The problem with Hillary Clinton’s anecdotes

HRCNHAs is her wont, Hillary Clinton is telling tales on the campaign trail. Eight years ago, she cited her landing in Sarajevo during the Balkans war under sniper fire and having “to run with our heads down” from the plane as evidence that she had more foreign policy experience than then-Senator Barack Obama.  Pointing to video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia that showed her walking calmly on the tarmac with daughter Chelsea at her side, an Obama spokesman claimed that Clinton was exaggerating her role in foreign affairs.  In reply, Clinton exaggerated “I say a lot of things — millions of words a day — so if I misspoke, that was just a misstatement”.

While Clinton has left the Bosnia whopper behind – perhaps on a Sarajevo landing strip – she has been telling apocryphal stories in this election cycle as well.  Two describe rejections from government agencies because of her sex.   One hoary yarn dates back well over 50 years while the other allegedly transpired a mere four decades ago circa 1974-75.  In the early 1960s, the first story goes, a 12-14 year old Hillary Clinton, like so many other tweens and teens, besotted by the space program, inquired of NASA whether there might be any openings for her.

As Clinton related as early as 1992, the space agency’s response was blunt and brutal.  “[W]e are not accepting girls as astronauts.”  This past July, Clinton told an audience in New Hampshire this July how NASA circa 1961 curtly rejected her with a “Thank you very much, but were [sic] not taking girls.”

Hillary Clinton’s other formative brush with sexism occurred in the mid-70s.  In 1994, Maureen Dowd, then a reporter at the New York Times, wrote about a speech the first lady gave to a group honoring woman in the military.  Just after moving to Arkansas in 1975, Hillary told the group, she offered her services to the United States Marine Corps.  The Marines though didn’t want them.  “You’re too old, you can’t see and you’re a woman.  Maybe the dogs [the Army] would take you.”

Clinton is telling almost the exact same story right down to the dogs this year.  On November 10, Hillary described to a New Hampshire audience how she approached a marine recruiter about signing up.

He looks at me and goes, ‘Um, how old are you. And I said, ‘Well I am 26, I will be 27.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that is kind of old for us.’ And then he says to me, and this is what gets me, ‘Maybe the dogs will take you,’ meaning the Army.

In 2008, Bill Clinton said Hillary actually had tried to join the Army, aka the “dogs” (not the Marines), but was rejected because of bad eyesight.

Are either of these stories factual?  Maybe.  Both seem awfully pat and well-formed.  Moreover, Hillary’s dishonesty when describing her landing in Sarajevo and her wrong-headed insistence that her private email set up at the State Department complied with all pertinent regulations make it tough to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Still Hillary’s chestnuts could be true.  NASA didn’t start considering women as potential astronauts until the mid-60s or even later.  A recently-surfaced letter dated February 26, 1962, to a female college student who expressed interest in becoming the first woman in space noted “we have no existing program concerning woman astronauts nor do we contemplate any such plan.”

Hillary’s claim that she considered a career in the marines seems far-fetched.  For years, she had been active in the anti-war movement.   By the summer of 74, she was a budding political star.  She moved to Arkansas to be with Bill and she was teaching law at the University of Arkansas.  Is it plausible that pro-peace Hillary would have considered putting her relationship and her legal career on hold for the US Marine Corps?

Military veterans from the mid-70s say Hillary, with an Ivy league law degree, would have been welcomed with open arms into the JAG Corps regardless of gender and the coke bottle glasses she sported at the time.  Still a recruiter may have brushed her away if he thought she intended to enlist rather than join as a well-qualified officer with an advanced degree.

Dubious, apocryphal, but possibly accurate, the problem with Hillary’s tales isn’t their sketchiness, it’s their content.  They describe an America that no longer exists.  There have been a number of women astronauts since Hillary’s space dreams were or weren’t dashed.  Women have served in the marines since 1918 and are now being considered for every aspect of military service.  Simply put, the conflict that defines America today isn’t between the sexes. It’s ultimately not even between races. It’s between those favoring the economic interests of the 1% and everybody else.

