Thursday, June 12, 2008
Hillary Clinton (Dennis)
Hillary Clinton, the resilient presidential candidate, exited the campaign this week at age 60.
When are we most ourselves? Of the many styles and personalities we present to the world, which one is the real us? I suppose these questions are even more troubling for women, who, because of social norms, are required to be diplomatic hostesses, fashion-conscious dressers, and accommodating wives and mothers. While men are expected to not compromise themselves, to speak their mind, and to dress in roughly the same business suit their fathers wore, it is a woman's job to adjust.
Hillary Clinton, when she was young, fought this bitterly. Rather than meekly accepting the Republican Party of her parents, she decided to become a Democrat in college. While giving the commencement address at Wellesley College, she criticized Sen. Edward Brooke (incidentally, the last African American man to be a Senator before Barack Obama) rather than ignoring her disagreements as a courtesy to a guest speaker. In that speech she challenged us to find “deeper more ecstatic, penetrating modes of living” than what society traditionally offered. Even her clothes at the time show us an individual rather than someone trying to fit into the pack.
Eventually though, this Hillary changed. She followed Bill to Arkansas, taking the path of a traditional wife rather than one of a crusading career woman. She had a child with him as well, and eventually her career and her strong voice had to be moderated to fulfill her duties as mother and as the First Lady of a traditional state. Back when she and Bill married, she stubbornly kept her last name, but eventually she even had to change that. There was more than a little Norma Jean Baker in the compromises Hillary Rodham had to make.
Now and again, the old Hillary would pop up. Somewhere, the members of the Wellesley College class of 1969 must have been smiling when they heard that their old classmate had told off a reporter by saying she wasn't going to apologize for not staying home and “baking cookies.” Maybe, despite the hardship, they even smiled when she vigorously asserted that she wasn't going to just “stand by her man like Tammy Wynette” in response to a question about Bill's alleged affairs.
But those would be just temporary victories for the independent Hillary. She did end up standing by her man, and being embarrassed along with him for his mistakes. And she had to apologize for the cookie remark, like it was some temporary moment of hysteria rather than legitimate pride at eeking out a successful career despite domestic pressures.
All this seemed to slip into her political career as well. When she ran for Senator, she changed her appearance to accommodate what most people thought a politician should look like. When she became a Senator, she attempted to fit in to the Senate's culture and work behind the scenes. She staked out moderate positions that favored her state, once voting for a bankruptcy bill that would harm poor debtors, but would be a boon to financial companies based in New York. That 22 year old who spoke so passionately about civil rights in college was now telling us that marriage was strictly between a man and a woman. Then, in what was, to some, the most unforgivable sin of all, she voted for the authorization of the Iraq War.
All those years of compromise were but a prelude to the campaign that has just been completed. For most of it, Hillary seemed to be willing to change what was necessary to complete the task, to move to the next step. She listened to consultants and changed her message and image as many times as it took to whatever image they thought it would take to achieve the prize that really mattered to her: a chance to accomplish all the positive changes she dreamed about.
She was hammered by many for these compromises and for her past ones. But women stuck by her. Women of Hillary's age understood that you couldn't always be yourself, you couldn't afford to be an idealist. You might love to ditch the husband you hate, but how could you afford to feed the kids on your own? There's a great job waiting for you in New York, but if you leave, who is going to take care of mom and dad? Women of that age, who had to feel the full weight of society's burdens and expectations, who had given up so much and were appreciated so little, knew in their hearts that only a man would call his book something as ridiculous as “The Audacity of Hope.” They respected and loved a woman like Hillary, who didn't care if she wasn't loved adoringly, who didn't mind humoring the boys by throwing back a shot with them, and who took some objectionable positions because she thought it might mean she would be around for the fights where she could make a difference.
Despite that empathy, it eventually became clear that she was going to lose. But instead of meekly surrendering, Hillary, this time, decided to hang on, and it was then that her supporters rallied around her more fervently than ever before. “She has compromised so much,” they thought “WE have accommodated you for so long, why can't we play this out without you telling us to sit down and shut up?”
In this stage of the campaign it was, for once, about Hillary. She made sarcastic jabs at Obama in speeches, and took every remaining debate as an opportunity to demonstrate her superior skills at sparring on policy and politics. She took the time to demonstrate that she really did understand what people were going through, and, for the first time in her political career, she was genuinely loved by a broad audience of people. She did all this not because she thought it was tactically smart, and not because it was easy, but because she wanted to fight for something she believed in without thinking of the consequences, without calculating the chances of success. She wanted to be an idealist again. It must have been thrilling.
When the end finally came, she dutifully mounted a podium and gave a gracious, wonderful endorsement of her rival. She even gritted her teeth and uttered that phrase that must now haunt her nightmares: “Yes we can.” It was just the latest example of Hillary changing everything on a dime to accommodate the needs of a cause she really cares about. I must confess, I was glad that she finally did this, because it means the Democrats will have a better chance of winning in November.
I hope, though, that some day she'll become that idealist with the long hair and the crazy pants again, that she'll once and for all break out of that political mask we, until recently, were so used to seeing. If I thought this would happen if she were elected, I would have supported her. In the past it may have been admirable and unselfish of her to hide the real Hillary, but now I think we need her more than ever.