The prisoner of Pennsylvania Avenue

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The saddest thing I have ever read about Hillary Clinton was the compliment paid her by a young man who saw her give a fund-raising speech in September. The Starr Report had been available to the public for two weeks. The first lady had been touring the country, gamely campaigning on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates for three days. And somewhere along the way, the admiring young man told the New York Times, Hillary Clinton had become "kind of like our American Princess Di."

It was a silly comparison in a way -- poor dead Diana, that Piet` drawn by Keene, and smart, tough, policy-minded Hillary. But you knew what he meant. As different as they were, both women had achieved their greatest popularity in direct proportion to their husbands' philandering. Cast as the embarrassed but unbowed wife in a tabloid triangle, Hillary won higher favorable ratings from American voters than she ever had when she cast herself as an architect of the nation's health-care policy or a children's advocate or even as our working-mother in chief -- an immensely influential woman who, just like you and me, had to slip out of the office early to catch her kid's soccer game. Hillary and Diana were two golden-haired, porcelain-skinned, inscrutably beaming women lashed to the public stage while their husbands were outed as philanderers. The clichid abjection of the woman scorned washed away both their sins -- Hillary's ambition, Diana's callowness -- but for such redemption, Hillary has, in a way, paid a higher price. She was a politician, not a princess, and was supposed to have had less use for the filigreed archetypes of femininity past.

Now Hillary is a political asset again -- witness her ability to get out the vote for Democrats in November. But it is a curious thing that she owes this latest transformation less to any policy innovation or vision for the future than to the rather fusty idea that men always cheat (they're dogs, remember?), women always suffer, and at least Hillary suffers with class. Her new appeal battens on the kind of dumbed-down politics-free version of feminism that animates many a sitcom girls' night out. The first lady is getting some gushing press these days, but the subtext of, for example, her Vogue photo spread is: See, we thought she was dowdy, but really she's glamorous; we thought she was a hard-headed politico, but really she's a crowd-pleasing celebrity.

Yet it would be too easy -- and not quite fair -- to conclude that Hillary owes her new popularity only to a kind of relief or delight at the spectacle of a powerful woman brought to heel -- "humanized," as the euphemism has it. For what Americans actually said as they were polled and interviewed over and over again about Hillary Clinton's behavior in the eye of the Monica Lewinsky scandal implied a more complicated take. They rallied to her in part because they reviled Kenneth Starr and hated the idea of impeaching her husband, yet could not quite excuse the president's behavior either. Advertising their faith in the first lady was a way of protesting Starr's ham-fisted conflation of the public and private without endorsing Bill Clinton's recklessness. They liked her because she showed "dignity" and "strength" in the face of betrayal and excruciating exposure. Women employed the feminist language of "choice" -- Hillary, they said, "chose" to stay with Clinton -- to try to make sense of her rather pre-feminist fealty to the institution of marriage. They refused to believe that Hillary was a "victim," victim being one of those words so stretched to its limits by identity politics and 12-step culture that many people who might have used it without much thought now feel they must consciously abjure it. ("I don't buy into this victim stuff," a 27-year-old investment banker named Betty Hung told the Washington Post. "I tend to think she knows everything that is going on.") In this sense, they refuted the useful fiction promulgated by the White House that Hillary had not known about her husband's affair with Lewinsky until his speech to the nation in August. In A U.S. News and World Report poll taken the following month, 49 percent of the respondents said they thought of the Clinton's marriage as "a practical business and political relationship," while only 13 percent saw it as "a loving marriage that has its troubles."

You could see these sentiments as a hopeless mish-mash or as an exquisitely calibrated attitude, but either way, there wasn't much gloating about uppity women in them. They embraced a double standard -- but it wasn't a double standard for men and women, it was a double standard for wives and first ladies. In the U.S. News poll, 57 percent of women said they thought Hillary should stay with Bill, but only 36 percent said they would stay with their own partner if he cheated as Bill had. "She may not be behaving as a first wife should behave," said Myrna Blyth, editor in chief of Ladies Home Journal, "but women believe she is behaving like a first lady should behave -- loyal and dignified."

