Hillary Clinton snapped. She lost her cool, blew a gasket, shot steam from her ears and went on "an impromptu tirade" on Monday during a town hall meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At least, that is how the press has caricatured her response to a male Congolese university student's question about her husband's thoughts on an international relations matter. The melodramatic accounts reimagine the mere mention of her husband's name as a red cape waved in front of a bull; grunting and stomping her hooves, Clinton prepared to charge into the audience and impale the questioner.
I find the media response rather surreal. When I watched video footage yesterday of the exchange, I cackled -- yes, cackled -- with glee, because here was a female politician demanding to be taken seriously. There was no head tilt, no shrug of the shoulders, no half-assed smile, no flush of the cheeks, as we're so accustomed to seeing from women. Instead, she asked incredulously: "Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" And then she continued sharply, staring down the audience member: "My husband is not secretary of state. I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband." She was straightforward and unyielding: No, you will not think of me as a mere mouthpiece for my husband. I tell you, Hillary has never stirred such warmth in my heart.
Instead of taking her response as evidence that she has the gravitas, the cojones to be secretary of state and deal with foreign leaders who think less of her because she's a woman, it's being trumpeted as a sign of emotional weakness. Now, add to that this squirm factor: The questioner actually asked about President Obama's, rather than Bill Clinton's, thoughts on the matter, but the translator reportedly botched the question. Not only do we have an emotionally delicate secretary of state on our hands, but one who bit the head off some well-meaning Congolese kid. She's weak and cruel, all at once!
This is only the latest installment of an ongoing Clinton vs. Clinton narrative. When campaigning for president, Hillary struggled to emerge from her husband's shadow to demonstrate the she was running, not her husband, and that it wasn't a two-for-one deal. That obstacle obviously wasn't overcome when she landed her respectable White House gig -- the belittling and second-guessing continues. Some of that is simply routine politics; some of it seems almost -- dare I say it -- sexist. Take, for example, the recent gleeful speculation about how her husband's private mission to North Korea stole the spotlight from her official visit to Africa. Last week, as that news broke, a colleague e-mailed me a screen shot of the front page of the New York Times Web site. It heralded the bold headline: "Bill Clinton and Journalists Return from North Korea." Next to that news item was a story about his missus under the header, "Clinton Calls for Accountability in Kenya." Notice the absence of her first name, the presence of his? Of course, that's just as it should be given her position as secretary of state, but it was one of those small things that spark sudden wonderment: Hillary, not Bill, is now the presumptive Clinton.
If I were a shrink, I would sit our collective cultural consciousness down on my couch and ask: Are you experiencing any social or sexual anxiety or fear that might be causing you to project this domestic drama?