Hillary's final curtain

Now that Clinton's campaign is over, I want to remember her as she's truly been -- a pain in the ass, sometimes ill-behaved, and a woman who changed history.

Published June 8, 2008 8:41AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton was almost done with her terrific concession speech when she got around to patting herself on the back. The setting was grand, with people hanging over balconies in Washington's National Building Museum waiting to get their final glimpse of what remained of her historic candidacy for president. The massive hall was heavily air conditioned, but it couldn't keep the outside heat -- so sweltering that it prompted speculation that, among other things, Clinton controls the weather -- from seeping in, and the emotional crowd shimmered, their faces slick with perspiration and, here and there, tears.

Clinton had praised Obama, yelled "Yes, we can!" with real feeling, and done her damnedest to start a chant about why her supporters "must help elect Barack Obama our president." It was then that she took a moment -- one of the first since she began her campaign 16 months ago -- to unfurl a little feminist plumage.

"I know there are barriers and biases out there, often unconscious," she said, as the room roared with affirmation. She continued, giving them the girl-power fulfillment they were thirsting for: "You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories," said Clinton, "unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States." She paused. People screamed. "And that is truly remarkable."

Clinton was having her moment. Not, as she began the speech by wryly noting, the kind of moment -- or the kind of party -- that she had planned to attend at this stage in the presidential election cycle. But with the magnificently weird and wild primary season over, and Clinton the loser, she was making sure no one forgets that, while she may have missed her goal, she still staked out a giant piece of social history.

"To those who are disappointed that we couldn't go all the way -- especially the young people who put so much into this campaign," Clinton said, "it would break my heart if, in falling short of my goal, I in any way discouraged any of you from pursuing yours." Perhaps most moving was her observation that, while "we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it."

Clinton's campaign is not yet cold (and, I suspect, will probably maintain a reptilian pulse in the months between now and Denver), but the urge to eulogize its place in women's history is powerful. Already there is the beating of breasts and rending of garments from the true-believer Hillary feminists, a wailing wall of second-wave sorrow and swooning celebration of the doors opened to their daughters and granddaughters. (Just think, little Sally Ann, some day you too can live out your life's ambition and be painted an emasculating succubus by a press corps that clings almost erotically to the fantasy of your eventual defeat! Yea!) Now that she no longer poses a threat, there are tributes streaming in from feminist pundits who backed Obama and are now comfortable enough to gingerly pat Clinton on the back and extend some tepid "You go girl" plaudits from a distance safe enough to protect them from her Old White Lady cooties. Then there are those critics sticking to their guns, reminding us that Clinton's loss is no one's fault but her own, that she may have been a lady, but she was no feminist heroine. Maybe if she hadn't voted for the war; maybe if she hadn't been married to Bill; maybe if she hadn't played the gender card; maybe if she'd been more of a feminist icon. Then, maybe, these people could have gotten excited about her as a presidential candidate.

But while we may all wish that our groundbreaking leaders came in prettier packages, and that high butterfat cheese was good for us, the reality is that we get what we get. And we got Hillary Clinton. In no small part, we probably got her thanks to the very reasons so many can't abide her: her ambition, her ruthlessness, her gift for triangulation, her marriage, her centrism, her hawkishness. It's an exceedingly uncommon alchemy; in more than two centuries of American history, no woman has been able to break into the presidential boys club, and I can't think of many women of sterling liberal character who would have succeeded where she failed to satisfy all feminists. Wake me when Barbara Ehrenreich can win Ohio, you know?

Like it or not, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first female battering ram to rattle the Oval Office door, and while sorrowful Hillary-heads may lyrically and lovingly catalog her many achievements, her bravery and grace, I'd prefer to think of her as she actually has been: a pain in the ass to support, an often inept and ungainly campaigner. She was ill-behaved, she made mistakes, and waged an often dirty and tone-deaf campaign, performing precious few electoral pirouettes. But she also pulverized any quaint notions of what presidential races are supposed to look like and how girls might compete in them.

