Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton & Lena Dunham Talk Police Abuse, Feminism, & "Cold Shoulder" Dresses

An exclusive Q&A with the Girls auteur subtly reveals why Clinton is dazzling fewer and fewer voters.


Lena Dunham, the auteur behind the excellent HBO series Girls and the author of the way-below excellent memoir-scrapbook Not That Kind of Girl, has interviewed Hillary Clinton for the first issue of Lenny, an newsletter (to subscribe, go here. As of now, Lenny is not available online but the first issue should be posted later today).

Dunham's interview with the former First Lady, senator from New York, and secretary of state is chatty and focused on Clinton's past mostly: what college was like in the '60s, how she felt about marrying Bill Clinton, that sort of thing. Of note, Clinton takes credit for shutting down a sleazy salmon operation in Alaska as a post-grad wanderer; elides the role that her husband's policies played in today's racially disparate police state; and offers indentured servitude as a reform for bruising student loan debt. Snippets:

[At a salmon-processing plant in Alaska], I was kicked upstairs to do packing, so I was packing the salmon. You had to pack head-tail, head-tail, head-tail. And I noticed that some of them didn't look really healthy to me. So I raised it with the guy who was running the plant. He said, "What do you care? They're gonna be shipped overseas! Nobody in America's gonna eat them." I said, "Well, I don't think that's right. We shouldn't be sending salmon that's gonna make anybody sick." He said, "Oh, just don't worry about it." Anyway, I go home that night, I go back the next day, and the whole operation has disappeared. 

Here's a discussion of criminal-justice reform and race issues:

One of the areas where we have problems is the relationship between communities of color and the police forces who are to protect them. In those police forces now, we have many more police officers who are from different races, different backgrounds, so it's not only a question of white versus black. It is a question of how force is used, how our law enforcement are trained, what kind of mind-set they have as they go about their daily jobs. 

I think that President Obama's policing commission, which has issued a report, has some excellent suggestions. For example, after 9/11, we got really anxious to make sure we had homeland security everywhere. And a lot of military equipment was sold to police departments, and those police departments began to look like they were in a war zone, not protecting the family down the block or the neighborhood community center across town. That sent a very dangerous and threatening message.

It's genuinely heartening to hear Clinton talk forthrightly about the need for reforms. Huge, institutional reforms tend to happen when there is broad, bipartisan support for things to change. That's certainly happening now with many aspects of law enforcement, where minority concerns about abuse have fused with libertarian concerns to create a universal agreement that something has to be done. Having said that, it's worth noting that Clinton glosses over the leading role that her husband's administration played in creating the current situation (and by most accounts, she supported those tough-on-crime policies both as First Lady and as a senator).

As Politico has noted:

Bill Clinton imposed harsher sentencing guidelines, cut education funding for prisoners, and expanded the flow of military equipment to local police in the 1990s, when violent crime was surging and tough policies played well in the political center….

A program signed into law by her husband increased the flow of those weapons from the Pentagon to local police departments. The 1997 National Defense Authorization Act allowed the Department of Defense to donate excess supplies to local law enforcement agencies for any purpose, expanding an older program that was limited to aiding anti-narcotics operations. Under the program inaugurated by the Clinton administration, the Pentagon has transferred more than $5.4 billion worth of supplies, including weapons and vehicles, to local police, according to the Defense Logistics Agency.

Hillary Clinton has never been forward on taking responsibility for actions that go wrong, so it's perhaps not surprising that she isn't exactly going to do so in this instance. The militarization of police was well underway before the 9/11 attacks, thanks in large part to Bill Clinton. Also worth noting: She was slow to respond to Ferguson as it was happening. It was libertarian-leaning Republicans such as Justin Amash and Rand Paul who called out the scene for the troubling tableau that it was.

When it comes to student-loan debt, Clinton skims over the question of why college cost has for so long increased faster than the general rate of inflation (it mostly has to do with massive amounts of free and reduced-price tax dollars flooding the system) and instead signs on to the faddish system of having debtors stretch their repayments over 20 years rather than 10:

I want to give everybody a chance to refinance their debt. Bring the interest rates down, because oftentimes in crowds, I will say, "Who has student debt?" And so many hands go up. I'll say, "Does anybody have an interest rate of eight percent?" Hands stay up. "How about over eight percent?" I had a woman in Iowa the other day, 12 percent she's paying on her loans. I want to just compress those. Drop those. I want to get more young people with debt into programs where they pay a percentage of their income as opposed to a flat rate. That will make it a lot easier to save some money and not be so stretched all the time.

Yeah, maybe. But it's taxpayers who subsidize the loans and the repayment schedules, so all of these reforms essentially put taxpayers on the hook for more interest so that students can indiscriminately spend more money on college. I'm not a fan of student-loan-debt forgiveness for at least three reasons and it's not clear to me that reducing monthly payments is going to do anything to reduce the amount borrowed. If anything, it will make borrowers feel like they can take on more debt. Rather than subsidizing the tuition arms race by pumping even more financial aid into the system, why not cap loans based on the average tuition of public institutions in the home state of the borrower? Or at least offer up something other than a wringing of hands over the aggregate amount of loans and then passing on more costs to non-beneficiaries of the loans (that is, taxpayers)?

In a widely viewed video clip of the interview, Clinton aptly defines being a feminist this way:

It just means that we believe women have the same rights as men, politically, culturally, socially, economically.

That's as good a definition as you'll find anywhere, I think, and it's worth remembering that well into the 1980s, such a unversalist declaration of equality was likely to get at least some pushback. While women of Clinton's generation did not face the same sort of de facto and de jure prejudice and discrimination that older generations did, they hardly emerged into a world as egalitarian as the one we inhabit today. Boomer feminists deserve a huge amount of credit for pushing for the sorts of changes—cultural and social as much as political and legal—that have changed the world we inherited. Much of that wouldn't have happened without them or, almost the same thing, it would have taken decades longer.

At the same time, most discussions about contentious gender issues today revolve less around individuals having the same rights and more about how various government agencies are enforcing Orwellian decrees. Hence, when it comes to questions about due process of college campuses, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is clearly not enforcing equal rights for all but a set of rules that even many feminists find to be nuts.

The interview is worth reading in its entirety, especially against the backdrop of Hillary Clinton's falling poll numbers and her obvious interest in mounting something like a charm offensive. Dunham is clearly a willing co-conspirator in humanizing the candidate, as when she brings up a favorite "cold shoulder" dress of Clinton's:

It was a design of my friend Donna Karan. And like everything I do, it turned out to be controversial. I'm hardly a fashion icon.

In moments such as these, Dunham's (and Clinton's) starfucking side undercut any pretension to reaching the average man or woman. Beyond the utterly unconvincing humblebrag declaration that she's not a fashion icon but only a beleaguered gal trying to make it in a heartless world, Clinton can't not place herself in the world of New York couture and high fashion. These are precisely the sorts of moments when Clinton loses the little people.

Ultimately, what comes across is the rather unexpected and unarticulated revelation that America is in fact a much better place than it was 40 or 50 years ago when it comes to treating people as individuals.

Oddly, though, that also undercuts one of Clinton's easiest appeals to voters: We can make history by electing our first woman president. Instead, the focus will be on her record, her policies, and her ideas for the future. That's exactly as it should be, even if it helps explain why Clinton is dazzling fewer and fewer people even in her own party.