This week RealClearPolitics did a short interview with Mike McCurry, former press secretary for Bill Clinton. Since leaving the White House, McCurry says he has focused on philanthropy, serving on the board of a nonprofit that seeks to end child hunger and helping with his Methodist church. He also co-chairs the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has the convenient effect of shielding him from being asked to serve on another Clinton campaign, since members of the commission are expected to refrain from working for candidates.
But the real headline isn’t that McCurry expressed some lighthearted dissatisfaction with politics, but that he calls himself “the only person in Washington” who thinks Hillary Clinton might take a pass on the presidential race. Why?
Talk about making a contribution. . . .The work she’s doing through the Clinton Foundation with her husband and her daughter, she finds terrifically rewarding.
So far it all sounds good. Despite my utter lack of affection for the woman, there’s something positive and heartwarming about a major political figure like Hillary stepping aside to serve others in a different, less contentious role. Perhaps she, like McCurry, has discovered that there’s more fulfillment in charitable work than in the rough-and-tumble arena of Washington politics.
But it quickly becomes clear that this interpretation is the exact opposite of what McCurry means. Hillary won’t decline to run for president because she wants to directly serve the people, or take a step back from power out of some sort of selflessness. No, McCurry seems to be saying that Hillary’s attraction to the philanthropic sector is that in some ways it may give her more power and a bigger stage.
We all know what running for president is like. It’s kind of hanging around in Manchester, NH, and Ottumwa, IA, at the local Denny’s shaking hands with a lot of sometimes less than interesting local political people. So she’s going to do that for the next two and half years at age 65, when she could be doing all this great [philanthropic] stuff on a global stage? I don’t know.
I’ve seen the Iowa campaign trail before, and I’d be the last to suggest that it’s a fun time full of stimulating conversation. Nevertheless there’s something deeply insidious in McCurry’s remarks. Politics, he implies, is messy and local. You have to go actually meet the people whom you are supposedly serving. You have to listen to the grandmas in Iowa talk about how much their pills cost. You have to take questions from rural people and poor people that would probably be tackled by security before they ever got a foot inside your comfy DC office. Worst of all, you have to not only briefly endure their company but also act like you care about them. What an awful fate!
Philanthropy on the other hand not only makes you feel great about yourself, but it ensures you have influence “on a global scale.” It’s policy making on a grander scale, and without all the fuss. There are no boring voters to get in your way, and once you have “selflessly” given up your day job the media will fawn over you like never before (see Gates, Bill). In philanthropy you don’t have to be accountable to anyone except yourself.
I can’t help but be repulsed by both pieces of this vision. That our political system still has mechanisms (however limited) that can act as a check on our technocratic elite is not a fatal flaw, but a virtue. And if the essence of philanthropy is the wealthy grandstanding about their work while avoiding any interaction with the real human beings they are supposedly helping, then I’m afraid we’re going to have to change the name. Can we really have philanthropy without love of man, or politics without love of polis? Let us hope that Hillary tries neither.