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The Hillary Mystique

Years and years of cleaning up after Bill Clinton have turned the First Lady into a problematic figure. Does one applaud her sense of purpose, or cringe at her compliance?


Call her Saint Hillary, Mrs. Wifewater, whatever. What I found spookiest about Monicagate is our First Lady’s ability to rise to the occasion and defend her man yet again. I expected her head to explode on the Today show last week, or stigmata to appear as she gesticulated. Instead, she was more golden-helmeted, controlled, strategic, pol-like, and mediagenic than ever.

To add to the surrealism, just as the media got stuck in Clinton’s marital mud, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s widower, was publishing Birthday Letters, a book of his intimate poetry about their doomed union. The poems are Hughes’s first public words on the matter since Plath stuck her head in the oven in 1963.

Of course, Plath had mental problems, and had tried suicide before. But for women of my generation (about ten years younger than Hillary), Sylvia Plath was a kind of nightmare martyr figure, a human sacrifice to the unyielding gender roles and unforgiving rules of fifties culture. Had she grown up later, in the sixties or seventies, with roots in the women’s movement, she (we like to think) could have continued the struggle -- to be wife, mother, and artist, with more support, more options, even if she was too early for Prozac.

But Hillary Rodham never had such mental imbalances. She blossomed at the very moment the personal became political, as a generation sought social justice and sisterhood was powerful. At her high-school graduation, her mom was embarrassed at how many times Hillary’s name was called for honors and medals and special awards. At Wellesley, Hillary (class of ‘69) was the first student to give a commencement address, and she put aside her prepared remarks to speak spontaneously about her generation’s desire to change the world. Her comments are telling.

“We’ve had lots of empathy, lots of sympathy,” she said, “but we feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears impossible, possible.”

With her Yale law degree and her obvious intelligence, energy, and worker-bee fortitude, she could have written her own ticket. Why did she choose instead to hitch her wagon to Bill Clinton’s, to make the impossible possible and stay with him? At best, even from their pre-engagement period, it meant keeping mum about his embarrassing pecker-dillos with unduly-large-haired women, the anti-Hillaries. At worst, it meant being his public defender, lashing out at his “enemies,” thereby reducing herself to the seemingly masochistic role of First Nanny.

Perhaps, as with the antiquated title, the whole idea of First Ladyhood is an impossible anachronism, a no-win position: We don’t want an automaton in the White House, yet anytime a First Lady tries to exercise power beyond the hostess game (even if she’s a trained professional!), she’s criticized.

In rationalizing Hillary’s latest defense of Bill (“I’ve always thought of my husband as a pretty friendly, gregarious person. . . . I get a kick out of it most times,” she told Good Morning America), I would like to imagine her as a pioneer woman -- doing what she has to do. Those who walked the 2,000 miles of the Oregon Trail in the 1850s got there by “foot,” says Daily Life in a Covered Wagon, one of my favorite children’s books. “If it rained,” we are told, “they simply put on oilskin ponchos or unfurled umbrellas and marched on.”

The pioneer women, however, only had to walk that trail and ford that river once. Eventually, they reached their destinations. Hillary’s trail keeps circling the muck.

As with any successful modern woman, Hillary Clinton is a walking Rorschach test of our own ambivalences. In the stereotypical labeling of things male and female, it’s easy to feminize him and masculinize her.

He’s warm, emotive, sensitive, soft, engaging, quick to seek conciliation and compromise. He bonds over any variety of problems in our twelve-step nation -- alcoholic fathers, no fathers, brothers who are drug addicts, mothers who treat their sons like Jesus. He has been quoted as saying that when he watches Hillary make a speech, he’s the one with the adoring Nancy Reagan eyes. He can make even cynics blink with his sentimentalized delivery of those two syllables, “mah wahf.” (Copping his style, she has said “my husband” more in the past week than Kathie Lee and Tammy Faye have in a lifetime.)

She’s the disciplined, reliable, pragmatic partner -- the one who pays the bills and has her feet on the ground. “I was born 16 and will always be 16,” Bill has been quoted as saying. “Hillary was born 40 years old.”

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