Last week, Hillary Clinton became the only person in the last 20 years to top Barbara Walter’s “Most Fascinating People” list twice; she’s also the only person to have been on it four times.
She made the most of the designation, too, using the television special’s interview to tease possible announcement of her presidential run.
“Sometime next year,” she told Walters, cue the sound of Washington holding its breath.
The list is hardly a scientific barometer of either public opinion or historical importance. For every Colin Powell (1995), there is a Dennis Rodman (1996); for every Maya Angelou (1993), a Monica Lewinsky (1999). Previous listees have been a walk of shame through the American public’s fickle and brief attention span (in retrospect, our infatuation with the likes of Lord of the Dance Michael Flately (1997) seems like a fever dream).
Their lasting impact, or at least continued celebrity, is elusive; more than a few entrants don’t even have the Walters list “honour” on their Wikipedia pages: Ian Wilmut (1997)? Oseola McCarty (1995)? And of all of the Spice Girls, Geri Halliwell (1998), really? And could it only have been four years ago that we cared about Kate Gosselin (2009)?
This transience is by design, of course. “Fascinating” is a brilliantly qualitative modifier, allowing Walters and her crew to shoe-horn into the show whatever tabloid creations, one-hit wonders and cultural cut-outs are most likely to draw the biggest crowd.
They call it the “Most Fascinating” list because there’s no television term for “link bait”; indeed, the roster of dignitaries on it (Powell, Mother Terasa, Condoleezza Rice) seems more dutiful than genuine, a function of journalistic pride not public interest.
Except when it comes to Hillary. The term’s intangibility and connotations of unhealthy obsession captures exactly the relationship between Hillary and the American public; she may be a legitimate historical figure and with a resume of serious policy achievements, but she’s also a signifier, a scandal survivor, a living and breathing flashpoint whose name can start an argument or end one.
That she, alone among all the would-bes and has-beens, has had been both a durable source of television ratings and original content seems to indicate that Hillary has solved a riddle that’s plagued all modern politicians: how to stay in the spotlight without getting burned by it.
That one can either be well-liked or well-known is the essential Catch-22 of polling; a look at a season of presidential primary data, or just the career Sarah Palin. Most practicing politicians see their favorability numbers peak upon election and then cycle mostly downward until they finally step out of the bruising arena of daily spin — upon which, miracles of redemption regularly occur (see Bush, George W)
As much as I admire her personally, I’m not sure that’s exactly the case. At some level, voters’ interest in Hillary is based less on her accessibility than on her opacity and impenetrability and, quite frankly, the curiosity people have in her fidelity to her husband and her own tantalizingly fluid motives. (That the debate over whether she is a “populist” seems fully unresolvable is evidence of a sincerely conflicted policymaker.)
Add to this her tenacity and ability to grind out opponents via sheer determination and you have a woman destined to hover on the knife edge of public opinion. Call it the “how does she do it?” factor, the same chorus that follows so many capable, successful women — though mostly unasked of accomplished men.
Only her enemies seem sure of what makes her tick, and their shrewish ball-buster cartoon version of her is as rooted in sexism as the Tea Party’s Muslim socialist Obama is rooted in ignorance and racism.
The question for Hillary is, and always has been: can fascination be transmuted into votes? In 2008, her ability to collect support despite a constantly shifting message seemed to indicate yes. One could argue that Obama benefitted from exactly that equation — personal inscrutability is one of the few things Clinton and Obama have in common.
Obama made his sale to voters by agreeing to be a screen for their projections and masterfully directing the projections into optimism he could embody. Further, fiction that American elections are a beauty contest about beer-drinking partners has less and less purchase the further we get from economic stability. They say people fear the unknown, but to quote Donald Rumsfeld, “the known unknowns” can be exactly what attracts us the most.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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