the 2000s is not a vote but a quote: Sittenfeld hamhandedly relocates Hillary Clinton’s 1992 remark about baking cookies and having teas into Hillary Rodham’s abortive 2004 run for the presidency. She runs for president again in 2008, seeing herself (in one of the novel’s rare nods toward anything like political realism) as a potential VP candidate at best, but somehow, as in real history, she and Barack Obama become the front-runners and have more or less the same race they did in our 2008. Hillary Rodham does not, however, became Secretary of State, thus neatly erasing the invasion of Libya, the Benghazi attacks, and the private email server from her history.

Let me be clear: I think that all of these “scandals”– the Iraq vote, Libya, Benghazi, EMAILS!!– range from overblown to complete garbage. But they did happen, and they’re as much a part of why people reacted to Hillary 2016 they way they did as Clinton baggage and rank sexism. A Hillary who, despite 24 years in the Senate, is essentially tabula rasa is an utter fantasy. There’s a scene where a Rodham aide responds to Obama’s 2008 landslide by saying, “And all these years I believed Americans were more racist than sexist.” Rodham replies, “Did you really? … Given when the Fifteenth Amendment passed and when the Nineteenth did?” Leaving the historical illiteracy to one side (the real Hillary, I hope, also knows why the Reconstruction Amendments were possible and when the Voting Rights Act passed), what that exchange misses about 2008 is the contrast between Obama’s theoretically-transformative novelty and Clinton’s potentially-stagnating experience. That was a myth– Obama was always going to be the same kind of Democrat as Clinton– but it was a convincing myth because Obama had been on the national stage for all of two years before he began running for president. What Rodham attempts to do is to make Hillary 2016 into the same kind of empty vessel, empty not just of past actions she might have to explain away, but also of nuanced positions on any current issue.

This is where the absence of Bernie Sanders from the novel’s 2015 becomes significant; in the absence of a candidate who creates a meaningful ideological contrast with Hillary, the campaign can rest on the image-driven level where Sittenfeld is most comfortable. In an interview, she responded to a straw-man version of this criticism by acting as though she was being asked to turn the novel into a white paper, but there’s a large excluded middle between “really nitty-gritty with various Supreme Court decisions” and the ideological wasteland of Rodham. What made Hillary Clinton different from other first ladies (like Laura Bush, the subject of Sittenfeld’s roman a clef American Wife) was that she got into the political rather than limiting herself to the ceremonial and the uncontroversial, that she cared about the “nitty-gritty.” To create a Hillary free to think purely for herself and then not allow her to think anything beyond a few liberal bromides is as great an insult to the actual woman as the implication that she’d be better off without her husband of forty-five years.

The author doesn’t, I should make clear, have any obligations to Hillary Clinton, who has chosen to be a public figure, and is thus fair game for almost anything, even as an absurd a love letter as this. But there’s a bitter irony in the fact that Sittenfeld, who obviously cares about how unfairly our discourse treats female politicians, is at such pains to make Hillary Rodham almost preternaturally moral. The novel’s climax is a debate speech where Rodham calls out the public obsession with her “likability,” but what is this novel except an extended argument that people ought to like her? She is allowed token flaws– elbowing out Moseley Braun, accepting Trump’s endorsement– but the novel rushes past these matters so quickly there’s no time to take them seriously as compromises. Far more space is spent on her compassion– the bond she forms with a cancer patient who visits one of her rallies– and her diligent scrupulousness.

Freeing Hillary from Bill Clinton doesn’t just separate her from his moral failings. It also takes away the figurative asterisk that will forever remind us that the first female presidential candidate from a major party was also the wife of a former president, just as many of the first female members of Congress were wives and daughters of male politicians. It’s an ugly truth, but it is a truth, and I’m not sure that Rodham does us any favors by ignoring it. Would Hillary Rodham, or any other woman, have been a credible presidential candidate in 2016, let alone 2008? The fact that 2020, a year in which an unprecedented number of women were running for the Democratic nomination, quickly became a race between two elderly white men suggests a dispiriting answer. I can only echo Nora Caplan-Bricker’s observation that the best comparison to Hillary Rodham might be Amy Klobuchar.

I’ve said very little about Rodham as an example of the novel form, because it barely is one. Its voice is unquestionably that of a political memoir, full of trivial scene-setting, stilted dialogue, and abrupt summation, and light on unvarnished human emotion. I don’t know whether Sittenfeld meant even the most intense moments of Rodham’s life to feel curated, as if the narrator is carefully controlling for her reader’s expectations, but that’s the effect. A more sophisticated novel would generate at least some irony around this, but I think we’re meant to take Hillary Rodham at face value. If Sittenfeld had embraced the cod-memoir angle and fleshed out the underexplored aspects of Rodham’s life at the expense of the flabby soap opera of her relationship with Bill Clinton, this might have worked as a formal experiment. As it stands, I’m left with the impression that she simply couldn’t find a voice for Hillary Rodham without aping the tone of Hillary Clinton’s memoirs. That’s the novel’s greatest flaw: it wants to create a Hillary who stands alone, but its protagonist is every bit as artificial, and every bit as defined by her relationship with Bill Clinton, as the one in the popular imagination.


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