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Excerpt: 'Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary'

Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary Book Cover

In an episode of "The Simpsons" from a few years ago, Bart gets a glimpse thirty years into the future and sees that his sister Lisa has been elected president. The show doesn't make a lot of fuss over the notion of a woman commander in chief (in fact, in an aside we learn that Lisa is "the first straight woman president.") But it's impossible not to notice that President Simpson looks a lot like Hillary Clinton: her spiky hairdo has been smooshed down into a power-helmet; she wears monochrome pants suits and a string of pearls. She is intelligent and earnest, and she has a problem with authenticity. Bart, who has grown into a middle-aged slacker with a ponytail, ends up playing Bill to Lisa's Hillary; he saves the day by smooth-talking a mob of angry world leaders who have converged on the White House. At one point he says, "I coulda been president, but I'm too real."

Authenticity is shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 presidential campaign. Americans always like to believe that they really know the candidate they are voting for. And although she is probably the most famous woman in the world right now, Hillary Clinton has a lot of people stumped. It could be that we think we should know her well already, having watched her and her husband for eight years in the White House (and having learned more about their marriage than we had a right to, thanks to Kenneth Starr). Or it could be that, because she is a woman, we have different expectations of her and how cozy we ought to feel with her.

On a shelf in my kitchen is a campaign button that I picked up during the 1992 presidential race. Over a photo of Hillary (bangs and headband phase—which was basically my look then, too) are the words "Elect Hillary's Husband." Back then, the slogan produced a kind of giddy frisson: not only was the candidate just like someone I could have gone to college with—a baby boomer—but his wife was, too. And she had a job! I had only known first ladies as creaky battleaxes who sat under hairdryers and wore brooches. The thrill associated with that button feels far away now, and it's hard to know exactly why. There's no doubt that the rinky-dink scandals of the Clinton administration and the dismal parade of special prosecutors took the gleam off the fresh start that the Clintons brought with them to Washington. But that doesn't quite explain how now, fifteen years later, there is not more simple exuberance at the idea that we may be about to elect our first woman president.

Walter Shapiro, writing in Salon, suggested that it won't be long before some liberal arts college creates a department called "Hillary Studies." He was referring to the way biographies of the former First Lady keep piling up, but he might just as well have been talking about the amount of time people spend scrutinizing her. We don't seem to discuss Hillary Clinton the way we discuss other politicians: we raise our voices, we argue, we wave wine glasses around at dinner parties.

"I'm a Rorshach test," Clinton herself once said, referring to the way people tend to project their own hopes and anxieties onto her. To some Hillary is a sellout who changed her name and her hairstyle when it suited her husband's career; to others she's a hardworking idealist with the political savvy to work effectively within the system. Where one person sees a carpetbagger another sees a deft politician; where one sees a humiliated and long-suffering wife, another sees a dignified First Lady. Is she tainted by the scandals of her husband's presidency or has she gained experience and authority from weathering his missteps? Cold or competent, overachiever or pioneer, too radical or too moderate, Clinton continues to overturn the assumptions we make about her.

No other politician inspires such a wide range of passionate responses, and this is particularly true among women. As I talked with women about their reactions to Hillary, some themes came up again and again. Many women were divided within themselves as to how they feel about her, and I noticed a familiar circle of guilt: these women believe they should support Hillary as a matter of solidarity. But, because they expect her to be different from (that is, better than) the average male politician, she invariably disappoints them; then they feel guilty about their ambivalence. Some feel competitive with her. Having wearily resigned themselves to the idea that "having it all" is too much to hope for, they view Hillary as a rebuke: how did she manage to pull it off—or, at least, to appear to pull it off? Other women say they want to like her but are disturbed by the anti-feminist message inherent in the idea of the first woman president getting to the White House on her husband's coattails. Then there are women, like the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who are queasy over the way Clinton's popularity spiked only after she was perceived as a victim. When it became clear that Hillary was going to stand by her man after the Lewinsky fracas, Wasserstein wrote a disheartened Op-ed piece in the New York Times. "The name Hillary Rodham Clinton no longer stands for self-determination, but for the loyal, betrayed wife," she wrote. "Pity and admiration have become synonymous."

There's plenty of "Hillary Studies" literature out there that parses the candidate's stands on policy issues, her Senate votes and her track record as First Lady. This book isn't aiming at that kind of Op-ed page territory. Rather, it's an attempt to look at the ways in which women think about Hillary (and why they think so much about Hillary), how they make their judgments about her, which buttons she pushes in them and why. It aims to pull together some of the many refracted visions of Hillary.

The defining events—some might call them bloopers—of Clinton's political progress have become well-worn touchstones, and, not surprisingly, some of them turn up repeatedly in these pages. There was her widely-misunderstood remark about Tammy Wynette, her mutating hairstyles, the matter of her maiden name, the botched healthcare initiative, cleavagegate, and, most famously, the cookies-and-tea brouhaha. (It's interesting that when Laura Bush made her own baking-related remark, in the fall of 2007, not a single reporter followed it up: assailed for phoning the UN Secretary General personally to ask him to denounce the junta in Myanmar, she said, "This is sort of one of those myths: that I was baking cookies and then they fell off the cookie sheet and I called Ban Ki-moon." Maybe we've come farther than we thought since 1992.)

There is a healthy bit of crosstalk in the pages that follow: some of the writers argue among themselves about Hillary. It's all in the nature of a discussion. Clinton announced her candidacy in a videotaped statement showing her seated on a sofa in her living room. As she said in the video, "Let the conversation begin."

Excerpted from Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary edited by Susan Morrison. Reproduced with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

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