Why does she look like a raccoon?” asked my 13-year-old son. We are both Obama fans, but we were watching Senator Clinton give her Indiana victory speech, though the results were not yet in from Lake County and Bill was looking gloomy.
“What do you mean, a raccoon?” I asked.
“She looks like a raccoon,” he repeated with the lack of amplification typical of adolescent discourse.
“I don’t really see that,” I said, studying her eyes. I had been studying her eyes from the beginning of the campaign. At one rally she had even seemed to be wearing false eyelashes, which were such a mistake I never saw her wear them again. I had thought that this was just my own personal and intellectually dubious habit of studying women’s faces and what women had done to themselves with cosmetics and other procedures, but now I could see that my son was studying her face as well.
“She just does,” he said, glued unwaveringly to the television.
I looked at her again. I had reached the necklace stage in my campaign viewing: tonight a gold choker, though I had noticed that the turquoise she wore often seemed to be a signature victory trinket. When a viewer reaches the jewelry-recognition point, the viewer has been watching too much. I’d been advised by friends to take a long trip to some faraway resort. “When she opens her mouth and eyes wildly wide and points at people in the crowd, do you think she really knows them or is just pretending?” I took to asking people.
“Mexico,” they said. “There’s a nice place in Mexico.”
And then suddenly I knew what my son meant. Not a real raccoon. But a cute, pointy-nosed cartoon raccoon—though this was not the animated character she reminded me of. Still, I could see it: her eyes lightly ringed (the brown eye shadow is sometimes done in a circle up over the creases, and the eyebrows appear drawn in above that), the spunky nose, the gleaming cheeks round as apples, the nuts-in-the-mouth smile with the slight overbite that gives off a benign-critter look even while she’s speaking of sniper fire.
There is something absolutely riveting about Hillary Clinton. She has energy, heat, and, increasingly since January, a mesmerizing charisma. That Obama was labeled as “charismatic” early on I believe was a way of not just explaining but dismissing him. It was a way of disguising the fact that Clinton is a woman in disarray and that Obama’s organization is careful and efficient, no less so for being grassroots. Hillary would be the brilliant geek (though she flunked her first bar exam and, more recently, failed to read completely those intelligence reports on Iraq) and Barack would be Mick Jagger. But this explanation—like the “elite” label, the “inexperience” label, and the “plagiarism” charge (remember that?)—was a reversal to disguise what was truer: Obama is the raised-on-food-stamps, wrote-his-own-book policy wonk who has served in public office longer than Clinton has. Clinton is the performer who endured Bosnian bullets in a Reagan-style mind-movie. She is Mick Jagger—with the same tireless hunger for an audience’s love and the ability to feel revitalized by it rather than worn down. Who can take their eyes off her? And who would feel safe doing so?
The people I know who voted for Hillary may be susceptible to this charisma without realizing it. What I’ve heard them say tends to fall into one of four camps: (1) the no-illusions camp (“You shouldn’t vote with too much hope in your heart”); (2) the camp of wounded projection, which includes a lot of women who sacrificed for their husbands, too; (3) the “we need a woman for president in my lifetime” camp—no matter who she is or what the granddaughters say or what all those who suffered under, say, Thatcher might advise about assessing the individual; (4) conflicted macho men seeking redemption.
None of these camps, however, can compellingly defend Clinton’s recent moment of wondering aloud about the RFK assassination.
In the animated Disney movie of Snow White it is the evil queen, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, who has all the screen presence. I once watched the film in a Greenwich Village art house in the seventies, and although Snow White wasn’t actually hissed, the jealous older queen got all the applause and cheers and audible moral support. She had a theatrical disdain for conventional, boring virtue. This dismissal was admired as inner strength and derring-do—as it can be when presented at a fictional remove. She had beauty, sex, style, grooming, hastily constructed indignation, and a flashing temper, plus, most powerfully, a lack of familiarity with losing. Unless the personal life counts. Which with a queen, well (what with the forest and the castle and all), who knows.
How does she do it? she perhaps was asked a lot.
And the answer, of course, is with mirrors.