Columns » Ernest Dumas

Clinton, Trump and the public

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton share a common attribute: their inability to control in a healthy way the highly public aspect of their lives over four decades.


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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton share a common attribute: their inability to control in a healthy way the highly public aspect of their lives over four decades. Owing to their mishandling of the visible part of their spectacular lives, neither would be electable were it not for the other. Trump vs. Clinton puts a burden on voters they have never faced so starkly before.

The burden should be on the candidates to show that what voters think they know about them is unfounded, but the truth is that all that either can do is pick over old wounds, and there is no future in that. In their acceptance speeches, neither tried to come to grips with unusually high negatives.

Clinton hinted at it in the first real admission of her problem. After her 20 years as first lady of Arkansas or the United States, eight as a senator and four as secretary of state "some people just don't know what to make of me," she said in the understatement of the year.

"The truth is," she said, "through all these years of public service, the 'service' part has always come easier to me than the 'public' part." She might have admitted that her difficulty opening herself to the intense scrutiny that a public life inevitably entails was the source of all her problems. She could not make that concession to weakness.

Deeply private people usually do not seek the discomfort of public lives — in politics, entertainment or government. If not her early passion for public service, then her marriage to Bill Clinton in 1975 made all that public prying inevitable. In Little Rock, she made little effort to conceal her contempt for reporters and editors, who gave the couple little peace and who inevitably got some things wrong and made mountains out of molehills. Most newspaper people felt the sting of her displeasure, some of us more than once.

The media conflict intensified when the Clintons campaigned for the White House. It was not the right-wing outlets but the big mainstream media, like the New York Times and Washington Post, who bedeviled her, from 1992 until today. It was the good gray Times that reported breathlessly in April 1992 that the Arkansas couple had borrowed some money for a tiny real-estate venture on an Ozark creek at the worst time — the cusp of the worst inflation spiral in modern history — and lost every penny and that Hillary briefly dabbled in the crazy commodity futures market in 1978 and made a cool $99,000 before cashing in.

When Republicans and the liberal Post pawed over that trivial stuff after her friend Vince Foster's suicide, she made the mistake that has haunted the Clintons for 23 years. She refused to let the Post or anyone else see the records of a few weeks of billing time she and her law partners did for a tiny thrift run by the Clintons' former real-estate partner, because the trivial work was no one's business. To no avail, Clinton and all his advisers pleaded with her to turn them loose. It resulted in the appointment of two special prosecutors, who, of course, never found anything wrong in the billings, and ultimately to her husband's impeachment for covering up his sexual misconduct.

Everyone assumed that she was hiding something. And people assume she was hiding something when she ran her own email server rather than use the State Department's. She was. She didn't want the press or anyone else seeing her frank correspondence with State Department people or her family and friends, which they could have by a simple freedom of information request of the government server.

Donald Trump's problem is not Clinton's impulsive privacy, but his history of compulsive publicity. He exulted in the Rabelaisian life — extramarital affairs, boasting about his sexual prowess and avoiding venereal disease, mastering the shady deal, making money by cutting corners and stiffing his investors and workers, filing lawsuits, making up stories about his exploits and boasting about stands he never took. His name became his wealth.

As a presidential candidate he must now stuff it all back under the sheets. While Hillary's solution often is lawyerly gloss, his is the obstinate lie and personal attacks on every foe and critic. It is tricky. When a super PAC this spring posted online the 2000 nude photo shoot of Melania, his bride to be, posing on his luxury jet at LaGuardia for a girlie magazine with nothing on but diamonds and a handcuff tethered to Trump's gold-plated briefcase, Trump accused Ted Cruz of doing it and threatened to expose Cruz's wife. Cruz has been getting even ever since.

Now the things he once bragged about — loose sex, dodging the Vietnam War and making huge sums of money in tricky ways — he must keep under wraps or tamp down. Every major presidential candidate since Nixon has released his or her tax returns — Clinton for many years, Mitt Romney reluctantly for two — but Trump none. His last two filings made public, in 1979 and 1984 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, showed he made a few million dollars but paid no taxes.

I'd slightly rather be in Clinton's shoes.


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