Hillary Is Poised to Make the ‘Impossible Possible’ — for Herself and for Women in America

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Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, in the minutes before I called her out of the blue, 69-year-old Nancy Pietrafesa said she was thinking of the day she met Hillary Rodham. She was considering, she said, whether she’d known upon their first meeting in 1969 how extraordinary Hillary was. “It feels like 12 minutes ago,” Pietrafesa said. “I was literally just wondering, Was it only me that she stuck out to? No, I guess not.”

Rodham and Pietrafesa met through Pietrafesa’s friend David Rupert, whom Hillary was dating at the time. The women were introduced at a dinner in Cambridge and hit it off instantly, spending weekends with David, a conscientious objector who lived in Vermont. “The thing that really stands out in my mind, what with it being so damn long ago,” said Pietrafesa, “was that she was the first to move forward on virtually any project anyone had going. She was so appealing to me because I prefer your basic outspoken, gutsy human being, male or female. And she was a terribly kind, attentive friend. She’s the person who makes the phone calls, and she’s the one who gets worried about someone’s surgery. She does all that shit, and she always has. Always has.”

Pietrafesa was still recalling the 1960s and ’70s, the years in which she and Hillary had been close friends. “Hillary drove this hilariously funky car,” Pietrafesa remembered, which she used to refer to as “Alphonse,” a reference to the comic strip about two Frenchmen paralyzed by their own politesse: “After you, Alphonse.” As she told this story, the years seemed to blur, and Pietrafesa thought that maybe she was thinking of another car, a yellow Fiat Hillary had owned later, when she was dating Bill. Pietrafesa recalled Bill saying, “I don’t know if I’d drive that car, Hillary; the clutch is going,” and Hillary’s reply: “Oh, I thought it was just evolving, because I’d noticed that I didn’t have to use the clutch that much.”

The expanding and contracting sense of time — the feeling that Hillary Rodham’s youth was 12 minutes ago, and also so deep in the ancient past — reflects one of the surreal qualities of this historical moment, at which Hillary Clinton has become the first woman nominated by a major party for the presidency. It’s an event that seems to have been in the works for so long that it might as well have been prophesied, yet also to have taken so damn long. And this in turn reminds us of the strange distortions of history: Between Clinton and her predecessor, Barack Obama, our country’s first black president, it feels like the pileup of history-making has been so fast. And yet it’s been centuries of exclusion and impossibility that led us to Thursday night, when Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, wearing the white of the suffragists and delivering a speech that built to a clear, confident crescendo, one that referred both to the country’s past and to the future she is promising: “I am here to tell you tonight,” Clinton said, “progress is possible.”

I remember, in 1984, when my father brought me into the voting booth and let me pull the lever for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. I was 9; this was exciting. I understood — sort of — that it was important. As we left the polling place and buckled up in the car to go home, my dad turned around and said to me, seriously, “I hope someday you have the opportunity to pull the lever for a woman at the top of a ticket.” It made a huge impression on me, in part because the tone he used in describing this far-off future suggested that maybe he wasn’t sure it would ever come to pass. And why should he have been? This country has gone 227 years without a female presidential nominee; it’s been 97 years since women won the right to vote, 52 years since that right was protected for black women in the Jim Crow South; it was 22 years after Ferraro’s nomination that we had another woman on a presidential ticket in any capacity, and, let’s face it, Sarah Palin was only there because Hillary Clinton had lost her first bid for the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. But that night, voting for Geraldine Ferraro? I can remember what the old metal voting bar felt like in my hand; I can remember the backseat of the car as we drove home and I thought about some remote future. That night feels like it was 12 minutes ago. And yet, I had never heard of Hillary Clinton then.

*

“Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is very resonant for me, personally,” Wisconsin representative Gwen Moore told me at an Emily’s List party on Wednesday. “It pains me to see Hillary shouldering the burden of our gender for all of us.” Moore’s life, she said, “is a trifecta. I am black, female, and come from a low-income community. I am also someone who got pregnant on my 18th birthday, so an awful lot of my destiny was determined by my gender. I remember my dear friend in the third grade, talking about my aspirations to go to college: ‘You don’t play basketball, you don’t play football, and your parents don’t have money; how you gonna do that?’ My gender was predetermining how I could think about getting an education. I have worked in jobs where men made more money than I did for redoing their damn work. I have been female and struggled with child care.”

Moore remembered, she said, taking notice when Hillary Clinton became First Lady “and did something other than give White House tours and look at china patterns, and I knew she’d been using ‘Rodham,’ I noticed all that. I noticed. And I empathized,” Moore said. “And I noticed how they beat up on her.” Moore remembered Hillary’s trip to China, where she declared women’s rights to be human rights. “She was brave enough in that setting, that took balls; where did she get those balls?” I wondered how she felt, as a black woman, as a single mother, given her personal history, the years she spent in a world in which those inequities felt insurmountable.

The congresswoman looked at me hard. “I’m scared shitless,” she said, before walking away.

