Not Like the Rest of Us

Linda Colley

  • A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein
    Hutchinson, 628 pp, £25.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 192078 4
  • Hillary Clinton: Her Way: The Biography by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta
    Murray, 438 pp, £20.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7195 6892 3

Hillary Clinton is manifestly a beneficiary and exemplar of a massive, historically recent and still ongoing transformation. ‘I represented a fundamental change in the way women functioned in our society,’ she wrote in Living History (2003); and, at one level, her life has indeed been a succession of hard-won firsts, and of admirable striving against prejudice, condescension and limited expectations. Yet some of her responses, and some of the circumstances of her career, have been traditional and backward-looking.

She was born in 1947 in Chicago. Her father, Hugh Rodham, was a dour, mean and staunchly Republican small businessman. Her mother, Dorothy, was mildly a Democrat and a suppressed, efficient housewife. Hillary’s upbringing in the suburb of Park Ridge seems to have been almost as close, insular and parsimonious as the future Margaret Thatcher’s in Grantham. Both girls, though, were afforded similar avenues of escape. Like Thatcher, Hillary Clinton was brought up in Methodism, with its stress on action, seriousness and good works. She was also – again like Thatcher – permitted a first-class education. Hobbled with thick, unmanageable blonde hair, thick ankles, and thick glasses for extreme shortsightedness (she did not bother with contact lenses until she was 33), Hillary threw herself into school work, into being a Brownie and Girl Scout, and into ‘every other activity that would earn a merit badge or adult approval’. When she left for the East Coast and Wellesley College in 1965, two years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, she had never been further afield than the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and her only foreign language was high-school Latin.

In outline, the story of the way this solid, deserving Midwestern duckling metamorphosed into a controversial and formidable Washington swan is well known. Wellesley’s cultural and geographical distance from Illinois, plus the shock waves of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, swiftly changed her from a pro-Goldwater Republican into a New York Times-reading proto-Democrat. The new availability of reliable contraception allowed her to have some serious affairs; and she became active in student politics. In the speech she delivered, unconventionally, on her graduation day in 1969, which was later reported in Life magazine, Hillary argued that ‘the challenge now’ was ‘to practise politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible’.

The external forces chiefly making possible her own subsequent career were twofold and usually, though not always, complementary. To begin with, by 1970, America’s power establishment was admitting an increased though still moderate supply of female professionals. This gave Hillary a succession of opportunities unavailable to earlier generations of educated American women, while guaranteeing her a high level of visibility. When she went up to Yale in 1969, she was one of only 27 women in an intake of 235 law students. When she gained an academic post teaching law at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1974, she was enough of a rarity on campus to be referred to as ‘the lady professor’; and when she joined a major law firm in Little Rock in 1977, it was as its first female attorney. By the time she became a partner, women still made up less than 10 per cent of practising lawyers in the States.

Her subsequent firsts were far more public. She was the first wife of an Arkansas governor persistently to maintain her own career and invariably to earn more than her husband. When she became first lady in 1993, she demanded and obtained an office in the West Wing of the White House, the space formally given over to politics, not in the East Wing, which is ostensibly social and domestic. No less against all precedent, it was from here – the headquarters of America’s head of state – that she campaigned successfully to be a senator for New York. The one-time ‘first-lady cuckold’ is now the most likely candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the next presidential elections, and ‘the most viable female contender in American history for the nation’s highest office’. All of these spectacular firsts have been linked to the second major outside influence on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s career, the ‘wildcard in her well-ordered, cerebral existence’, Bill Clinton.

Both Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge and Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta’s Hillary Clinton: Her Way have been criticised by American reviewers for failing to add much more to the familiar story of their subject’s progress than a wealth of supporting detail. The Clintons refused to co-operate with either volume; and Hillary has always kept a tight grip on her personal and political papers. Accordingly, her biographers have had to resort to quantity to make up for the dearth at times of quality information. Bernstein, the Watergate journalist, has produced by far the better written, more considered study, for which he interviewed some two hundred people. But whereas he ends with Hillary’s election to the senate, Gerth and Van Natta take the story almost up to the present. They claim to have interviewed five hundred individuals, and they also offer sharp analyses of some of Hillary’s recent speeches and public statements. Gerth has a history of going after the Clintons in the New York Times, and says that some of his informants ‘feared retribution from Senator Clinton or her staff’ were they to be quoted by name. One hopes, for the sake of future historians, that notes have been preserved of the identities of the many anonymous ‘friends’, ‘strategists’, ‘fund-raisers’, ‘confidantes’ and (doubtless) envious rivals and bitter enemies to whom both books are indebted.

Yet while their source material makes it hard at times to gauge the reliability of their content, these books merit study, especially by those who are unfamiliar with America’s politics and media. As journalists, the authors are in a position to convey something of what the ‘rise of the 24-hour news cycle’ has meant to senior politicians. In 1974, Hillary Clinton and her fellow bright young Washington interns on the Nixon impeachment committee were still filing all their findings on 500,000 index cards. Now, her own political acts can be dissected almost instantaneously, on hundreds of TV and radio channels, and on YouTube and other web outlets. And, as she has complained, it is not just her own and her husband’s words and actions that the media sifts and combs ‘as if we were some sort of archaeological dig’. All ambitious politicians primp in some fashion. John Edwards, one of Hillary’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, was recently in trouble for allegedly paying between $400 and $1000 for a haircut. As a woman, however, she faces more sustained and malicious pressure in regard to her appearance, a subject in which – by all accounts – she herself feels little interest. In the White House, an aide de camp was obliged to devise a series of hand gestures so as to be able to signal silently whenever Hillary’s hair was sticking up again on camera, or lazily applied lipstick was flecking her teeth. But nothing could be done to stop journalists from interpreting a pink sweater, say, as a ploy designed to soften her image, or citing an unguarded dragon motif on her jacket as proof that she was after all the Lady Macbeth of Arkansas.

Those who choose to expose themselves to such strains and petty humiliations over long periods, in all polities, form a distinct and peculiar group of people whom it is very difficult for outsiders to get to know or properly to understand. Both these books, like Hillary’s own memoirs, confirm how unalike full-time politicians are from the rest of us. There is their necessary and shallow gregariousness. ‘Shake as many hands as possible,’ was Bill Clinton’s rule for campaigning. ‘Listen to as many people as possible, never stop smiling or asking questions.’ There is their compulsion to work without adequate sleep: the drive, as Hillary has written, to keep on attending dinners and speeches and meetings, ‘with eyelids drooping and heads rolling’. At the very top, there are the exigencies of high-security living: never entering the sea, for instance, without being encircled by ‘Navy divers and Secret Service agents in flippers and masks’. Most of all, there is an obsessiveness that usually grips aspiring politicians early on in life. When the young Bill and Hillary went to Mexico on their first holiday together, ‘between swims in the surf, we spent our time rehashing the election and the failings of the McGovern campaign.’

These biographies diverge in regard to what it is that has made Hillary Clinton want to run so hard, so far. Gerth and Van Natta see her as having always been politically ambitious, while until recently choosing to play down the scale of her ambition in speeches and writings. Bernstein’s view is more nuanced. Like his rivals, he discusses the ample evidence of her persistent interest, since her teens, in social reform and in improving family law. There is also no doubt that, like many lawyers, she took easily to political junketing, speechmaking and activism. Yet for most of her marriage, Hillary has accepted and exploited working within her husband’s orbit. In 1974, she discarded her own early Washington connections to join Bill in Arkansas. Her most conspicuous reforming initiative before becoming First Lady was chairing his gubernatorial committee to improve Arkansas educational standards; and when they moved to the White House, her earliest, unrealised ambition was to become Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Only more than usually outrageous infidelities on his part seem to have provoked her into contemplating a more independent political career. It was in the wake of his serious affair with Marilyn Jo Jenkins, in 1990, that she briefly considered running for the Arkansas governorship; her successful bid for the Senate a decade later was part solace and reward for standing by her man during the Lewinsky affair.

One of the reasons for this apparent willingness to subordinate her own career for so long may be that Hillary Clinton seems by instinct to be more of an administrator, an enabler and a mobiliser than a politician who is driven by a distinctive policy agenda. The criticism most often levelled against her by pundits and voters in America is that she is not a likeable candidate. A more valid criticism, to which those in other countries should also pay attention, might be that, for all her evident competence, toughness, experience and impressive ability to master a brief, she has yet to reveal a capacity to change the terms of political argument and debate.

To be sure, like many left-of-centre individuals of her generation, she has shown a marked commitment to improving the lot of traditionally disadvantaged groups. She became convinced early on, Bernstein remarks, that the ‘tragedy of race in America must be made right’, and from her student days she conscientiously sought out black friends, while also setting out to learn. One of her earliest mentors was Marian Wright Edelman, the first black woman to be admitted to the bar in Mississippi. Hillary has also repeatedly championed women’s rights in the States and overseas, and she makes a point herself of advancing talented women. Her campaign manager, head of operations and policy co-coordinator are all female – as, it bears considering, are 54 per cent of the current US electorate. Yet she can still appear confined within some of the radical priorities of the later 20th century, and unable or unwilling to generate a comprehensive and compelling vision of America and of the world’s present and future. Issues to do with race, gender and the dispossessed come naturally to her. But it is Al Gore who has hammered out an informed and powerful position on the environment, energy conservation and global warming. She has only belatedly borrowed some of his language and ideas. And it has been John Edwards who has tried steering the Democratic Party firmly back in the direction of economics. He, not Hillary, has been the most eager to address the gulf between America’s rich and poor. A one-time Democratic senator’s critique of Hillary’s initial, hard-line support of the Iraq war therefore seems more broadly applicable. She puts herself, he argued, ‘in the position of looking backward, not forward, of caving to conventional wisdom instead of moving in the direction of . . . new ideas, being bold.’

This may be because she is naturally more a facilitator in politics than an originator, and/or because she is more conservative than she appears, a churchgoing Midwestern Republican who only belatedly turned Democrat. It is possible, too, that she actually shies away from ideas. Bernstein quotes the electoral strategist Dick Morris, who worked for the Clintons, as arguing that Hillary is ‘not a creative thinker’, and states that ‘her intellectual firepower was not nearly so spectacular’ as her husband’s. Both Clintons have turned author so as to reveal and conceal themselves and their politics, but her publications do not compare well with his autobiography. Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004) is full of references to books he has read, and to writers and intellectuals who have influenced him. Hillary by contrast often practises the art of sinking in prose. Gerth and Van Natta accurately describe It Takes a Village (1996) as ‘designed to be hypoallergenic in every way’, while her interim memoir Living History begins with this rousing declaration: ‘I was raised to love my God and my country, to help others, to protect and defend the democratic ideals that have inspired and guided free people for more than two hundred years.’ ‘In both her talking and written voice,’ Bernstein comments, ‘there is a kind of grown-up Girl Scout-speak.’

And perhaps this does indeed reflect the quality of Hillary Clinton’s intellect and her preferred political style. But the argument that women can only do grim and gritty striving, mere derivative and conventional plodding, while men alone are capable of original ideas and abstract thought, is of course one of the oldest gendered putdowns in existence, and neither of these books seriously takes this on board. Both cite Richard Nixon’s comment that American voters incline, like Cardinal Richelieu, to believe that ‘intellect in a woman is unbecoming.’ But neither discusses at length how far Hillary has been the target of male condescension, or how far she has felt obliged to adopt certain modes of public language and behaviour so as to compensate for being a female in high politics. After decades in high office, Bill Clinton can only benefit from flaunting the breadth of his reading. His wife may feel that she has far less freedom.

Not least because, in some respects, the United States has lagged behind other parts of the world in admitting women to top political positions. It was only in 1978, more than half a century after all adult women in the States got the vote, that the first female senator was elected rather than appointed; the Democrats’ first female senator was voted in only 14 years before Hillary’s own election for New York. Even now, women make up only 16 per cent of the members of the US Congress, as distinct from 45 per cent of MPs in Sweden, and 49 per cent in Rwanda. Of the (just) 58 women across the globe who have thus far served as an elected prime minister or president, only one has come from North America: Kim Campbell, who was briefly prime minister of Canada.

So if Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president of the United States in 2008, this will – in terms of women’s place in American politics – be a significant political milestone. In global terms, and in historical terms, however, her elevation would be less innovatory. Of the women who have been elected heads of state since the Second World War, a substantial proportion have been closely related to men who have themselves previously held high political office. This has been true not only of Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, but also of Corazón Aquino and Isabel Perón. Looked at in this comparative context, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be an expression of old-style dynastic politics, and its persistence in the US, not simply a victory for postwar female liberation. If Hillary wins in 2008, and is granted a second term, people whose surname is Bush or Clinton will have presided over the Oval Office for 28 consecutive years.

In all polities where there is a marked overlap between the machinery of the state and a select number of powerful families, women belonging to the latter enjoy opportunities for political leverage, because in these circumstances the divide between public power and the private domain is more than usually unstable. It has also always aided elite women when a male ruler has governed from a physical space to which they, too, can gain access. The absolutist royal courts of early modern Europe, like the Imperial Harem in the Ottoman Empire, afforded tiny minorities of women close proximity to the ruler because they were wives, mistresses, royal mothers or aristocrats – and consequently a measure of influence, and sometimes power. The United States is a republic, and Washington is not Versailles. But Hillary Clinton has benefited from having close and protracted physical proximity to political power, and this has been a major factor in her own rise. Bill Clinton’s jobs did not take him away into impersonal bureaucratic offices from which she was excluded. They kept him, first, in the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas, and then in the White House, spaces of power that were also homes, and consequently open to her. Some of the conventions of ancien régime courtly politics have thus in her case been bolted onto feminist aspirations and reforming drive.

The parallels between certain aspects of Hillary Clinton’s career and modes of political power exercised by other elite women, at other times and in other societies, are rarely discussed. As in these books, US politics are usually approached in an exceptionalist fashion; and both Clintons have been understandably eager to represent themselves as distinctive products of modern America. Yet, in all sorts of ways, Hillary is a transitional woman. Her ascent, like her mind, owes much to fundamental changes in her own country in her own lifetime, but not everything.