The Hillary Mystique

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.”

It’s not easy being the grown-up married to a showgirl – he’s Marilyn Monroe, high-strung, in need of constant attention, constant stroking (ahem). It was left to Hillary, for their entire relationship, to make the money in addition to being a mom and helping Bill run. That leaves little time for, say, facials and eyebrow waxing.

Not that she was ever very interested in such princessy pursuits. Dorothy Rodham tells a story that on the day before the Hill-Bill wedding, she arrived in Arkansas and asked to see her daughter’s gown. “I never got around to buying it,” she was told, so they raced to the only department store in town that was still open and bought a dress. Hillary wasn’t interested in a diamond sparkler, either. It’s enough to make a Rules girl apoplectic – the couple didn’t plan a honeymoon, as they didn’t want to be distracted from work.

When she arrived in Arkansas in the seventies, her intellectual-hippie aesthetic was at odds with the southern-belle tendency toward Über-grooming. That, a brainy penchant for straight talk (read as emasculating and man-hating), and the fact that she was never helpless and submissive could be a few of the sexist reasons that some people (including so-called friends, like Dick Morris) have hinted that she’s a lesbian.

Her father was a demanding and authoritarian man (“You must go to an easy school,” he told her when she brought home all A’s). Her mother valued substance and discouraged interest in clothes or makeup. When Hillary was 3, an older neighborhood girl would bully her and she’d come home crying. Her mother sent her out to defend herself; she swatted the girl and was never hit again. “Now I can play with the boys!” she told her mother.

Hillary wore Coke-bottle glasses, which she hated (she apparently changed frames as constantly as she now changes hairstyles), but she didn’t switch to contacts until the early eighties. Her lightened, sprayed, glammy talking-head looks now show that politics, like beauty, knows no pain.

It’s telling, too, to compare her appearances now with the post-Super Bowl 60 Minutes interview of six years ago. Then, in her headband and metallic turtleneck, she seemed smart, young, rumpled, and natural, insisting that she was no Tammy Wynette. “And if that’s not good enough, then heck, don’t vote for him!” she said convincingly.

In contrast, last week she had her emotional hatches battened down, as she delivered a very“on message” shift of focus to the “right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring her husband down. It was almost Stepford Wives-ian, except she was serving her shared political goals, not coffee.

This is the Hillary mystique. She has made the kind of Faustian bargain that mere mortals not so in control of their ambitions and emotions just can’t fathom.

“I think they obviously love each other, and yes, I do think they still have sex,” says one New York therapist. “They fill a need for each other, and they share goals, and they care a great deal about certain issues. And probably they both lie. It’s more along a European model of a marriage. Maybe she understands that it’s not her job to control him, that this is his problem, his sickness, and it won’t change, but at the end of the day, she’s the one he comes home to.”

Even though it would seem that infidelity is a deep insult, Bill Clinton expresses his admiration of her openly, needs her, and seems to value her work. And because Hillary sees their union as part of a larger process, perhaps she really doesn’t see herself as a long-suffering wife or victim.

“Maybe it’s a kind of wifely version of Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” my friend Sallie offers. “You know, where these women make their own kids sick so that they can get attention and look like caring mothers. Hillary knows she can’t change him, but if she allows him to womanize, she knows it will get him in trouble, and then once again she will be the savior, she will be the calm in the center of the storm and prove to be the woman he can’t live without.”

Whatever her personal motivation, Hillary is the one who keeps Bill operable. It’s a highly effective strategy for now – lashing out at the forces of the right rather than outing her husband. But what is the toll on her of all these years of living this tricky public partnership? Turning herself into the liberal Anita Bryant is a high price to pay for someone with kumbaya in her soul.

The Hillary Mystique