Why a Ruthless Hillary Clinton and a Ruthless Chris Christie Aren’t the Same Thing

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Feb. 11 2014 6:47 PM

In Ruthlessness We Trust

But be careful—not all cutthroat politicians are the same.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers remarks after being presented the 2013 Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize December 6, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Are 1992 Hillary Clinton and 2014 Hillary Clinton the same person?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Let us now praise ruthless men. And women. The two most talked-about potential presidential candidates in 2016 are enduring public examinations of their ruthlessness. In New Jersey federal investigators, the legislature, and the press are looking at whether Gov. Chris Christie knew aides in his office sought to punish a local official for not supporting their boss by closing portions of the George Washington Bridge. At the same time, Hillary Clinton is going through one of the periodic public checkups she has enjoyed since emerging on the national stage in 1992. A new book, HRC, describes a carefully tended Clinton enemies list where the couple kept track of those who had abandoned or betrayed them. The private diaries of a close confidante, first reported on by the Washington Free Beacon, describe first lady Hillary Clinton’s desire to punish everyone from anonymous leakers to an Arkansas publisher during her husband’s presidency.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Partisans react to these developments predictably; your opponent’s penchant for ruthlessness is a sign of his or her low character. That’s wrong. Ruthlessness is a necessary political skill, particularly for presidents. The task is to make an assessment about whether a particular politician uses it effectively or not. There are limits to ruthlessness—abuse of power and crippling vindictiveness—but we shouldn’t mistake signs of the trait as necessary proof a politician is locked into its excesses. 

Politics is a profession so clouded with self-love, self-dealing, and greed that in some cases the only way you can make progress is if you use a pickax. That means knowing how to use intimidation and retribution—and recognizing that every tool of the office can be a weapon if you hold it right. In presidential campaigns some voters are uncomfortable with politicians who show an aptitude for arm-twisting. That, in turn, leads to a lot of wasted time as politicians pretend that they are not skilled in the activities required for the job that they’re trying so hard to get. It gets circular fast: You deceive to prove that you are not deceptive. 

Democratic strategist James Carville once famously compared Hillary Clinton with President Obama by suggesting the former first lady had more guts than the president, though Carville referred to a part of the anatomy physiologically unavailable to a female candidate. Reading Diane Blair’s journals you see what Carville was talking about. “HC still in despair that nobody in WH tough and mean enough,” writes the political science professor, a longtime Arkansas friend of the Clintons, who died in 2000 and whose papers were donated to the University of Arkansas. “Most people in this town have no pain threshold,” she quotes Clinton as saying in another entry. When something is blocked in the White House, “HC urging hard ball.” Hillary Clinton spends the weekend reorganizing the White House, planning firings and punishing leakers, but Blair says it ultimately frustrates the first lady because her husband won’t pull the trigger.

These are stories about events more than 20 years ago, but they read with potency because they offer an intimate portrait of a figure who has worked hard to shield herself from penetrating insights.

If voters are ambivalent about toughness in their politicians, they are particularly so about it in female politicians. One of the benefits of the Diane Blair documents is that they offer us a historical marker for national attitudes about women and power in the early 1990s before Clinton became the most influential American female politician of her time. “What voters find slick in Bill Clinton, they find ruthless in Hillary,” reads a strategy memo in the files from the 1992 campaign. “While voters genuinely admire Hillary Clinton’s intelligence and tenacity, they are uncomfortable with these traits in a woman. She needs to project a softer side—some humor, some informality.” 

As first lady, Clinton was a “pioneer in an anachronistic role,” as Blair put it. More than 20 years later, Clinton may still have less room to appear tough than a male candidate. But the question about Clinton’s toughness isn’t limited to public perceptions about it. Now the question is, when does ruthlessness cross the line beyond its utilitarian benefits and into something more damaging?

Presidents need to be self-confident but not arrogant, focused but not living in a bubble, wise but not too professorial, a leader but not a tyrant. The Christie and Clinton stories offer us an opportunity to examine where ruthlessness should begin and end in the most powerful office in the land.

