Hilary Clinton, who will be the first female candidate for the White House, has been accused of being too ambitious in her lust for power. How else would she have got this far, asks Jocelyn Noveck

Hillary Clinton says that when she was about 14, she wrote to Nasa volunteering for astronaut training.

But the space agency’s reply was simple and definitive: No girls.

“It was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn’t overcome with hard work and determination, and I was outraged,” she would write in her book, Living History.

More than a half-century later, and after much hard work, much determination, and most of all, many, many obstacles — some undeniably of her own making — Clinton is no closer to actual space travel.

She may have to settle for becoming the first female leader of the free world.

Her journey so far, more than three decades in the public eye, has been unlike any seen in American politics.

It is a story of great promise, excruciating setbacks, bitter scandal, and stunning comebacks.

It especially involved reinvention — of her own life, and as a result, of the role of women in government. It is one that has fascinated not just her own country, but the world as it is doubtful there is any woman more recognizable on a global scale.

If Barack Obama was the presidential candidate who seemed to come out of nowhere, Clinton is the candidate who seemed to come out of everywhere.

Americans first knew her as a governor’s wife and working mother in Arkansas, then as the nation’s first lady — famously claiming an office in the West Wing of the White House, not the East, as half of husband Bill’s “Buy one, get one free” bargain.

Touched by scandal from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky, she carved out her own political identity and emerged to become a hard-working senator, the first first lady to gain elected office.

She became known as the presidential candidate who suffered a stinging defeat to Obama in 2008, but proudly claimed “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling.

Then she reinvented herself again, becoming Obama’s secretary of state, travelling almost a million miles to 112 countries. Finally, after much speculation, she announced her second run for the presidency.

But who IS Hillary Clinton, and why, if we’ve been watching her for so long, do we feel like we didn’t know her?

Perhaps it is a question of layers. She’s had so many different roles, of course we’ve seen different facets of her.

But there is also a sense of impenetrability, exacerbated by her penchant for secrecy — a characteristic that has led to her greatest vulnerability in this election: the email scandal over her use of a private server.

For the last 14 years, and 20 overall, Americans polled by Gallup have named Clinton their most admired woman in the world.

But other titles attached to her over the years include: Lady Macbeth; Washington insider; Robotic; Wildly ambitious; Congenital liar; or Donald Trump’s current favourite, Crooked Hillary.

And there have been: Feminist heroine; Glass-ceiling breaker; The most prepared in the room; The most qualified presidential candidate ever; Loyal friend; Witty companion; Mom; Grandma.

“It’s an amazing life,” said biographer Carl Bernstein, who wrote a 600-page book on her and says he still struggles to define her. “You could not make any of this stuff up.”

There have been polarising figures in politics before, but it is hard to imagine any have been called as many things as Hillary Clinton.

Top US comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) has been turning out versions for a good 25 years. Each actress spoofing Clinton — there have been nine, including Miley Cyrus rapping in a bandeau — has put her spin on the part but the one constant has been ambition, pure and unadulterated.

Kate McKinnon, in a recent scene where Clinton herself gamely played a bartender, the fake Hillary asked Huma Abedin, her aide: “Why won’t the people just let me LEAD?”

Comedy aside, the ambition tag has dogged Clinton, 68, throughout her career, as if it were a bad quality rather than a necessity in high-stakes politics.

The satirical website The Onion captured the irony in a 2006 headline: “Hillary Clinton Is Too Ambitious To Be The First Female President.”

That gets a knowing laugh from Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s chief of staff from her first lady years.

“If a guy is described as ambitious, it’s a noble attribute — he wants to put himself ahead,” says Ms Verveer.

“But if a woman is ambitious, it’s not an attribute, it’s a negative, a pejorative. It’s not proper somehow.”

Former Republican Patricia Schroeder thinks the ambition factor is unfairly key to Clinton’s challenges connecting with the electorate.

“We still don’t like a woman who is showing ambition, especially for that level of a job,” says Ms Schroeder, who explored her own presidential candidacy decades ago.

“It’s: ‘I’d like her if she weren’t so damned ambitious. How come she wants all that power’?”

At her college graduation in 1969, Hillary Rodham was already blazing a trail: The senior from Park Ridge, Illinois, was the first student chosen to address a Wellesley commencement.

She delighted many classmates when she delivered an on-the-spot rebuke to the previous speaker, a US senator whose comments the graduates found condescending to women.

At Yale Law School, where she met Bill Clinton, she developed a keen interest in children’s rights, which she pursued in post-graduate work.

Under all the layers is Hillary Clinton really a good fit for the presidency?

It has been a particular frustration to Clinton’s campaign that young Democrats have not responded more enthusiastically, with many attracted to the populist message of Bernie Sanders (six years her senior).

There’s a sense that millennials are too young to remember her efforts on behalf of social justice, particularly for women and girls on a global scale.

A key moment in her political journey came in 1995 when, as first lady, she spoke at a UN Congress on women in Beijing, declaring: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

It was a time when Clinton was searching for a new identity, having failed to reform healthcare back home. But even she had no idea the impact those simple words would have.

“It not only gave her an instant sense of the world looking at her differently, but she was also seeing the role she could play in ways perhaps she had never understood before,” said Ms Verveer. “It has remained with her ever since.”

Her image as a champion for women has been complicated by her, well, complicated marriage. She’s been an object of both sympathy and blame for staying with her husband post-Monica Lewinsky.

But memories of Beijing endure.

To this day, said Ms Verveer, people come up to Clinton on her travels and say: “‘I was there, in Beijing.’ It’s something that they instantly share.”

Part of the narrative on Clinton has been her trouble connecting to the public.

“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed,” she said recently, “like my husband or President Obama.”

One SNL skit has her showing off her new kitchen in a Senate campaign ad, saying in robot-speak: “I can’t wait to prepare some food dishes in this kitchen, such as salads and toast.”

Those who have watched her up close say she is both natural and an excellent communicator one on one. Friends always say she is relaxed, funny, witty, a great companion.

And not just her friends. Talk to her classmates from Wellesley, even those who only knew her from afar, and they say they can’t understand the gap between public and private Hillary.

Nancy Herron, who did not really know her at school, reconnected with her decades later at a reunion, where Ms Herron performed a stand-up routine on what it is like being in the shadows of such a famous classmate. She even skewered Clinton’s pantsuits.

“She sat there and just laughed her head off,” says Ms Herron.

“She really enjoyed being teased. Afterward, she gave me a hug, and said, ‘We need to take you on the road!’”

Another classmate, Cheryl Lawson Walker, adds: “She wasn’t intimidating, easy to talk to, very funny, hang-loose. She had yet to be hardened.”

Or, said Ms Walker, perhaps the “hardened” Hillary is simply what the public sees.

In a February poll, the most common responses Americans gave when asked what came to mind about Clinton were “dishonest” and “dislike her”.

It is a theme woven into the Clinton story — both Bill and Hillary — from the White House scandals to the email story.

“The most difficult thing Hillary Clinton has to deal with right now is her difficult relationship with the truth,” says Bernstein, author of A Woman in Charge: The Life Of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Under all the layers is Hillary Clinton really a good fit for the presidency?

Bernstein is quick to point out that Hillary Clinton’s version of untruthfulness is in a different ballpark than that of Trump, who, he feels, “just spouts lies, and has no interest in existential truth,” where Clinton “tries to establish a baseline of truth”.

Politifact, the fact-checking organisation, asserted at one point that 27% of Clinton’s statements it investigated were false or mostly false, compared with 76% of Trump’s.

Another long-time observer, writer Gail Sheehy, attributes her difficulties with the truth to a defence mechanism honed over years of fending off attacks on her and her husband.

“You could call it denial,” says Ms Sheehy, author of Hillary’s Choice.

The issue has never been more important than in this campaign, when both Clinton’s veracity and judgment are being called into question.

What the email mess shows, Bernstein says, is “this fierce desire for privacy and secrecy that seems to cast a larger and larger shadow over who she really is.”

Who she really is. There’s that question again.

Is it a fair one that would be asked about other candidates?

Ms Schroeder thinks not, saying: “I say to people, ‘What more do you want to know’?”

“We can see her voting record. We know what colours she likes. She speaks about her mother. She’s a Methodist. How many politicians do we even know that much about? Do they want some kind of a confession?”

Others note that Mrs Clinton has naturally become very guarded, given that she has been judged, relentlessly and often unfairly “on a huge stage, for all of her life,” in Bernstein’s words.

Besides, said the writer, “too many people are interested in looking for information that reinforces their already held prejudices and beliefs.”

Ms Herron, Hillary Clinton’s college classmate, feels that people do not subject male candidates to the same scrutiny, always looking for another layer.

“What do we know about Mitt Romney? What do we know about ANYBODY? We expect her to let her hair down, to talk about her failures and self-doubt or something.

“You know what, she’s not like that! Let her be who she is.”

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