The truth is that the Di-ification of Hillary is not a litmus test for attitudes toward working mothers or strong wives, not a metaphor for backlash. It owes as much to the peculiar institution of first ladydom as it does to ambivalence about how the rest of us balance our lives. And that institution, with all its whalebone strictures, owes as much to the mediagenic, post-partisan politics of our era as it does to gender roles. This is worth remembering because there are so many people -- not least Hillary herself -- invested in having us believe otherwise. Throughout her White House tenure, Hillary Clinton has shown a willingness to take the image of the working mother and the baby-boomer feminist down with her. She has repeatedly defended herself against legitimate criticism -- of her handling of Whitewater and Travelgate, her role in the health-care debacle -- by crying sexism or allowing others to cry it for her. She has called herself a "Rorschach" for attitudes toward working moms, and her defenders have often made much the same point.

"She's an icon," people will say of Hillary, perhaps not knowing exactly what they mean -- but then there are plenty of partisan types to fill in the content for them. "The attempted character assassination of Hillary," wrote feminist historian Ruth Rosen in a typical defense of the first lady, "is simply one more battle in the gender wars." This is by no means an absurd line of argument. We have, in our culture, a kind of underground reservoir of misogyny that can easily be tapped for specific political purposes. This misogyny traffics in certain atavistic images of conniving, emasculating womanhood -- Delilahs, harpies, succubi. (Under synonyms for "evil-doer," my thesaurus contains seven specifically male terms and 18 specifically female ones, including "hellhag," "hellcat" and the charming-despite-itself "bitch-kitty.") And so it was no surprise that, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary quickly acquired the sobriquet "the Lady Macbeth of Arkansas." (The conservative American Spectator magazine seems to have been the first to attach it to her, but it stuck.)

The key to these sorts of insults -- what clues you in to their folkloric status, their kinship to the antisemitism of Eastern European villagers or the fear of goblins -- is that they are almost always self-contradictory, a panicky catalog of iniquity. Thus, the targeted woman can be both a man-hating lesbian and a sexually insatiable man trap, a rigid ideologue with a single-minded mission and a shape-shifting political machinator. These stereotypes tend to be deployed more often against influential first ladies than against female politicians -- perhaps because it is easier to demonize wives in sexual terms and perhaps because Americans have a legitimate discomfort with people who acquire political power through their bedmates. And though they may seem to overlap with a socially conservative agenda, such sentiments do not belong solely to the right. Nancy Reagan -- probably the most vilified first lady in postwar history, whatever Hillary's partisans may say -- was denounced as a "dragon lady" by plenty of good liberals, and Rosalynn Carter took a drubbing from feminists for having achieved her influence through marriage. ("You were handed an assignment simply because you were the wife of the president," reporter Judy Woodruff upbraided Rosalynn when the first lady returned from a political tour of Latin America in 1977. "Isn't that kind of a setback for the women's movement?") And the fact that fears of female power persist and sometimes take political form does not mean that they represent mainstream political opinion or even the well-considered opinion of social conservatives. Such misogyny is at once deeper and less efficacious than it might appear.

