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No one else in the political arena inspires as wide a range of passionate feelings as Hillary Rodham Clinton. Cold or competent, overachiever or pioneer, too radical or too moderate, she continues to overturn the assumptions we make about her. In Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, New Yorker editor Susan Morrison has compiled a timely collection of original pieces by America's most notable women writers. The result is a dazzling and revealing pointillist portrait of this complex...
No one else in the political arena inspires as wide a range of passionate feelings as Hillary Rodham Clinton. Cold or competent, overachiever or pioneer, too radical or too moderate, she continues to overturn the assumptions we make about her. In Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, New Yorker editor Susan Morrison has compiled a timely collection of original pieces by America's most notable women writers. The result is a dazzling and revealing pointillist portrait of this complex and controversial politician.
Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary
Women Writers Reflect on the Candidate and What Her Campaign Meant
What if you could never say what you really felt?
By Amy Wilentz
My generation definitely has a Clinton problem. The problem consists in what psychiatrists call transference: the men and women of the baby boom take what we imagine ourselves to be, all the myths and ideas and emotions of our cultural and political selves, and then we project it onto the Clintons. What a burden for them, I often think. But then, they asked for it.
We can't help but identify with these two bizarre creatures—the grand Democratic figures of our adulthood, the Mom and Pop of the Me generation—even though the creatures were formed in Arkansas. Frankly, there are no other Arkansans with whom I've ever identified. I can't say I've ever met a person from Arkansas, except for Bill Clinton. Even though he was president, he seemed to typify the Arkansan breed in those few seconds I shared with him: he used the words "might" and "could," one right after the other, something I'd never heard before outside the Li'l Abner comic strip.
Do you think things will turn out well for Haiti, I asked him.
"Well," said the president thoughtfully. "They might could."
Our Clinton problem now, of course, is Hillary (for the moment, Bill's only a useful accessory, like Barbie's Ken, except Bill has that extra part that sometimes gives trouble). Just as Bill raised issues for men of our generation about what kind of man one should be, what kind of leader, husband, father, etc., soHillary raises similar issues for women.
Personally, when men are running for office, or have been elected, I don't wonder what it's like to be them; or not very often. I have to say that I did wonder what it could possibly be like to be George Bush when he was sitting in a schoolroom reading about a goat while the World Trade Center was falling down. I did wonder why Howard Dean made that funny noise, I wondered about Bill Clinton's cigar wielding, and I did wonder about Ronald Reagan's inner life. Male politicians have their moments of head-spinning eccentricity that make you curious. Usually, though, it's an abstract humanity that one shares with balding, compressed-lip men, in suits, ties, and wing tips.
But Hillary is different. From the day she appeared on the national scene, I've been identifying, or at least trying to identify, with her, her goals, and most of all, her character (the hardest thing to pin down). I have always wondered what it would be like to be her, even though the "her" I'm wondering about has certainly changed over the past fifteen years.
Sometimes, my instinctive desire to identify reminds me of childhood fantasies about inappropriate or silly exemplary figures. Like many girls of ten, I would lie on my bed and wonder so hard about what it would be like to be Nancy Drew with all those adventures, climbing up a ruined mansion's chimney, driving around in the red roadster. I would wonder so hard about what it might feel like to be Jackie Kennedy, a beautiful and romantic widow. I would imagine so intensely being Clara Barton and wiping the feverish brow of a wounded soldier. There was something about each of these figures, I felt, that was just like me.
With Hillary, that feeling is more intense but less romantic. From the beginning, I looked at her and I couldn't help thinking that in many ways, I am like her and she is like me. I'm a Democrat and so is she. I'm a liberal and so—arguably—is she. We're both middle-class suburbanites. She's only a few years older than I. Okay, she's from Illinois, but is that so different from my home state, New Jersey? Illinois is working-class, a labor state, on America's hidden third coast (the Great Lakes), and as blue as they come. And I was amused and impressed by what Hillary said about baking during the first Clinton presidential campaign in 1992: "I've done the best I can to lead my life. . . .You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession." That resonated.
I remember feeling delighted when she said that. I thought: there's our voice. The statement had a tone to it: arrogant, dismissive, irritated, ambitious, dedicated. She got ripped for it, of course: What's wrong with baking cookies, Hillary, huh? Are you too good for that? But she did think she was too good for that, and so did hundreds of thousands of us. We were made for things that were better than baking. It was before women decided it was better to leave the workforce and be good mothers. (In a post-feminist apologia, may I add that I have become a fairly accomplished bread baker—from scratch, without a machine—and I have also baked three children's birthday cakes per year for going on twelve years now. You can have it all.)
In fact, my apologia is very much in the style of the revised Hillary. Much to my dismay, I discovered, when I Googled "Hillary baking," that she has actually managed to get her name associated with a recipe for chocolate-chip cookies (one that uses oatmeal and a cup of vegetable shortening and that sounds awful). In 1992, after the infamous "baking" comment, Hillary—who rarely takes a step forward without taking two back, we now know—entered this cookie formula into a Family Circle magazine bake-off against other candidates' wives' recipes. She won. Of course. It is reasonable to assume that she did this in order to vitiate the original baking comment that stirred so much right-wing anger.
This to-and-froing is the kind of thing that has led women to wonder about Hillary, and that keeps them riveted. Her early, less self-conscious, less visibly political behavior was a confidence deposit that has—for . . .Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary