The world may be long overdue a Madam President of the United States of America — but is Hillary Clinton the right woman for the position? Suzanne Harrington looks at a candidate who divides international and feminist opinion.
At the recent annual White House Correspondents’ dinner, one of Obama’s jokes was ostensibly about the state of the economy: “I had a friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year, and now she’s living out of a van in Iowa.”
He was of course referring to the grassroots campaigning strategy of his friend Hillary Clinton, formerly his frenemy, lately the Secretary of State, and if things go her way in 2016, the first President of the United States to achieve office without the aid of a penis.
Obviously, by the mere fact of being a woman, she will continue to invite all kinds of debate between now and next year’s election.
So far, there’s been Grandmagate — or the supposition from right-wing conservatives that a woman in her sixties would reconsider her political ambition in the face of impending grandmotherhood.
Does multi-tasking extend to being both a president and a nanna at the same time?
Funnily enough, Mitt Romney, in his unsuccessful 2012 bid for the presidency, was never asked this question, despite possessing what satirist Jon Stewart called a “petting zoo” of 18 grandchildren.
“It’s as though men and women are treated differently,” mused Stewart. (There was even some highly dubious speculation that Hillary had manipulated her daughter Chelsea’s pregnancy to suit her own political ends.)
On the plus side of being the only female candidate, she recently joked that if she ever wants to grab the front page from Republican rivals like Jeb Bush, all she has to do is change her hairdo.
The world is long overdue a Madam President— will Hillary be the first? Could the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pantsuits— Hillary wears lots of trouser suits and has been making jokes about them since 2000 (“In my White House, we’ll know who wears the pantsuits,” she told Letterman in 2008)— finally be striding towards the Oval Office?
The problem, says Dr Clodagh Harrington, editor of Obama’s Washington: Political Leadership In A Partisan Era, is that Hillary Clinton has been central in the political landscape for a very long time. She is not all shiny and new, as was Obama two terms ago.
Apart from the obvious problem for conservatives— that not only is she a woman, but a progressive liberal feminist woman — is the fact that it may not be immediately clear what fresh new ideas she can bring to the presidency.
“As a brand, she’s been around forever,” says Dr Harrington.
“She needs a new USP to present herself as a representative of the future. Her election video is all about women, families, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian voters.
"There are no conservative white men. They won’t be voting for her. Instead she wants her supporters to become a majority of minorities.”
And yet she voted in favour of the Iraq war. Is she really a hawk masquerading as a feminist dove?
“Hillary is not Lady MacBeth or Claire Underwood,” says Dr Harrington.
“She had to be hawkish just to get up through the ranks. Her voting for the Iraq war may have been a pragmatic move, rather than being perceived as a failed liberal tree-hugger.”
Hillary herself says that the two greatest political mistakes of her career have been not delivering health care reform, and believing in the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
Before her own political career went stratospheric, Hillary was best known for being married to Bill. You may have heard this joke about their power dynamic: the First Couple, when driving near Hillary’s home town, run out of petrol.
They stop at a local garage. The petrol attendant greets Hillary warmly— in their youth they used to date.
“Imagine if you’d married him instead of me,” says Bill.
“Yes,” says Hillary. “You’d be pumping gas and he’d be president.”
This basically tells you everything you need to know about Hillary Rodham, who only added her husband’s surname to her own with some reluctance when in 1980 Southern voters choked on the lack of the words ‘Mrs’ and ‘Clinton’ in her name.
America was not ready for a woman who did not automatically wish to become part of her husband’s extended identity. Hillary, a feminist decades ahead of the country she would one day hope to govern, was also a pragmatist, and duly complied.
But who is she? What motivates her? What drives her? Where does she come from, psychologically, ethically, politically? Obviously to answer these questions in depth you’d need to read her books — she’s written six to date.
Four are political: It Takes A Village; The Unique Voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton; Living History and Hard Choices.
And the other two are those obligatory mumsy books that often seem foisted on First Ladies as some kind of reassuring PR stunt. An Invitation To The White House and Dear Socks, Dear Buddy are respectively about White House décor and White House pets.
Churned out perhaps to appease the conservatives — you can’t quite imagine a political intellect such as hers willingly writing about cats and soft furnishings. Can you?
She is not, however, an American Thatcher. Hillary has both a heart and a conscience and it’s said, she is known for her generosity and humour.
Hugely influenced by her mother, Dorothy Rodham, in her book Living History, she wrote, “I’m still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and level headed woman.”
Mrs Rodham indeed had a rotten start in life. Born Dorothy Howell in 1919 in Chicago, she was abandoned by her mother Della, and aged 8, was sent by her father, along with her 3 year old sister, to Los Angeles county— three days by train, unaccompanied by an adult — to live with their grandparents. Who sounded monstrous.
The young Dorothy was confined to her bedroom for a whole year for going trick or treating at Halloween, allowed out only to go to school.
She left her grandparents when she was 14, and began supporting herself; when she was 18 she returned to Chicago, only to be rejected by her mother all over again.
She married Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, and raised three children, Hillary, Hugh and Tony, while continuing to educate herself at every opportunity. She was incredibly bright.
“Learning about my mother’s childhood sparked my strong conviction that every child deserves a chance to live up to her God-given potential and that we should never quit on any child,” Clinton wrote in the 2006. Mrs Rodham died aged 92, in 2011.
"A lifelong Methodist, she was a major inspiration on her daughter, whose says her own credo is the Wesleyan: “Do all the good you can.”
From the start, Hillary had serious brains and ability. She attended Yale Law School from 1969 to 1973, and initially applied to NASA to be an astronaut but was shocked to discover they didn’t consider females.
A major life change occurred at Yale — while tending towards Republicanism — she heard Martin Luther King speak in Chicago, and had something of an epiphany.
“She was far more left wing that Bill when they first met,” says Dr Harrington.
“She was also hugely ambitious, in an era where female ambition was considered unsavoury and unseemly.” As a law student, she studied child development, and worked for free on child abuse cases.
When Bill and Hill did meet at Yale, there was an instant attraction — physical (“he looked like a Viking”) and intellectual — a mutual spark that never extinguished.
Their brains fell in love. The bedrock of their marriage remains a shared love of politics, which forms the intellectual and emotional basis of their relationship.
Bernie Nussbaum, White House counsel during the first Clinton presidency remembers, “Bill will say, ‘Hillary thinks this. What do you think?’ They really were a partnership.”
“Bill was the talented but undisciplined visionary, Hillary the pragmatist,” says Dr Harrington. “As First Lady of Arkansas in the 70s, she was hugely unpopular — too feminist, too uppity, and when Bill lost his bid for Governor in 1980, voter feedback suggested that she was off putting.
"So she changed her look, her rhetoric and her surname, and he was duly re-elected in 1982. They have always been both a help and a hindrance to each other.”
During the 1992 Democratic primaries, the demonisation of Hillary began. The Californian Governor suggested to the Arkansas Governor that his wife working as an attorney was somehow unethical as it involved state funds.
Then Bill suggested that should he reach the White House, America would have a Buy One; Get One Free deal with a husband and wife presidential team. This went down badly — causing Hillary to snap that as the wife of a Governor, the only way to remain uncontroversial was to “stay at home and bake cookies”.
Cue media meltdown, public debate about Hillary dissing housewives, and much misogynist hoo-ha around “family values.”
The Republicans fell upon it with glee. Look, America, they said, a First Lady who doesn’t want to bake cookies. It didn’t work — Bill was elected anyway, and at the 1993 inauguration, their daughter Chelsea joined them on the podium as her dad took the oath of office, the first First Daughter to do so.
During Bill Clinton’s first term the Whitewater scandal blew up - “The only dumb stupid thing we ever did”, according to Hillary, until the Lewinsky affair blew up with a far bigger bang. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr proved ferociously tenacious; Hillary made another comment about not being like Tammy Wynette in terms of standing by her man, and as with the cookie baking, had to make a protracted apology, saying she was not insulting Tammy personally. Public opinion towards Hillary finally began to soften as Bill’s sexual incontinency was excruciatingly revealed.
But we know all that. Since then, she has not, unlike other former First Ladies, gone quietly to devote themselves to charity fundraising or cookies or whatever. She has had the role of Senator, Democratic presidential contender, and Secretary of State. “While Bill talked about social change, I embodied it,” she said in 2003.
“Clinton’s true legacy might be the countless public events that she held from Lahore to Kinshasa,” writes George Packer in The New Yorker.
“Where thousands of ordinary people got to question the US Secretary of State, and where the topic was often something like women’s rights or access to clean water. These efforts were sometimes derided as soft, and marginal to real foreign policy, but Clinton-who is, after all, a politician-knew that she would have to be seen listening, in order to help regain the world’s respect.”
Hillary is a highly respected global brand these days, entirely in her own right, her husband no longer centre stage, while simultaneously perceived in a far more positive light.
“Hillary’s own star quality is now so stratospheric that politically she no longer needs Bill — she’s bulletproof all by herself,” says Dr Harrington.
“Bill is far less prominent these days. And he polled recently as one of the most trusted men in America, an elder statesman. He’s far less of a liability now, for two reasons — a lot of time has passed since the Lewinsky scandal, and he is much older.”
Not that Hillary is on a home run for 2016. “Her main problems are that for everyone that loves her, there’s someone who hates her,” concludes Dr Harrington.
And yet how marvellous it would be to follow the first black American president with the first woman American president. What progress that would be. And she has some significant supporters. Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer winning grand dame of black American literature, is fan, telling the Guardian: “I respect and appreciate her...I would be on her side. Strongly.”
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