She's leaving home

Hillary Clinton is finally striking out on her own. But will she ever figure out who she really is?

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Finally, at 52, Hillary Rodham Clinton is leaving home. This month she retired as first lady, and soon she'll vacate her husband's White House for her very own white house in Chappaqua, N.Y., to commence her campaign for the U.S. Senate, and her own independent life.

Her first experiment with independence ended badly. At 18, she left the grim home of her perfectionist father, Hugh Rodham, to go to college, but it took her four years at Wellesley to shake his dour, judgmental Republicanism. When she finally did, adopting rather dour, judgmental left-wing politics instead, she quickly attached herself to another man, the needy Arkansas womanizer she met at Yale, Bill Clinton. She sacrificed her career for his and watched as he squandered the chance at a legacy for their putative co-presidency on an Oval Office affair with a big-haired intern.

Now, at last, she is ready to light out on her own. Just this month, she got to enjoy the thrill of stating the obvious -- that her husband's sellout gays-in-the-military policy of "Don't ask, don't tell" has been a tragic failure -- and having the president a few days later second her emotion, while Al Gore chimed in behind them, promising he'd repeal it if elected president. At long last, Hillary gets to step out front and have the men in her political life fall in behind her. It doesn't get any better than this.

But this time, can she succeed on her own? Politically, it's not clear. Although her admirers have long said that the wrong Clinton went to the White House in 1992, voters may not agree. She lacks her husband's child-of-an-alcoholic, approval-seeking charisma. She does not feel our pain. In college -- a time when she tried on personas the way she would later try out hairdos, as though a character makeover were as easy as a cosmetic one -- she decided to call herself a "compassionate misanthrope," someone who cares about mankind but doesn't much like individual people. The label clearly stuck. The big question in the New York Senate race is whether real, live voters will ever warm to her, or her to them.

Maybe most important, it's still not clear, after all these years, what Hillary Clinton believes. The two biographies most recently published about her -- liberal Gail Sheehy's "Hillary's Choice" and conservative Barbara Olson's "Hell to Pay" -- depict a political shape-shifter who metamorphosed from Goldwater Republican to acolyte of Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman in just a few years. And yet in 1996, as Edelman and other liberal friends agonized over how she could live with the man who signed the Republican welfare-reform bill, she told political consultant Dick Morris that her whiny pals needed to get over it, welfare reform had to happen and she wasn't going to listen to their complaints anymore. In the New York Senate race, so far all we really know is that she's not Rudy Giuliani (although she has a lot in common with the thin-skinned, self-righteous, martinet mayor). For the first time she'll have to run on the merits of her own politics and policies, whatever they turn out to be.

But that's what she allegedly wants. After decades of being seen in the reflected light or shadow of her screwed-up husband, Hillary is now asking to be judged on her own. When a National Review reporter, at her November almost-announcement of her candidacy, asked her if she still believed "a vast right-wing conspiracy" was behind her husband's Monica Lewinsky troubles, she snapped, "I'm not going back, I'm going forward," and wouldn't answer. Her New York campaign guru, Harold Ickes, says, "This is a race for redemption. It's really that simple -- redemption."

Ironically, the redemption of Hillary Clinton began with her humiliation by her husband last year. It was only when she was cruelly and publicly victimized that her humanity became real. Next year we'll learn whether the independent Hillary will be redeemed or repudiated by New York voters. And if the past tells us anything about the future, it will be a long, uphill and unpredictable campaign.

If Hillary Clinton had been trailed by a photographer her whole life, she might seem a little like a female Forrest Gump: Somehow she's been present at every defining moment of American liberal activism in the last 40 years. There she is in 1960, on the eve of the nation's turn left, a dutiful young Republican harassing Hispanic girls in Chicago as she tries to ferret out the notorious voter fraud that helped elect John F. Kennedy. At 15, we find her shaking hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at a local church, her "small white hand ... in his warm palm," in Gail Sheehy's oddly creepy words. (It's not clear how Sheehy knew King's hand was warm, except what else would a black man's hand be; and at 15, was Hillary's hand really much smaller than it is today?)

Fast forward to 1968 and she's Wellesley's senior-class president and commencement speaker, denouncing the "acquisitive and competitive corporate life" in favor of "more immediate, ecstatic ... modes of living." (An actual photo of her would appear that year in Life magazine, part of a feature on student leaders.) Now, here she is working with the legendary Saul Alinsky, the "Rules for Radicals" author and father of community organizing. She would turn down a job with Alinsky for Yale Law School and a summer internship with Black Panther lawyers in Oakland (where's that photo with Huey Newton?), and eventually meet the future president.

