As Kate McKinnon takes the SNL stage in her monochromatic pantsuit, a conniving grin appears on her face. She acts out one of the satirical media’s favorite caricature: the ambitious, scheming, and deceiving Hillary Clinton. The Onion plays the game too, releasing an article entitled “New Hampshire Covered In Shadow As Floating Clinton Campaign Headquarters Takes Up Position Over State.” This is the Hillary Clinton who stops at nothing to achieve power, who lies to her people before she scoffs at them behind the scenes. It’s an image to which many American voters subscribe.
A substantial majority of Hillary’s critics cite her apparent untrustworthiness as the main reason they dislike her. Among younger voters, particularly on social media, she is specifically described as dishonest, untrustworthy, disingenuous, and even inhuman. When asked why, many will mention Benghazi, her mixed policy record, or her status as a Washington “insider.” Some will cite her voting history, some her perennial presence in Washington, and others simply find her too choreographed. But, these labels aren’t new — they are part of a larger history that has branded her with labels of dishonesty and coldness, whether she has warranted them or not. Hillary Clinton’s current public image has become a caricature as a result of decades of political attacks.
In 1992, Hillary Clinton became a household name when Bill Clinton moved from an under-the-radar Arkansas politician to a presidential candidate. From the start, Bill’s opponents dragged his wife into the mudslinging politics of the Democratic primary. Jerry Brown, a rival candidate in the Democratic presidential primary, famously accused him of having illegally funneled money to his wife’s law firm back in Arkansas. Brown even alleged that Hillary, while working at an Arkansas law firm, conspired to permit and cover up the contamination of an Arkansas water source. In the debate, he specifically directed the allegations at Bill’s wife; it fit into his larger strategy of using Hillary to target Bill’s electability and legitimacy.
By the general election, Republicans saw a powerful potential vulnerability in Bill’s campaign: Hillary. From then on out, Republicans viciously attacked Hillary by constructing an image of a corrupt, lying, “overbearing yuppie wife from hell,” to borrow the term used by an Ohio television interviewer. As one Republican consultant said to The New York Times in 1992, “it’s just that she’s grating, abrasive and boastful. There’s a certain familiar order of things, and the notion of a coequal couple in the White House is a little offensive to men and women.” Though Republican attacks targeted Bill’s administration, their criticisms of Hillary were often charged with sexism and misogyny. Frustrated by a woman’s independent role in public life, Republican, media, and public opposition forced her to retreat to family life while she fended off accusations of being too overbearing and ambitious. And when Hillary tried to take an active political role, the same critics shot her down as too outspoken and power-hungry. Consequently, anyone who disagreed with the Clinton administration could use Hillary’s image as an influential tool against it.
In very little time, opponents of the Clintons had another informal partner: the media. Both liberal and conservative media became obsessed with accusations of scandal and corruption, even when the evidence wasn’t quite there. In 1994, New York Times journalist Jeff Gerth wrote about the “Whitewater Scandal,” wherein he accused the Clintons of having harmful criminal associations. At the time, 52 percent of the nation believed that Hillary had lied about her involvement with such shady characters. While the allegations were later found to be almost completely fabricated, citizens were already used to Hillary’s image as a liar and a corrupt insider. The barrage of accusations against her kept coming: the media charged that she forced her husband to fire White House staffers, that she was responsible for the death of a government employee, and that she accepted bribes. Hillary was now the scheming, out-of-place wife whispering commands into her husband’s ears. Put out by the attention-hungry media and perpetuated by the disgruntled Republican Party, Hillary’s political caricature was stuck in the minds of the populace. As much as the Clintons tried to chase down the hasty accusations, catching up to a lie was a wild-goose chase.
Over the years, these accusations blurred the line between the personal and the political. The media and critics of the Clinton administration started to target Hillary’s character, regardless of whether it implicated policy. All the alleged “scandals” of the Clinton administration culminated in a harsh, retributive essay by a well-known New York Times columnist, William Safire. Safire wrote in this 1996 essay, “Blizzard of Lies,” that Hillary was a “congenital liar…compelled to mislead and to ensnare her subordinates and friends in a web of deceit.” In turn, Americans started to identify with the media’s criticisms of Hillary. By Bill Clinton’s second term, she had under a 50 percent approval rating – down over 20 points from the start of her husband’s presidency.
Ten years passed as Hillary assumed a comparatively lower profile. In 2007, after having served as a United States Senator, she decided to run for president. Having disassociated herself from her husband’s political battles, she now found her own adversaries – most notably, Senator Barack Obama. Obama’s advisors saw that Hillary had a history of trust issues and an image of competitiveness and over-ambition that could keep her from the nomination. A leaked memo from Obama’s advisor, David Axelrod, laid out a comprehensive plan to defeat Clinton. According to Axelrod’s analysis, Obama would have to paint her as a candidate “driven by political calculation,” concerned with eliminating the opponent, and suspiciously connected to lobbyists and donors. In order to beat her, Obama needed to define himself more sincere and genuine in the face of her plotting politics. “The change we can believe in,” Obama’s famous campaign slogan, intentionally targeted Hillary’s image of deceit and self-interest. This was a crucial feature of the 2008 primary, as Axelrod and Obama went after her character as much as her policies. They were, to an extent, responding to the perceptions of many people, as shown by the outcome of the nominating process. The result was somewhat of a feedback loop: voters distrusted her, which the Obama campaign exploited by emphasizing her duplicity and Obama’s comparative sincerity, which in turn led to more distrust of Hillary. But whether through the people or the politicians, the 2008 campaign entrenched and perpetuated her negative image.
Now, after Hillary Clinton served as the nation’s Secretary of State, the Ghost of Politics Past came back to haunt her. Republicans have come at her with new scandals and allegations, such as Benghazi and her private email server. Conveniently, but far from coincidentally, the subsequent hearings and investigations came prior to the 2016 election. The criticisms bore a surprising similarity to those thrown at her before: that she skirted the law, that she lied to save herself, and that she put American citizens in grave danger. Yet in all of these accusations, Hillary’s opponents were running far ahead of the evidence in a suspiciously partisan effort, and as New Yorker journalist John Cassidy phrased it, “slinging more mud at Clinton in the hope that some of it would stick.” But Clinton was muddy enough already. Progressives view her as uncommitted, finance-reformists view her a political puppet, and other opponents view her as engulfed in secrecy.
When political or policy decisions are connected to an individual’s character, it becomes extremely difficult to separate them. Decades of public involvement have entangled Hillary Clinton’s persona in a web of politically motivated sexism, partisan battles, and scandal-hungry media. Now, when voters young and old watch SNL or read The Onion’s satirical jibes, they laugh: that’s the Hillary they know. In turn, when it comes time to cast their vote, they incessantly question, “Can I trust her? Do I want such a competitive, political woman to represent me?” Many people, it seems, are unaware that the reason they’re even asking these questions has more to do with a long history of partisan slander than it does with Hillary’s true character.