As the “first pet” of the Clinton era, Socks, the White House cat, allowed “chilly” Hillary Clinton to show a caring, maternal side as well as bringing joy to her daughter Chelsea. So where is Socks today?
Once the presidency was over, there was no room for Socks anymore. After years of loyal service at the White House, the black and white cat was dumped on Betty Currie, Bill Clinton’s personal secretary, who also had an embarrassing clean-up role in the saga of his relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Some believe the abandoned pet could now come between Hillary Clinton and her ambition to return to the White House as America’s first female president.
Clinton has been boosting her prospects in the past week with some homespun references to her gender as part of a series of events with the theme Women Changing America, during which she chatted girlfriend-to-girlfriend and mom-to-mom with female voters.
The softening of Clinton’s image seems to be working. Her chief strategist, Mark Penn, predicts that up to a quarter of Republican women will vote for her. She leads Democratic rivals in the polls by 26 points and is scooping up more donations to her war chest from Wall Street and defense contractors than any candidate from either party – an unmistakable indicator of who they think will win in 2008.
Clinton’s treatment of Socks cuts to the heart of the questions about her candidacy. Is she too cold and calculating to win the presidency? Or does it signify political invincibility by showing she is willing to deploy every weapon to get what she wants?
“In the annals of human evil, off-loading a pet is nowhere near the top of the list,” writes Caitlin Flanagan in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine. “But neither is it dead last, and it is especially galling when said pet has been deployed for years as an all-purpose character reference.”
Flanagan’s article, titled "No Girlfriend of Mine," points out that Clinton wrote a crowd-pleasing book "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets," in which she claimed that only with the arrival of Socks and his “toy mouse” did the White House “become a home.”
Being Clinton, she also lectured readers that pets are an “adoption instead of an acquisition” and warned them to look out for their safety. (Buddy, the chocolate labrador in the Reagan White House, bounded into a road soon after leaving the White House and was promptly run over.)
Despite these misadventures, Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter, believes Clinton is doing a good job of humanizing herself. “I am not saying she has learned to be herself,” she observed. “I think after a year on the trail she has learned how not to be herself, how to comfortably adopt a skin and play a part.”
Clinton has been coming up with some teasing one-liners, telling trade unionists “I’m your girl” and laughing on daytime television about the differences between her and her male rivals: “Well, look how much longer it takes me to get ready.”
At another event, she joked about how the other candidates were focusing on her. “I didn’t know what to make of it, and then a friend of mine said, ‘You know when you get to be our age, having that much attention from all these men ...”
It is a disarming tactic, which her rivals are finding difficult to counter without appearing unchivalrous. But the outline of a “stop Hillary” campaign is taking shape, with critics accusing her of being an inexperienced, flip-flopping opportunist who owes her success purely to dynasty.
Rudy Giuliani, the Republican frontrunner, has sharpened his attacks on Clinton for lacking experience. “She’s never run a city, she’s never run a state, she’s never run a business, she has never met a payroll,” the former New York mayor said. “She has never been responsible for the safety ... of millions of people.”
He has gone after Clinton’s tax-and-spend policies, including an uncosted suggestion that every newborn child should receive a $5,000 “baby bond” that would grow over time and help pay for college. The last Democratic candidate to propose a similar scheme, George McGovern, lost 49 out of 50 states in the 1972 election.
Soon after Giuliani went on the warpath, Clinton discovered she had other priorities and shelved the idea.
Barack Obama, Clinton’s closest Democratic rival, has begun to criticize her more directly, claiming last week: “We’ve had enough of ... triangulation and poll-driven politics.” In one such example, Clinton backed a Senate resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, earning rebukes from Obama and John Edwards, the third-placed candidate. She then co-sponsored another resolution that would prohibit an attack on Iran without authorization from Congress.
The financial sleaze that dominated the final Clinton years is also making a comeback. After Norman Hsu, one of Clinton’s biggest campaign “bundlers”, was exposed as a fraud, it emerged last week that waiters, dishwashers and street peddlers in New York’s Chinatown have been handing over $1,000 and $2,000 sums to her campaign – some with genuine pride, others because they were ordered to do so by neighborhood bosses.
Clinton said last week that her frontrunner status made her uncomfortable. “It makes me nervous and we will still work to earn every vote,” she said.
But the advantage she enjoys with women is considerable. Penn believes the “emotional element” of being the first woman presidential nominee in history will “throw the Republicans for a loop.” So far every attack has bounced off her.
Perhaps the cautionary tale of Socks the cat will make a difference. “Hillary’s insistence that we follow her example in pet ownership, when she really should be on Cat Fancy’s Most Wanted List, makes her a tiresome bore,” Flanagan writes.
“But exploiting the emotions of good-natured people – well, that’s just another example of her three-decade-long drift from the girl she once was to the woman that circumstance and ambition have made her.”