But that's not all: Next she goes to work for the congressional committee that investigated Watergate, where she had the job of listening to Nixon's infamous Oval Office tapes. We can see her, headphones squeezed over long, unruly hair, eyes wide behind her big unflattering glasses, listening to Nixon himself describe what's on the tapes, fired by her fervor to drive the wrongdoer from office, blissfully unaware of the role she would play in the country's next impeachment drama.

Oblivious to the scandal that awaits her, she's at times eerily prescient about the glory: She tells her boss at the committee, future White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, that the chubby hayseed she's dating is going to be president some day. Nussbaum and her other Washington friends, understandably, don't believe her. Her pal Sara Ehrman would later confide that she drove Hillary to Arkansas, to start her life with Bill Clinton, hoping the long ride would give her a chance to talk her friend out of career suicide. Of course she failed, and the rest is American history.

But that choice is the central mystery of Hillary's life. Why did this brainy Yale feminist, witness to key turning points in the revolutionary 1960s and '70s, who came of age during the heyday of the women's movement, follow her philandering boyfriend to Arkansas and put her own promising career on hold? All these years later, it seems less like love than a monstrous failure of nerve, and Hillary Clinton's 20-plus (count 'em) biographers, not just Sheehy and Olsen, have not been able to explain it. For feminists like me who came a half-generation behind her, the choice has always seemed not just retro, but lazy, as though she wanted the perks of power without the sacrifices getting elected required.

And yet she sacrificed plenty, lashing herself to a self-destructive womanizer who risked both their futures on furtive and flagrant sex with countless females. As a governor's wife, then as first lady, she's had as much scrutiny, criticism and ridicule as her spouse, with almost none of the power; little credit but lots of blame. Clinton's 1980 gubernatorial loss was attributed to her frumpy clothes, Yale snobbiness and failure to take her husband's name; likewise Whitewater, with more reason, was seen as her fault more than his. And more than a few pundits and stand-up comedians have, without any reason, blamed the president's compulsive tomcatting on what they see as her steely sexlessness.

Who can forget her humbling during the 1992 campaign, after she messed up with her catty "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies" remark, looking again like that snooty feminist who 12 years earlier cost her husband the governor's race? She left the political stage briefly and came back looking more wifely, sitting for an interview with NBC's Jane Pauley in a big-skirted coral dress that she could have borrowed from Donna Reed. She looked like she'd been drinking or crying -- the '50s housewife's two safe harbors -- and she seemed less demure than drugged. Her life has been a blur of hairdos and makeovers ever since. Her inability to settle on a look and make peace with herself points to the single thing that best explains her "choice": a fundamental lack of self-knowledge and self-assurance that prevented her from defining her personal and political views and offering them up to the public for approval.

Gail Sheehy, good therapeutic liberal that she is, blames Hillary's choice of a philandering husband over a political career on her domineering, impossible-to-please father, who withheld his love and approval, forcing Hillary to repeat the pattern with a withholding, unavailable husband. But her cheesy book, with its dime-store Jungianisms (Bill as puer aeternus, Hillary unable to connect with her "shadow" and dying the "little death" of middle age), takes a scary, fill-in-the-blanks approach to analysis: If Person A (marries a philanderer) she must have (had insufficient love and attention from her father). Yet Sheehy never examines the father-daughter relationship her book deems so crucial.

She makes much of her access to Dorothy Rodham, Hillary's mother (whose revelations are only revealing in their emptiness), but doesn't even question the now-dead Hugh, who sat forbiddingly in another room while Sheehy interviewed his wife in 1992. Did she ever try to talk to the man she accuses, with no evidence, of "sexually undermining" his daughter? It appears not, and the one intriguing fact that she "uncovered" -- that he skipped Hillary's shining moment, her Wellesley graduation -- turns out not to be true.

So if we can't blame Hillary's dad for her choice to subsume her career under her husband's, what was the cause? Barbara Olson, predictably, sees it as typical left-wing stealth and dishonesty, sly ol' Hillary trying to hide her dreary Marxist politics behind her husband's good-old-boy persona. Ironically, the right-wing Olson gives Hillary more political respect than the supposedly sympathetic Sheehy, who sacrifices political analysis for pop-psych platitudes and a disproportionate focus on Hillary's hairstyles, clothing choices and, yes, the first bosom. (Acccording to Sheehy, Hillary has been showing a lot more of it as she comes into her own.)

Olson makes much of the short-lived Alinsky connection, opening every chapter with a quote from "Rules for Radicals," most of which display the ruthless, opportunistic left-wing politics she thinks the Clintons personify. She reads her 1970s articles on children's rights and takes them deadly seriously. But Olson gives Hillary too much credit for left-wing constancy. In reality, she's stood for very little besides political survival, embracing with gusto the "triangulation" advised by Dick Morris, even as she personally disdained him.

