The First Drag Queen

America's smoothly efficient First Lady has taught herself how to act like a woman.


Camille Paglia
January 28, 1996 7:25PM (UTC)

With her appearance under subpoena before a federal grand jury on
January 26, Hillary Rodham Clinton has added another first to the annals of
First Ladies. The postwar "baby boom" generation wanted to blaze new trails
in American politics, but this isn't exactly what we had in mind. Given the
disarray among the lumpish Republican presidential candidates, Bill Clinton
may be reelected, but recent revelations about Hillary's shaky sense of
candor may have permanently damaged her reputation.

Despite reams of commentary from critics as well as supporters over the
past several years, Hillary remains an enigma. After her husband's 1992
victory, the liberal East Coast media elite instantly canonized her as a
feminist superstar and was willfully blind to the abundant signs that this
governor's wife did not know how to navigate the treacherous channels of
Washington and was too proud to ask for help. That the Clintons lacked
political judgment and common sense was obvious within a week of the
inauguration, when Bill put Hillary in charge of national health care
reform -- the most reckless display of nepotism since John F. Kennedy appointed
his brother Bobby to the ethically critical post of Attorney General.

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In her combination of grand idealism and coercive,
ends-justify-the-means tactics, Hillary encapsulates the arrogance and
self-delusion of my generation, with its evangelical sense of social mission.
I identify strongly with her and recognize in her present difficulties an
echo of my own career disasters. She and I were born the same year, and she
was in law school at Yale, while I was in graduate school across the street.
The dowdy, owlish photos of her from that period, showing her as an awkward,
earnest bookworm, dramatize the problem gifted women of great ambition have
had, and still have, in integrating their intelligence with their sexuality.

Discussions of Hillary have prudishly avoided the sexual issue -- which
makes no sense in view of her husband's widely publicized philandering. This
protective gallantry hovering around First Ladies is a relic of the past that
must go. Hillary's calculating, analytic mind is stone cold -- an intimidating
abstract state that women must learn to occupy if they are ever to make major
breakthroughs in science, mathematics, or musical composition.

Hillary -- whom her Wellesley College classmates called "Sister
Frigidaire" -- was a natural as a lawyer, but she had to learn how to be a
politician, where flexibility and gladhanding cordiality are crucial. Year
by year in Arkansas, especially after Bill was defeated in his first
reelection bid, Hillary, a high-achieving firstborn child with two recessive
brothers, taught herself how to act like a woman. The smoothly efficient
First Lady we see before us, with her chameleonlike blonde hairdos and
charismatic smile, is actually a drag queen, the magnificent final product of
a long process of self-transformation from butch to femme.

Hillary also recalls
Ibsen's haughty, masculine Hedda Gabler, whose devotion to her
military father made her reject both marital intimacy and her humdrum married
name. Hillary, too, had great trouble relinquishing her maiden name, even when it
cost her husband politically in his traditionalist home state.

The competitive tensions of the Rodham family in suburban Chicago resemble those
of the Ciccone family in suburban Detroit: Madonna too emerged into world
prominence after a bitter struggle with her siblings and mother to be Daddy's
number one girl. Hillary and Madonna draw their workaholic professional
energy from sharp psychological self-closure, an early defensive shutting
down. In Madonna's case, the result has been an inability to form lasting
love relationships; in Hillary's, it's a sexual chilliness that encouraged
her husband's promiscuity. Physically, Gennifer Flowers, Bill's most blatant
bimbo eruption, was simply Hillary revamped as a tramp.

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Madonna had the advantage of Italian Catholicism, with its sensual
visual imagery and choreographic ritualism. But Hillary, raised Methodist,
is the ultra-WASP, a Puritan who overvalues the verbal realm and who projects
a lofty rhetoric about herself and her goals that is often out of touch with
the unpleasant reality. She mistakes good intentions for good effects, with
others suffering the consequences. Here Hillary resembles Catharine
MacKinnon, the tunnel-vision anti-porn advocate, or the compulsively
whitebread Gloria Steinem, whom an indulgent, naively credulous media
establishment has similarly sanctified.

That humane principles and the best motives can go badly awry was obvious to such radical defenders of the
working class as William Blake and Charles Dickens, who exposed the smug
authoritarianism in career philanthropists. Even Hillary's laudable
commitment to children's welfare has its dark side, for not only does she
endorse legal intrusion by the state into family relationships but she has
come to see the world as a parent-child system where we are all lost souls in
need of her paternalistic supervision.

The child metaphor has also formed Hillary's love life, for her
attraction to Bill, whom she first heard boasting about fat Arkansas
watermelons in the law school lounge, was based on his boyish Huck Finn
appeal, the very quality that makes the public forgive him again and again
for his failures and peccadilloes. With his hamburgers, horse laughs,
flirtations, schmoozing, and easy tears, Bill symbolizes emotional openness
and enjoyment of life -- principles sorely needed in our politics. In their
marriage, Bill is the lush, lusty, disorderly id, while Hillary is the prim,
censorious superego keeping it all in check. As a team, they're a wonderful
combination, which is why I support Clinton's reelection.

But thanks to the circuitry of denial, Hillary, addicted to sermonizing and convinced of her
own moral superiority and infallible I.Q., has locked herself into an
untenable position. The urgent messages of her substantive new book, "It
Takes a Village," have gotten lost in a political fire storm she herself
created. Until she accepts full responsibility for her past behavior,
Hillary Clinton must wear the scarlet letter of distrust and suspicion and
sit in the stocks of public abuse.

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Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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