Language fails us when we say that Clinton "ran for president." Hillary Clinton didn't just run for president. She hustled and jumped and slogged and cried and ate and drank and didn't sleep and put up with her nutty underminer of a husband for president. She lit herself, and everything around her, on fire for president.

Clinton behaved with the kind of naked drive and aggression and mercilessness we revere in, for example, football greats, wrestling stars and military heroes. Her political ambition and ruthlessness are qualities native to anyone putting themselves up for the job of running the country. That includes Barack Obama, who is an inspiring leader I fervently hope will be our next president, but who is not, despite what some of his supporters seem to believe, built entirely of altruism and hope and, I don't know, puppies. One of the great things about our history of ambivalence and resentment toward Clinton was the almost sweet relief we could take in knowing from the start that her raw will to power was going to grate on and enrage us.

And, yes, it's terrific that generations of little girls will grow up knowing that women can run for president. But count me as gratified that those who do so will also know they are not responsible for bearing the highest expectations for their gender's morality and politesse, because one hell of a difficult dame has been there before them and knocked everybody around pretty hard.

But the fact that she did it her way, and still managed to break voting records, recalls another lesson of this campaign: that change is, after all, not so hard to come by. It can happen quickly, almost silently. Remember that stage when Clinton was the presumptive candidate for president? It's a stage she's paid for ever since, but what I intend never to forget is the brief moment when her inevitability wasn't questioned, when I could feel free to prefer other candidates because she -- a woman -- was the status quo choice, and no one was batting an eye about her gender. Sure, it's now clear that, all along, people were seething at her presumption, her gall. But we saw in those months what it might feel like to have a woman lead us. We didn't make it real, but we imagined it -- positively or negatively -- with less kicking and screaming than I ever would have thought possible, and that, by itself, is a step. It's change.

That's what, in part, leaves me unmoved by hand-wringing about where the next female contender will come from. Who knew the name Bill Clinton before 1992? Who knew the name Barack Obama? Who, 10 years ago, could have imagined beleagured first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton would come so close to getting her own intern in the Oval Office?

People come out of nowhere and shape shift and surprise us. Hillary Clinton certainly did. For all those longtime Hillary stalwarts who were won over by Barack Obama, there were others who experienced an unexpected conversion to Hillary. I'm one of them.

At 33, I don't fall into the second-wave demographic, and I am not a hip young Obama girl. I am not sure what drove me, on Super Tuesday, to finally pull the lever for Hillary. Maybe it was the fact that I thought she'd be better on healthcare and the economy. Maybe it was that my equally torn boyfriend voted Obama, and I figured we would split our votes. Maybe it was that I cover women in politics, and I wanted to keep my beat's prize pig alive. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I'm a feminist, and as ambivalent as I was, I figured this was my chance to throw my electoral lot behind a pro-choice woman. Whatever the factors, I didn't want to pick them apart: to have voted for Hillary was a stain. I deviated from what became the normative Democratic choice in media circles, and at times I felt like I wore a big red H on my chest -- not just among those who knew I'd voted for her, but also among those who simply assumed I was a Clintonite because I was a woman, or a feminist, or was writing stories about the gendered language of the race and undercurrents of sexism among some Obama enthusiasts. I wanted to tell all these people how much I liked Obama, how I'd deliberated in the booth, how I'd pressed the lever for her, then for him, then for her again, how Clinton frustrated and sometimes enraged me. But the more aggressive the characterizations of Clinton and her voters as old, shrill, humorless and racist became, the more galvanized I became in my personal interest in her. Learning to embrace Hillary -- despite my still-real criticisms, and in part because I felt somehow thrown in her boat as soon as I cast my nearly accidental vote for her -- has been an extraordinarily formative political experience.