In New Jersey the ruthlessness of the Christie operation bled over into its abuse of power, but so far there is no connection between Christie and his aides. In the Blair documents, Clinton is ruthless in conversation in a way that we never have seen with Christie. It’s gripping reading, but it’s more figurative than real; Clinton couldn’t abuse power because as first lady she had none. Furthermore, the machismo displayed in private conversations with a friend requires a caveat. It’s possible that Clinton, powerless and under siege, talked tougher on the phone precisely because she couldn’t follow through in real life. 

Abuse of power is not the only downside of ruthlessness. The danger is that it can lead to an all-consuming vindictiveness. There is nothing wrong per se with an enemies list of the kind reported in HRC. In a business of leverage and power, it’s almost a best practice. Bill Clinton raised money for Sen. Claire McCaskill, and then she said she wouldn’t let him near her daughter. She also endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary. That would seem to be the kind of offense so glaring you wouldn’t need a cheat sheet to remember it. But politics can get confusing. McCaskill has already endorsed Hillary for president in 2016. But there were also lesser officeholders who caused offense who occupied the enemies list spreadsheet, and in ensuing elections for attorney general and Congress, Bill Clinton campaigned in Democratic primaries against candidates who had backed Obama against his wife.

Tending to a list of enemies and ingrates can become a problem if imagining and carrying out retribution become the focus of too many hours in the day. You lose the theme of your office. Before Richard Nixon graduated to abusing power, he was consumed with his political enemies.

So if the question for Christie is whether the culture of easy retribution fostered the excesses of the George Washington Bridge scandal, the question for Clinton is whether the constant attention to allies and enemies can ever become an overwhelming distraction.

It hasn’t in some of Clinton’s relationships. She does not hold grudges when they become impractical, the best example of that being her reconciliation with Barack Obama and her constant and unwavering loyalty to him. She developed a relationship with Gen. David Petraeus, even though she essentially accused him of misleading the country about the Iraq war. In the Blair documents, Clinton even seems to offer a kind word for former Sen. Al D’Amato, whom she nevertheless loathed for his attacks during the investigations into the Clintons’ Whitewater investments.

If you spend all your time erecting battlements, it becomes a prison. This is where President Obama’s Hawaii demeanor helps him, say those who have worked for him. He doesn’t become consumed with combat. One thing that is clear from the Blair documents is that the Clinton White House was a near-constant state of chaotic confrontation. According to Blair, the weight of that siege, and maintaining the constant mask that they weren’t bothered by it at all, is what Hillary says led her husband to have an affair with Monica Lewinsky.

But Blair’s notes are from a time capsule: They capture part of Clinton’s worldview from almost 20 years ago, when she responded to the pressure cooker with off-key comments about having chosen a career instead of baking cookies and countered truthful reports by saying they were the product of a vast right-wing conspiracy. She has had two distinct careers since then, in the Senate and the State Department, which show no evidence of the debilitating embattlement that consumed those early Clinton years. But those periods are also obscured, particularly the events leading up to and after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, so there’s still much to be assessed.

Ruthless is not a word associated with Barack Obama’s style of politics. Many of his supporters wish he were tougher with Republicans. As Dan Balz reports in Collision 2012, when Obama’s pollsters held focus groups, they kept hearing people talk about Lyndon Johnson. Voters wanted Obama to embody a little of LBJ’s bareknuckle grit because they thought it would make him more effective with Congress. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes, Obama, like Bush before him, was “neither particularly liked nor feared. Accordingly, neither had many allies in Congress who were willing to go beyond party loyalty, self-interest, or policy agreement in supporting them."

President Obama’s 2008 message of progress through cooperation is not available to candidates in 2016. Instead, the intense partisanship of the day means a successful candidate is likely to have more success convincing voters that cooperation will come through strength and steel. In that case, Clinton, will be making an implicit claim that she is tougher than the man whom she seeks to replace. It will be another pioneering role.