Now on her own, running for Senate, Hillary is just another New York Democrat. Earlier this year she tried to soften her historic support for a Palestinian state by endorsing Israel's claim to a unified Jerusalem as its capital, which even her weak-kneed husband won't back. And where she once stood up to teachers' unions in Arkansas, her New York coming-out party last month was at the United Federation of Teachers office in Manhattan. Those who've been clamoring to let Hillary be Hillary, as though she'd run as a true-blue liberal or have more integrity than her husband, will be disappointed. Like her husband, she will try to do whatever it takes to get elected; but unlike him, she lacks the instincts to know exactly what that is, and the needy drive to get it done.

Reading the two latest Clinton books, it's impossible to miss the fact that her fingerprints are all over the biggest disasters of her husband's presidency: Filegate, Travelgate, the health-care mess, Whitewater and maybe most important, the attempt to stonewall first the New York Times and later Kenneth Starr when the Clintons' ties to all those shady Arkansas land deals were first being probed. Yes, the scandalousness of Whitewater was exaggerated, and yes, as Clinton supporters Gene Lyons and Salon's Joe Conason have noted, Sheehy gets many details about the scandal wrong.

But it is also true that the supposedly left-wing Hillary Clinton was a self-dealing, influence-peddling corporate lawyer who traded on her husband's power to enrich herself and her friends.

Her cattle futures bonanza -- in which she turned an investment of $1,000 into a $100,000 windfall thanks to the insider investment tips of a political crony (and patience when her account was dangerously in arrears) -- is a textbook case of probably legal, but undeniably sleazy, financial opportunism. If the biography of George W. Bush is a case study of the invidious ways the American political system is rigged to make sure the rich get richer and the powerful hold onto their power, so is Hillary Clinton's.

Of course, both current Clinton biographies are nasty books by ambitious, competitive political women (who, like Hillary, have climbed thanks to their marriages to powerful men -- Sheehy to New York magazine founder Clay Felker, Olson to right-wing legal luminary and Ken Starr buddy Ted Olson). To prove that bad news comes in threes, Peggy Noonan's tract, "The Case Against Hillary Clinton," will arrive in January. Given all the psycho-sexual projection Hillary has had to endure, it seems no accident that a gay man, David Brock, has written the most sympathetic biography so far, "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham."

The meanness of these latest books makes me want to like Hillary Clinton, but I don't. I've always felt bad about that, partly as a feminist and partly because I don't know the woman personally, and such personal dislike seems unconscious, or at least thoughtless, a byproduct of what was a real right-wing conspiracy that took advantage of the Clintons' real screw-ups to almost bring them down. Let Linda Tripp's trial this week remind us that there truly was such a conspiracy, and Tripp was its omnipresent Forrest Grump -- there in Vince Foster's office when Clinton staffers removed his files, there as Monica Lewinsky's loyal (and wired) confidante, even available to counsel Kathleen Willey about her crush on the president (amazingly, Tripp was outside the office where the president groped Willey, but on Clinton's behalf she would describe that groping as consensual).

Hillary Clinton justifies the right's most negative caricature of liberals and feminists: She pretends to oppose corporate power while profiting from her business connections, and blames her troubles on misogyny, a shadowy male fear of smart women. But sometimes people dislike smart women, and smart men too, because they're just not likable -- they're arrogant and emotionally undeveloped, all head and no heart.

To their detractors, both Clintons seem like a mandarin class of professional meddlers who've never had to balance a checkbook, meet a payroll or soothe a colicky baby. At best they float above the rest of us in a protective bubble of righteousness and self-delusion. At worst, they're parasites, fat ticks living off the people whose hard work they have no experience of, or respect for. But clearly Hillary gets it worse than her husband, because as Peter Kramer points out, her brains, ambition and emotional obtuseness just mean she'd make a fine man -- and nobody likes that in a woman. She suffers the curse and blessing of modern womanhood: She's expected to be a whole person -- independent, empathic, sexual, spiritual, engaged in the world, attuned within -- something that is still not required of men.

I wonder if maybe it's progress, though, that now, in what Sheehy infelicitously calls her Flaming Fifties, Hillary has finally been judged sexy, as in Tom Junod's infamous October Esquire piece. Maybe her decision to finally move out from her husband's shadow has made her more vital and alluring (it's no secret that women get sexier as they get more comfortable with themselves, and their power.)

At 52, Hillary has made her latest choice -- to go for the political career she was too timid and confused to pursue at 27. Maybe she'll surprise us, even seduce us, with integrity and innovation, as she finally cobbles together what she'll do as the politician, not as the wife.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani