No two political figures could be further apart in pop-culture iconography than Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton, yet when an article in the Washington Post—part of the feminist critique that surfaced once Hillary’s loss appeared inevitable—pointed out that the U.S. is one of a very few major countries that have never had a woman leader, I had to stop and wonder: If the Iron Lady—with her helmet hair and aura of the censorious nanny—will probably be remembered as the leader who helped defeat the Soviets along with Ronald Reagan, why is Hillary Clinton (another strong-willed, ambitious politician) more likely to be thought of as something far less?
One reason might be that we remember Thatcher’s saying, with intense conviction, “The lady’s not for turning,” whereas one of Hillary’s most salient self-branding moments came when she declared that she was not the sort to stay home and bake cookies. In other words, her role as Bill’s wife was always the issue. She and Bill are more likely to go down in popular history as a couple: Napoleon and Josephine, Bonnie and Clyde, or even (depending on your animosity) Lord and Lady Macbeth, though so far as I know (and despite the lunatics who tried to pin Vince Foster on her), she’s never killed anyone.
But that was the tragedy: till death do us part. If years from now Hillary Clinton will be regarded as a major figure in the history of feminism, she’ll still be inseparable, alas, from him: Evita to his Juan Perón.
Like Martin Luther King Jr., like Jay Gatsby, Mrs. Clinton had a dream: a woman in the White House (herself). But for such a long time we never knew that this was what most animated her. Jackie O. liked her and said she had a sense of humor. But the Hillary we heard for so much of the campaign was a droning buzz saw that cut as drearily through the air as the lathe Madame Bovary heard in Yonville. Later, post-Ohio, as the race revealed the tenacity with which Hillary would persevere, she brought to mind that poster of the kitten clinging with its paws to the edge of the toilet seat, determined not to be flushed away. She looked sometimes, when tired, like a crooner still onstage after the audience has left—alone with her dream in the spotlight. Though her detractors said she was amoral, insane with ambition, the madwoman of Chaillot, Lucrezia Borgia, our own Mommie Dearest, what she did was all quite normal in politics. Her one claim to pathos was the idea that she may have thought it was her turn, only to be flattened by the Road Runner—the new Kennedy America seemed to prefer to Hillary’s Evita.
It’s interesting that America has never had an Evita—it hated Mary Todd Lincoln, made fun of Eleanor Roosevelt, revered only Jackie because she was smart enough to remain outside its reach. This is too masculine a country (as Henry James might have complained) for that. More poignant, Evita was young, and Hillary had been assigned the sad role of the older woman whose moment is past—in part because the young have adopted Obama so passionately, in part because he seems multicultural and hip in a way this daughter of the Chicago suburbs never was. (Attitudes toward race have always been one way children feel superior to their parents.) That’s why Hillary’s effort brings to mind not so much a balcony in Buenos Aires as the powder room in All About Eve, when Celeste Holm says in an awestruck voice to Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington: “You’d do all that just for a part in a play…” (But this was the presidency! Nobody, oddly, comments on the audacity of Barack Obama.)
Anyway, rest assured that flip comparisons like these are not the judgments of historians, and years from now they will be the ones who give Hillary her due, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Clara Barton. If the contemporary press preferred Hillary as Joan Crawford—if the columnists sniffed that her behavior was indecent, egomaniacal, destructive—I never considered her a demented diva. She’s a scrappy politician at heart, from Chicago no less; a Wellesley and Yale Law School graduate, a feminist who wanted to be president.