As each primary approached -- from New Hampshire to Super Tuesday to Ohio to Pennsylvania -- I was sure that Clinton was toast. But Tuesday after Tuesday, there came the vertiginous thrill of watching the pundits collapse into paroxysms of frustration at this goddamn woman who would not quit and, even worse, kept winning in unexpected places and by unexpected margins, even when they said it was impossible, even when they were hollering for her to get out of the race. I think memories of Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann going apoplectic will make me smile for years to come. Male pundits from Jonathan Alter to Howard Fineman to Carl Bernstein to Matthews and Olbermann were licking their lips, salivating for the moment at which she would lay prostrate and beg their forgiveness for her sins of ambition -- and she never gave it to them! I wasn't alone in my giddiness. After one particularly wild election night, perhaps it was Ohio, I got an e-mail from a cousin, a Clinton skeptic who had come to appreciate the senator's dazzling ability to piss off jerks. "I hope she never stops running," the e-mail read. "Even after he's elected." I knew what she meant. It had nothing to do with Obama. It was about the sheer fun of watching a woman refuse to concede to anyone's expectations.

Clinton was such a hard-ass that she turned her butchest male critics into the hysterical harpies they accused her of being. What fun, during that final debate, to hear Obama grouse (justifiably) about the ludicrous questions he was facing, while next to him, the broad who had, in an earlier debate, been asked about the fact that nobody liked her cheerily removed the shiv from her thigh and used it as a toothpick. Sure, many people moved quickly from the thrill of having two historic candidates to the hair-pulling headache about how much damage their contest was doing to the party, but get over it! When was the last time we had so much fun in an election year?

Even my Obama-loving friends -- those who were not sitting at home attempting to burn Hillary in effigy -- had to tip their hats, or give a laugh, at the way she entertained and maddened the chattering classes, so used to being correct. At the party after the Pennsylvania primary, I bumped into a New York Times journalist. She said, with great weariness, "Well, see you in Guam." But a little smile played across her lips. This was funny. Actually, it was hilarious.

Clinton's tenacity was inspired. When commentators and Obama devotees were being driven round the twist by her refusal to give up the ghost, I heard more than one person compare her to that Seinfeld character who simply refused to accept George's breakup. Actually, likening her to fictional characters became a favored pastime for many people, especially when her relentlessness brought to mind infelicitous comparisons: to the Terminator, to Jason or Freddy, or, most insidiously, to Glenn Close's terrifying bunny boiler from "Fatal Attraction." At her un-concession speech on Tuesday in New York, Clinton thanked supporters by saying, "You brought me back, again and again." I wrote in my notebook, "Like the undead!"

The truth is, whether you have a life-size poster of her on the wall or the Hillary nutcracker sitting on your bedside table, you cannot help admitting: Clinton and her ever-lovin' husband are figures too delicious to resist, their story a must-read. They are our great American characters: Shakespearean in their marriage, Fitzgeraldian in their striving, Chandler-esque in their noirish cronyism. They can't stop writing their own compelling narratives; they just can't help themselves.

But this most recent act for Hillary has been exhilarating, mostly in that it has given her a chance to be a diva. I was charmed last week that Meghan O'Rourke's Hillary kiss-off in Slate began with a quote from "All About Eve," the one about how Karen Richards acquired her cynicism the day she learned she was different from little boys. I've also thought about "All About Eve," my favorite Bette Davis movie, with regard to Clinton -- the diva who pays for her age and experience by watching her younger (and arguably more talented) protégée take her spotlight. The line I would have chosen to gift Clinton with is, "Lloyd, honey, be a playwright with guts. Write me one about a nice normal woman who just shoots her husband." But never mind that.

Clinton has been spectacular, evoking the ball-busting divas of yore as she chewed through the scenery of all 50 states, chugging beers and hugging elderly ladies born before women could vote. She was half Norma Rae, half Norma Desmond, also bringing to mind "Gypsy," Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's musical about the hardest-working stage mother in vaudeville. Especially in these last two months, when loss was so close at her heels but she was still out there, ripping up the stage, her name in lights, unapologetic in her self-celebration, she reminded me of no one more than Mama Rose performing her grand finale, "Rose's Turn": Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! Ready or not, here comes Hillary! It makes me happy to think of her this way, creating a gut-bustingly awful, memorably wonderful spectacle, training a spotlight on the end of a crucial chapter in American history.

And now, Mama's gotta let go.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Hillary Rodham Clinton