KOMMONSENTSJANE – THE CLINTONS’ MASTERCLASS ON VANITY.

4/8/2022

The Clintons’ MasterClass On Vanity


The online platform MasterClass suggests that politics can be a learned skill like cooking or script-writing. But its celebrity instructors prove that personality and image count for more than the art of persuasion.

A photo collage of Bill and Hillary Clinton inside of a laptop screen.
POLITICO illustration by Jade Cuevas/Photos by Getty Images; iStock

By CALDER MCHUGH

03/27/2022 07:00 AM EDT

Updated: 03/29/2022 11:07 AM EDT

“My fellow Americans, today you sent a message to the whole world,” Hillary Clinton declares. “Our values endure, our democracy stands strong, and our motto remains ‘e pluribus unum’ — out of many, one. We will not be defined only by our differences, we will not be an us-versus-them country. The American Dream is big enough for everyone.”

It was the victory speech that she never got to give on election night in 2016. Instead of delivering it to screaming supporters, Clinton read it to a room of masked-up camera operators and producers, all working for the online education company MasterClass (who politely clapped at its conclusion), backed by a heavy-handed piano track. Reports on how MasterClass compensates its teachers suggest Clinton was paid at least six figures up front, plus a revenue cut for her full course, which the company released in December of 2021.

It’s pretty clear why MasterClass, a web-based platform that produces video tutorials helmed by experts in their respective fields, wanted Clinton as an instructor: The publicity from her reading her speech drew more eyes to the platform, which was valued at $2.75 billion in the spring of 2021 according to CNBC. But students may wonder just what kind of wisdom Clinton — and fellow political leaders like her husband, Bill, or George and Laura Bush, who have their own course on leadership coming — are prepared to impart. War stories have always been an academic staple, but MasterClass promises specific knowledge and expertise, such as design tips from Marc Jacobs or a primer on astrophysics from Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The question is relevant because these times, more than any other in memory, have raised questions about whether political leadership is a skill that can be learned or a gift to be used or abused. MasterClass certainly is in the learning camp, suggesting students can pick up professional tips from political leaders just like from designers or writers or sports stars.

But rather than reveal the secrets of success in politics it buries them under a load of platitudes. MasterClass skips over the whole question of how and why political leaders emerge to talk instead about more amorphous concepts like leadership and resilience. This leaves viewers with courses that are dressed up but empty. Without many concrete lessons to teach, save some bits on public speaking (there’s some bitter irony there too, as Hillary tells viewers to practice speaking in front of a mirror, and then lessons later says that she has never read her victory speech out loud), the Clintons resort to messages we’ve mostly heard before, maybe at a mid-budget hotel conference complete with a cold breakfast buffet. Make your bed in the morning. Stay organized. Define your own values. Find your own leadership style. Know your audience. Look for win-wins when negotiating.

As if to convince themselves, the Clintons are constantly justifying their presence on MasterClass with high-flying anecdotes — at one point, Hillary talks about why you should work hard, but not too hard, and uses the time she fainted into a car during the 2016 presidential campaign while she had pneumonia as an example of pushing it too far. At another, Bill uses the example of sending troops into harm’s way to explain how, while some decisions are necessarily lonely, you shouldn’t make loneliness a virtue.

The ambivalence at the heart of MasterClass’ political tutorials — with political leaders talking about everything but politics, which itself might not even be teachable — mirrors a broader ambivalence about the role of America’s politicians in its cultural life. Faith in our institutions has declined while politicians themselves have achieved greater celebrity status. If the Clintons are reaching more people via MasterClass than your average motivational speaker, it’s because they are celebrities, not politicians. At a moment when Americans are hankering for “political outsiders” and candidates sell themselves as “disruptors” in Washington, MasterClass’ pivot to politics raises far more questions than it answers: Who do we expect our politicians to be? Experts or celebrities? Technocrats or ideologues? Interested in protecting conventions or winning elections? Mouthpieces of the collective will, or talking heads with the latest talking points?

MasterClass hasn’t made up its mind.

*****

Just trying to make more bucks.

kommonsentsjane

About kommonsentsjane

Enjoys sports and all kinds of music, especially dance music. Playing the keyboard and piano are favorites. Family and friends are very important.
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