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What can you say about a woman like Hillary Clinton?
Give ‘Em Hill?
When almost everyone you know is scared to death at the prospect of The Donald as The President, it can feel like we’re barely thinking about his opposite number. She’s become the default choice—the option that isn’t chaos.
So, after the year of Trump, at last a meditation on Presumptive Candidate #2—and she’s a Hill of a lot more difficult to get a handle on. As we stand at the altar, are there any objections to this marriage? Do we have a real picture of this woman after her 40 years in politics?
Hillary Rodham Clinton has been America’s most admired woman in the world for 20 years running. She’s also the most disliked candidate (other than Trump) since 1984, and the first Democrat more disliked than liked. Can the Hillary puzzle be solved?
The Clintons’ legacy is unclear, at best. The name conjures that strange period in the 1990s: peace and prosperity right alongside scandal, pettiness, and selling out. Our guest Doug Henwood wrote a whole book called My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. (the cover is the now-iconic painting by the visual artist Sarah Sole, above).
My Turn is a well-written laundry list of private complaints and public scandals that’s bound to make you think twice about the couple, and Hillary herself. From Honduras to Libya, “superpredators” to superdelegates, Hillary isn’t just historic in the good ways—she and Bill would bring a lot of our checkered past back into the White House with them.
Then again, Ellen Fitzpatrick reminds us that female presidential candidates tend to get a lot more than the usual scrutiny—and in her book The Highest Glass Ceiling, she has the history to back it up. If you didn’t know that more than 200 women have sought the highest office in the land, then you knew that before H.R.C., none of them even got close.
And Hillary has a further, post-feminine mystique. The critic Terry Castle—who wonderfully wrote up her meeting with Clinton at a fundraiser earlier this year in the London Review of Books—sees her, admiringly, as both woman and not-a-woman. Even as first lady, she left the familiar female identifiers in the kitchen with Tammy Wynette a very long time ago.
As “Val,” a salty old bartender on Saturday Night Live, Hillary is comic, charming, even “hot”—a glimpse of the private person that so many people have come to adore. But then the last time we elected the person we’d like “to have a beer with,” we wound up with George W. Bush—who is only now, eight years after his unhappy departure, more popular with voters than Hillary.
Hillary Clinton—overexposed but uncomprehended—raises all kinds of questions for voters and citizens. Where does the personal end and the political begin? What can we learn about a potential presidency by everything that came before it? And how should we read her—by what standard? As woman or war-maker, private self or public persona, historical breakthrough—or more of the same?
columnist for New York Magazine, executive producer of HBO's Veep, and former theater critic and columnist for The New York Times.
professor of history at University of New Hampshire.
author of My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency and host of Behind the News with Doug Henwood.
freelance writer and musician based in Brooklyn.
professor of humanities at Stanford University.
Amber A'Lee Frost