But what about the gender pay gap.  A study just came out saying it’s real although it’s narrowing.  Here’s what the authors told Salon.

The wage gap still persists. It is better, but it is still a problem. But we were also looking at the general wage trends, and when you look at that, you find that the wage gap has narrowed mostly because women are becoming equal, but also because men’s wages have fallen. Men’s wages in 2014 were lower that they were in 1979 [if you adjust for inflation]. Low- and moderate-wage men have been losing economic ground. And we predict that 40 percent of the closing of the gender age gap is due to men’s wages becoming lower — which is obviously not the right way to close the gender wage gap.

Other quotes.

The decline of collective bargaining has led to the rise of inequality in this country and is one of the reasons we’ve seen this disconnect between pay and productivity. Women in unions make more than women that are not in unions. The gender pay gap is smaller in unionized workplaces. That is true for women of color, as well. Thinking of unions and how they affect women is important in thinking about increasing the bargaining power of women workers.

Regarding minimum wage, most of the workers who would be affected are women. The average minimum wage worker is a woman in her 30s who likely has children. People don’t think about the tipped minimum wage, and how we need to eliminate that; women are disproportionately more likely to populate low-wage tip occupations, and are more likely to be servers and waiters.

In other words the etiology of women’s relatively low pay is exactly the same as the low pay of the increasing numbers of poor and working class men – weak and declining unions and a low minimum wage that doesn’t cover all jobs.

Today the U.S. is a land with a few haves and many have nots.  While women, African-Americans, and Latinos are less likely than white men to be haves, a growing number of folks in every demographic (except the rich of course) are barely getting by.  In terms of mental health, the white working class has been especially hard hit in our winner-take-all economy with death rates skyrocketing among this group.

Far too many American women and (men) are worried about a “sticky floor”.  The so-called glass ceiling is almost  unimaginably distant.  In this environment, Hillary’s decades-old tales of putative difficulties won’t reverberate far beyond their intended audience –  highly educated women who overcame once imposing barriers.

Worse though than their limited resonance, Hillary’s dusty recollections may alienate those  white working-class voters who have abandoned the Democratic party in droves and whose support progressives need if they wish to regain legislative power across the nation.  As noted above, this demographic has suffered psychically worse than any other over the past thirty years.  For them, the early 60s – when NASA rejected young Hillary Rodham – was a golden era.  Even in 1974-75, when a plain-talking recruiter rendered still-born her nascent military career, their wages and influence were much greater than today.

With the eager help of right-wing media and high voltage preachers, working-class whites are apt to conflate the barriers that Hillary couldn’t hurdle with their much better fortunes four decades ago or more.  In other words, this line of thinking goes, when girls and women knew their place, hard-working salt of the earth Americans like us made good middle-class wages, owned our own homes, and sent our kids to the state college.  Now with the government making women astronauts and Army rangers, we’re living in trailer parks and lucky to get $10 an hour at Walmart.

The truth of course is that the mostly abandoned progressive economic policies FDR initiated in the 1930s and 40s led directly to the broad-based prosperity of the 50s and 60s and ultimately to the successes of the civil rights, women’s, and environmental movements among others.

If Hillary Clinton is committed to protecting women’s rights and improving their economic lot, she should remind affluent progressive voters that we enacted civil rights laws and reversed policies enshrining sexist attitudes when the middle-class was thriving and the working-class was secure.  She should also explain directly and convincingly to those tens of millions who have been left behind how, if she becomes President, she would pursue the economic policies that brought them economic security.  In other words, she must forthrightly promise to fight for a resurgent union movement, a living wage for all employees, to raise top marginal tax rates, and to reverse free trade policies.  These, not unsubstantiated disingenuous self-aggrandizing tales, can make America truly great for all of us.

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