By Mphoentle Mageza
In a recent controversy that played itself out in the media, NBC and CNN have backed away from projects about Hillary Rodham Clinton. Is it completely negative, rejecting her brand of feminism, as one may claim? Does it develop a positive tone, as Charles Ferguson, who was to have directed the CNN documentary, wrote in a Huffington Post article that he decided not to go forward because “nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film. Not Democrats, not Republicans — and certainly nobody who works with the Clintons, wants access to the Clintons or dreams of a position in a Hillary Clinton administration”? Or is it her lack of universal popularity? Ferguson specifically said he was “interrogated” by Clinton aide Nick Merrill. He said Philippe Reines, a long-time Clinton adviser, “contacted various people at CNN, interrogated them and expressed concern about alleged conflicts of interest generated because my film was a for-profit endeavour”.
Perhaps there is room for an interpretation, rooted in feminism, resolving the differences between Ferguson and Merill. In this resolution, the controversy may represent recognition of a paradox of political existence: featuring a female future presidential candidate in a biography, and as given to analysis, showing Clinton’s approach towards women who are full participants in politics and the economy.
Ferguson’s comments keep the controversy going: “It’s a victory for the Clintons, and for the money machines that both political parties have now become,” Ferguson wrote. “But I don’t think that it’s a victory for the media, or for the American people.” In answer to this, asked for a comment on the developments, Merrill stated: “Lights, camera, no reaction.”
More important, we are reminded by National Journal magazine that Hillary left the State Department amid a furore over the Benghazi attacks and criticism that she never achieved a breakthrough diplomatic moment. She may, it says, be ultimately remembered for a quieter, perhaps more lasting, legacy of putting women at the centre of US foreign policy. This however may exist only in people’s imagination or fact.
The magazine continues to say that as John Kerry takes over at State, only two countries stand out as unfinished business. One is Saudi Arabia, where women can’t vote or drive, must cover themselves head to toe in public, and must have a male guardian. Despite such rampant human-rights violations — against political dissenters as well as women — US officials, it says, tend to be circumspect, given their reliance on Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner and energy source. They also want to avoid the potential for backlash from ultraconservative Saudi factions. “The thing that’s hardest about Saudi [Arabia] from the US perspective is, what can you do that actually helps … more than it hurts?” asks Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network.
The second country that stands out as a challenge is Afghanistan. It is reported that Kerry was reassuring at his confirmation hearing in January. If there is negotiation with the Taliban, he said, they will have to cut ties to al-Qaeda and “they must commit to respect the constitution of Afghanistan and the current status of women and girls within their society”.
According to the Guardian, from the start Hillary stood to say: women’s rights are “the signature issue” of this administration’s foreign policy. She mentioned women 450 times in speeches in the first five months in office. “Transformation of the role of women is the last great impediment to universal progress,” she declared, and began to develop what is her standard line: women’s issues are integral to the achievement of every goal of US foreign policy.
Therefore, when Hillary gave a feminist speech in Argentina several years ago she was greeted with applause and cheers by Argentine women for her speech on reproductive health and domestic violence. “Hillary is a radical feminist, and we welcome that here,” said lawyer Liliana Tojo, according to the Washington Post.
But some view Clinton in numerous paradoxes. “There were moments with Hillary Clinton when I felt like we were getting too close to a rescue narrative: ‘Here’s Hillary Clinton and here’s the United States. We are going to save the women of the world,’ ” says Mallika Dutt, to The Nation, as president of Breakthrough, a human-rights organisation.
According to the White House, Hillary’s State team argues that she was a great stateswoman, her ambition to touch down in as many countries as possible a view of how much repair work she did to the nation’s image abroad. This is what Republicans, who had vowed to punish both networks by refusing to let them host primary debates in 2016, must accept. And this is what Hillary aides at the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Foundation must accept to run a successful 2016 campaign on women’s issues.
Mphoentle Mageza is a freelance journalist who was a columnist at Sunday Times Lifestyle and the Mail & Guardian among others. The First Yudishu Media Company was founded as a boutique lobbying firm for blue-chip company CEOs and now serves as her personal desk.