*

I am, too. I’m scared. I’m awake-in-the-night scared. I have written about women in politics all my life; I have written about Hillary Clinton for more than a decade now; I have wanted to pull a lever for a woman — a woman who is a strong Democrat — since I was 9. No, it didn’t have to be this woman, but, really, who else was it going to be? And now it is happening. Yet, I am scared that electing a woman in this country is still an impossibility. I am scared that even if she wins, people will credit it to the men — to her husband’s charm, to Obama’s popularity, to Bernie’s pulling her left, to Donald Trump being an opponent so ghoulish that even Hillary could beat him. And yet, I also fear the inverse, that if she loses to Trump, in addition to being plunged into dystopia, the nation will lay the blame for our ill-fortune at her feet.

When Hillary Rodham entered Wellesley College in 1965, she was a Republican from the Illinois suburbs who was about to take, with much of her generation, a left turn. An ambitious student with a curious mind, Rodham got involved in campus politics and was elected student-body president. Though Wellesley had never before had a student commencement speaker, the graduating class of 1969 lobbied for her to be the first. The speech she delivered, largely extemporaneously, was rambling and a little wacky, one that she has since acknowledged “may not have been the most coherent one I have ever delivered.” It bears the marks of the era in which it was written, including Hillary’s declaration that she “would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality,” and that her generation was in search of “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”

But in this far-out document, there is prophecy. Read today, it seems to provide a blueprint for so much that would come after for Hillary, the clues of who she would become and how she got to tonight, giving another historic speech as the first woman nominated by a major party for the presidency.

“We’re not in the positions yet of leadership and power,” Rodham said in 1969, speaking at 21, as if it were only a matter of time. In her speech, Hillary declared that the challenge “is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Her classmates, she said, “arrived [at Wellesley] not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot.” Hillary’s 1969 speech lingered on specific subjects that dog her to this day. “When I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said, ‘Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others.’” The irony here is striking: Trust is precisely what so many Americans say they do not have in Hillary Clinton, yet her classmates trusted her to be their history-making messenger. Then there is her meditation on perseverance. Citing a line from T.S. Eliot’s poem “East Coker,” young Hillary noted that “there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.” It is a line that seems tied by an invisible thread to Michelle Obama’s estimation of Clinton from earlier this week, that “Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

Rodham concluded her speech with another poem, written by her friend Nancy Scheibner, about a deeply unpoetic belief in political pragmatism. “Earth could be fair,” the verse concludes, “And you and I must be free / Not to save the world in a glorious crusade / Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain / But to practice with all the skill of our being / The art of making possible.”

This was Hillary Rodham, barely out of college, laying out a progressive vision that does not have time for emotional high notes or dramatic lows (or, in the words of the poem, for “false revolutions”), but instead makes a case for the slow grind of incremental progress. Her vision of progress also explicitly refuses to give in to fear, the kind of fear that’s gripping some of us right now.

“One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day,” said Hillary Rodham, in an anecdote that is, again, chillingly prescient. “I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn’t want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she’s afraid.” This older woman, raised in a different version of America and frightened by the fast-approaching future, had somehow managed to bump into 21-year-old Hillary Rodham, and seen unwinding in front of this young woman a path that already felt perilous. But Hillary had no intention of turning back. “Fear is always with us,” Rodham continued, before waving it aside. “But we just don’t have time for it. Not now.”

*

On Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton joined Barack Obama onstage after his speech to the convention. She pointed at him, he pointed at her, and then they looked at each other and embraced with such intensity, such pride, a chemistry born of history and their inextricably linked roles in making it. This is the stop-and-start, winding, treacherous story of America — shifting so abruptly that the experiences of mothers and daughters, of Wellesley alumnae and Wellesley graduates, in 1969 and in 2016, can differ so sharply. This is the story that Michelle Obama was telling us on Monday, about waking up every day in a house built by slaves and watching her beautiful daughters play on its lawn. This is the story of Barack Obama, who reminded us on Wednesday that “we are not done perfecting our union.” We won’t be done perfecting it if we elect Hillary Clinton any more than we perfected it when Barack Obama and his family moved into the White House, and yet there they were, Hillary and Barack, sharing the burdens of expectation and disappointment and hope and fury and fear.

Wellesley recently unearthed the audio of the 1969 commencement speech and, after having read the words so many times in my work, I found myself poleaxed at hearing the voice of young Hillary Clinton actually saying them. She sounds so young, so much more recognizable as a woman who had a broken-down car named Alphonse and a boyfriend named David, but also so familiarly Hillary — so determined, so full of drive to get somewhere else, perhaps to a future that seemed both foretold and also beyond the realm of wildest imagination. Watching her tonight, I could hear the traces of that young voice still, the echoes and the parallels between then and now, especially in her refusal to let fear take hold. Trump, Clinton said, “wants us to fear the future and fear each other.” Just as her 21-year-old self insisted, this 68-year-old proclaimed, “We are not afraid.” She still does not have time for it.

But Hillary Clinton’s speech tonight was not the precocious effort of a young person, vibrating with the desire to move forward and change the world. This was the speech of a grown woman, exquisitely aware that she now is in the position of power and leadership, her very presence on the stage tonight testament to the speed (and difficulty) with which the world has changed.

The video that preceded her speech, created by Shonda Rhimes, proclaimed, “This is the woman,” and it was with no apology or pretense that Clinton described herself in the context of women, as “standing here as my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother,” and as feeling “so happy this day has come.” Tonight, she came one step closer to making the impossible possible.