Hillary Clinton, in her first interview after leaving the State Department, offered a wise metaphor about the current state of presidential election madness. “This election is more than three years away, and I just don’t think it’s good for the country,” she told New York magazine, referring to the fevered speculation about her possible candidacy. “It’s like when you meet somebody at a party and they look over your shoulder to see who else is there, and you want to talk to them about something that’s really important; in fact, maybe you came to the party to talk to that particular person, and they just want to know what’s next,” she says. “I feel like that’s our political process right now. I just don’t think it is good.”
Clinton knows what it’s like to be on both ends of that exchange. She was a political spouse; the shortsighted looked over her shoulder for many years, seeing her as merely an adjunct to her accomplished husband. Now, she is the person who draws every eye in the room — away from even her husband. (When someone says “Clinton”, it may not be long before a majority of people think of the former secretary of state and not the former president).
Most presidential candidates strain for attention. They rush to Iowa, write books or take extreme positions on controversial issues. Clinton has to do the opposite, trying to flee from the circus ready to chase her down the grocery store aisle. But she’s in a bind. If she makes too much news this far ahead of the 2016 presidential election, there’s a chance people will tire of her candidacy. (Update, Sept. 24: Joan Walsh of Salon says she’s feeling Clinton fatigue already.) If she steps back, though, the unstoppable flow of Clinton stories will come anyway (especially the highly unflattering ones that feature people loosely associated with Clinton world, like the New Republic profile of Doug Band, who once oversaw the Clinton Global Initiative). Not all of these people leave a good impression.
Clinton is perhaps the first presidential candidate of the modern age who needs a Rip Van Winkle strategy — a disappearing act that removes her from the witless swirl of speculation and gossip that preserves her presidential options. But what is this strategy? Does she go on a kibbutz for a year? What about a prayer retreat? She is a woman of skill. Surely, she can find some way to escape from the clatter or at least turn it into a force for good. (Perhaps she should launch a website on mindless Clinton speculation and donate the ad revenue from the site to one of the worthy causes she’s been promoting most of her adult life).
It’s frankly hard to imagine a place she could retreat (without the aid of rocket propulsion) that would quiet the appetite of editors, gossips and TV producers. Retreating would give voters a pause and Clinton a chance to live a normal life, but there’s also a governing benefit: We get sick of our presidents pretty quickly in the age of the hyper news cycle. Who pays attention to an Obama speech these days? With candidates starting to position themselves for the presidency earlier and earlier, it’s almost certain that we’ll be sick of the next president by the time he or she is in office. If Hillary Clinton is that president, it will be particularly acute in her case.