Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cato the Elder, the great Roman senator, stood for the proposition “Carthago delenda est” — we should destroy Carthage. Thomas Jefferson ran for president to protect the yeoman farmers from Hamiltonian big government. James Polk promised to steal Texas from the Mexicans. Abe Lincoln stood to preserve the Union. FDR promised to defeat the Great Depression with bold experimentation. Ike would end the Korean War. Ronald Reagan promised to build up our military strength, defeat Soviet communism and cut taxes and spending.

And last weekend Hillary Rodham Clinton presented herself for election to the presidency of the United States with the timeless, clarion call: “So let’s talk. Let’s chat, let’s start a dialogue about your ideas and mine, because the conversation in Washington has been just a little one-sided lately, don’t you think?”

The junior senator from the Empire State may not be leading with her strength with the theme of “a time for chatting.” Of all the politicians who have strode, minced, ambled or marched across the stage of American politics over the years, Hillary may be the one least likely to induce the desire to be chatted up by.

I can imagine wanting to chat with Bill Richardson (in fact I have — he’s good company). Hillary’s husband is obviously a world-class chatter — among other things. Harry Truman would be a ball to chat with — presumably over a few bourbons. One could have gossiped with FDR over martinis and cigarettes for hours. Even Barack Obama looks like an amiable conversationalist. We could compare our dope-smoking days, or the merits of different south sea beaches — if that isn’t the same topic.

But whether with politicians or the gent or lady at the next bar stool, the essence of chatting is lightness and spontaneity. And, while Hillary Millhouse Rodham Clinton may have many sterling qualities — lightness and spontaneity are so not among them that she ought to consider firing the staffer who suggested that “let’s chat” line.

She is about as spontaneous as the old Soviet Politburo. One has the sense that she has been planning this moment since about 1957. And she only compounded the problem with that closing observation that “conversation in Washington has been a little one-sided lately, don’t you think?”

Can you imagine Hillary having a sincere, two-sided conversation with you — a total stranger? She would have that huge painted-on smile aimed at your eyes, while her eyes would be looking over your shoulder to her handler with the exasperated “get me out of here” look.

And who can blame her. No politicians wants to chat with the public about the issues. Does anyone think that Hillary wants to get a total, ignorant stranger’s view on health-care policy, when she has spent years perfecting a comprehensive governmental structure to deliver health care according to strict Swedish principles of governance?

One can picture her having to listen to some simple-minded suggestion about health care while thinking to herself (once again with that painful-to-look-at smile she forces on to her cold lips) “unless this clown can deliver a seven-figure campaign contribution, why is he wasting his breath?”

I am harping on this preposterous chatting gambit because it is part of an emerging pattern. In her first campaign for senator in 2000, she launched it with a “listening tour” of her newly adopted state. There was something both unctuous and condescending and also evasive about it. It was a calculated strategy of false intimacy.

Now, in this second stage of her plan to rule the world she has escalated from listening to chatting. And in her first “chat” with her public she presented herself in a tableau surrounded with a rainbow of other people’s children in an attempt — I suppose — to relate to all those housefrauen of whom she was, of late — so contemptuous.

She, who famously was not going to hang around the house and bake cookies, now can’t get enough of such false images. Not to be seen was her actual daughter, now working for a hedge fund (if ever a child has found a profession in keeping with the family instinct, a hedge fund for the Clintons is it).

What makes all this vacuous and phony imagery so curious is that Hillary is a serious and powerfully directed person. She has strong, informed and considered policies on many of the great issues of our day. While a conservative will not usually agree with them, I have respect for her seriousness of purpose.

But the compulsion to false self-presentation is a disqualifying character trait for the presidency. And unlike her husband, she lacks the lightness and dexterity to hide that fatal flaw.

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