Recently I was reading an article and ran across the statement that Hillary Clinton had failed the District of Columbia bar exam when she took it back in the ’70s. I was startled because it was something I’d never heard about her background, so I actually did a search to check on whether the statement was true.
It was. In the summer of 1973, Hillary Rodham took the D.C. bar exam. 817 people took the exam, and she was one of the 261 who did not pass. She also took, and passed, the Arkansas bar exam, so rather than stay in Washington, D.C. she moved to Arkansas, where she and Bill Clinton later were married. According to the link above, she kept the D.C. bar exam result a secret from her friends until she made a reference to it in her autobiography, Living History.
I mention Hillary Clinton’s bar exam failure not to bash her for something that happened more than 40 years ago — lots of famous and accomplished lawyers and politicians have encountered an initial failure at the hands of the bar exam — but simply to note how selective the reporting on political figures can be. Story lines somehow get set, and facts that are inconsistent never get mentioned. Hillary Clinton is portrayed as a brilliant law student at Yale who worked on one of the congressional Watergate committees, then went on to achieve great success with the Rose law firm in Arkansas before Bill Clinton was elected President. Her failure on the D.C. bar exam is a clinker in that story line of unbroken accomplishment and gets discarded. Do you think a failure on the bar exam by, say, a politician like George W. Bush would be overlooked — or that we would hear about it, over and over, as evidence in support of the narrative that he wasn’t really very smart?
This reality is a significant failing by the news media and the punditocracy, and it does a disservice both to political candidates — whether they have a positive narrative or a negative one — and to the public. It assumes that the general population can’t really sift through the good and bad of a public figure’s life and reach a fair judgment about them, so facts get edited and blemishes get removed until the story line leads inexorably to one conclusion. We’re told, over and over, that someone is a genius or an idiot — and then, when contrary facts are disclosed, it comes as a shock. I’d much rather get the facts, good and bad and in-between, and come to my own conclusion. And by the way, stories where people overcome some adversity tend to be much richer and more interesting than airbrushed sagas of ever-increasing triumphs. Take Lincoln, for example.