Surely when we consider what it is that has cut Hillary Clinton down to size, what has helped to make her more beloved as a first-wives club kind of gal-pal than in any of her more ambitious or unorthodox guises, we have to think about first ladydom itself. The rise of the presidential couple is a recent phenomenon and not one to be taken for granted. Before the mid-20th century, first ladies were certainly written and gossiped about, but they were not seen as politically necessary adjuncts to their husbands. The occasional widower or bachelor (Thomas Jefferson, Martin van Buren, James Buchanan) could make it to the White House; it's almost impossible to imagine a man without a wife, and preferably a display-quality wife, doing so today. In the 19th century, the first lady's chief duty was to serve as the White House hostess -- a mandate whose limited scope is apparent in the fact that an unmarried sister or daughter could just as easily do the honors when a wife was absent or invalided. Elizabeth Monroe suffered from one of those unspecified 19th century ailments that kept her confined to her bed much of the time, so her daughter Eliza often filled in for her. The press grumbled and made unflattering comparisons to the vivacious Dolly Madison, but there were no political consequences for Monroe.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first presidential wife to reimagine the role from the inside, using her status as Franklin's "eyes and ears" to carve out an independent mission for herself as a crusader for the poor and the downtrodden. But it was pressure from the outside -- most of all from the rise of the mass media and celebrity culture -- that transformed the first lady into a necessary campaign asset and the first family into a marketable commodity. Harry Truman was the first president to make a practice of incorporating his wife and child into campaign appearances. In 1948, on a whistle-stop tour of the United States, he took to bringing Bess and their daughter Margaret out on the rear of the train with the introduction "Howja like to meet my family?" The matronly and retiring Bess was "the boss," the more glamorous Margaret was the "boss's boss." It was a calculated joke -- the humor and the safety of it lay in the fact that Bess could in no real way be construed as "the boss" and the calculation lay in the fact that calling her "the boss" implied that Truman had a civilizing, feminine influence at home, a renewable source of Midwestern moral uplift. Neither woman ever spoke, but Bess perfected the glazed convention-hall smile of the candidate's wife -- trained first and most intensely on the husband and only then on his cheering supporters. (As Germaine Greer points out, "the gaze" tells us the wife is there for him, "miming" a subservience and self-abnegation she may or may not feel, while he is there only for us: "He may place a hand on her waist or shoulder but, though her eyes must be turned to him, his eyes must be turned to the public.") The "Truman Ladies" soon became "a presidential trademark," essential to the president's appeal, Newsweek concluded, and there was no retreat to anonymity or independence for first ladies after that.

"Today, spouses often do what political parties once did, helping to define the country's leader in an accessible, standard shorthand," writes historian Gil Troy in a penetrating book called "Affairs of State: The Rise and Rejection of the Presidential Couple since World War II." "As partisan identity declined, presidents instinctively offered up their wives to help forge ties with millions of voters in this mass democracy. As a result, modern presidential couples have been pressured more intensively than ever to embody an ideal" -- of the deferential helpmeet with no career other than her husband's to tend, the grateful and wholesome and attractive children -- "at a time when this same ideal has been both repudiated and revered."

Americans want what Troy calls "joint image-making" from the president and his wife, but they don't want joint governing; they don't want a co-presidency. And while there may be a tincture of sexism in that attitude, the more important element is the recognition that it is undemocratic to cede political power to a consort we have neither elected nor provided a role for in the Constitution. Indeed, it's not so hard to imagine a female president whose ambitious husband, having been asked to give up his own career and privacy in order to smile for her on the dais, might then feel entitled to some portion of real power. And it's not hard to imagine that voters would feel just as chagrined. The tension between the extraordinary demand for visibility that modern campaigns place on spouses and the expectation that spouses will not set themselves up as co-presidents has produced an unsustainable bind. And it has made first ladies, as Troy writes, into "prime political targets, attacked, ridiculed and grilled about their childhoods, their child rearing, their marriages, their fashions and their philosophies. It is a thankless task. Often, it seems that a first lady cannot do anything right: Nancy Reagan was too trendy; Barbara Bush too frumpy; Rosalynn Carter was too powerful; Pat Nixon too passive; Betty Ford was too outspoken; Bess Truman too discreet."

But then there are so many pitfalls built into the modern notion of a presidential couple. Long before second-wave feminism adopted it as a slogan, postwar politicians and their handlers decided that the personal was political. But now that we live at a time when "personal" is more and more elastically defined, when a ravenous media and a cultural premium on lurid confession has left us with only the wispiest notions of discretion, the threats to a first lady's dignity are manifold. It was possible for first ladies of the past to escape being seen through the lens of their husbands' philandering and so to escape our pity, which is such a dubious gift. Lady Bird Johnson could be regarded primarily as the stolid, sweet-natured mother of two bright daughters and as the author of "beautification" projects (really a cover word for a much more ambitious and successful environmentalism) rather than as the cuckolded wife of a boorish husband. ("Ah've had hundreds of women in my life," LBJ supposedly told visitors to his Texas ranch. "But let me tell you," he'd say when he got to the master bedroom, "nobody is better in that bed than Lady Bird.") Hillary has not had that luxury. Though she is not exactly blameless in this regard, either. When she went on "60 Minutes" to talk about the "pain" in her marriage, thereby making a campaign tactic out of therapeutic pseudo-honesty, and when she cited George Bush's alleged girlfriend by name to a Vanity Fair reporter, thereby violating once and for all one of the unspoken rules of campaign etiquette, she certainly did nothing to protect the principle of privacy.

Popularity is really the only way a first lady's success is measured, since her various projects -- inveighing against drugs or promoting literacy or remodeling the White House -- generally have no legislative component. (The underrated Lady Bird offers an exception. She actually did get a bill passed: a restriction on billboards throughout the federal highway system that was strenuously protested by business interests.) What tends to matter disproportionately in assessing a presidential wife's tenure are all those magazine polls of the 10 or 20 or 100 most-admired women. But the popularity of first ladies is a strange and rather ethereal force; it seems as though it ought to have predictable political consequences, mapped neatly onto recognized political categories, but it doesn't. Betty Ford, for instance, was an immensely popular presidential spouse, especially with reporters. The chattering classes liked her spacily honest '70s dysfunctionalism -- the time she embarrassed her husband by doing the bump with Tony Orlando at the Republican Convention; the "60 Minutes" interview in which she casually remarked that all her kids had smoked dope and she would have, too, at their age; her frankness about breast cancer and drug addiction and sex with her husband. But her popularity actually hurt Gerald Ford; he looked as though he couldn't manage a wife who was blossoming, a little floridly, in middle age. Hence the appearance, in 1976, of buttons that read "ELECT BETTY'S HUSBAND." And while grandmotherly Barbara Bush was the best-liked first lady since Jackie Kennedy -- her pledge of apoliticism was her political weapon -- affection for her was not enough to get Poppy reelected.

With all this in mind, it becomes possible to see some of Hillary Clinton's least successful gestures -- as well as the high-water mark of her popularity -- as the by-products of an absurd role. Not the role of working mother (which is hard but not absurd), but of first lady. Think, for example, of the time (campaign season 1992) when she challenged Barbara Bush to a cookie-baking contest or the interview with Time (campaign season 1996) in which she let it be known that she and the president were talking about having a second child. It was difficult to read such announcements as anything other than cynical attempts to coat herself in the kind of retro domesticity that, like Vaseline on a camera lens, had softened the image of so many previous first ladies. Only with Hillary it was never quite believable. And why should it be? She wasn't Mamie Eisenhower, who could say that "Ike runs the country, I turn the lamb chops" and not be laughed off the airwaves and whose fondness for pink -- pink ribbons in her hair, pink dressing gowns, pink satin sheets -- could be plausibly regarded as a matter of taste rather than poll-tested imperative. But when Hillary tried to swim in the other direction -- explaining that she was just like any working mother who had to go out on her lunch hour to buy her daughter's' birthday invitations and who found the whole balancing act very, very hard -- she failed to work the magic of reassurance, either. Because who really wants a first lady who shares all your worries? We want one who understands that we have them, sure -- but also one who has transcended them herself (with the help, after all, of a very large staff), so that she can concentrate on her obligations to advise and support the Leader of the Free World. The image Hillary seemed bent on projecting early in the first administration -- of, in the words of an Esquire profile, a "bionic" woman who "worries about rug stains in the Lincoln Bedroom, whether to let Chelsea pierce, and reinventing health care," was, frankly, scary. Please, I thought, don't let it be true that you are as harried and distracted as the rest of us.

Maybe it really is time, in the name of humane egalitarianism and of reclaiming the personal from the political, to retire the role of first lady as we now conceive of it. No woman of substance should have to perform throughout the long, grueling months of a campaign as so much glorified arm candy. No family should have to serve such a patently political function. Besides, if a president's personal life is now to be subject to the kind of unrelenting scrutiny we have lately come to expect, then the institution of the presidential couple simply will not hold. The performance of fidelity will not withstand the continual investigation of it.

But most importantly, as Germaine Greer pointed out in a prescient essay about the impossibility of first ladydom, "In a democratic world, mere relationship to an elected officeholder should never be a route to power." Let unmarried people be considered suitable candidates for high office. Let presidential wives who have had their own careers -- and in the future, that will be most of them, even the Republicans -- continue to practice those careers as independently as possible while their husbands occupy the White House. And let women with abundant political talent and ambition -- women like Hillary Clinton -- seek office in their own name and their own right.

By Margaret Talbot

Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

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