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Entitled to What?

Hillary Clinton’s long march through the institutions

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Hillary thought so, and so did a cohort of feminists who had been waiting for decades for her or one like her to surface in politics. They could barely contain their delight. Good Housekeeping, Vogue, People, Parade, and Family Circle called her a role model. Time called her “an icon of American womanhood.” Margaret Carlson wrote in Time, “Hillary Rodham Clinton will define for women that magical spot where the importance of the world of work and love and children and an inner life all come together. Like Ginger Rogers, she will do everything her partner does, only backward, and in high heels.” 

And so, critiques of Hillary were taken as attacks on all women, or attacks on strong women, or, in the case of some female journalists, as attacks upon women like them. At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee where her involvement in a questionable investment scheme was mentioned, signs appeared reading “Don’t Pillory Hillary,” and Blanche Wiesen Cook, a biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, said that attacks on women who were powerful were a persistent element in our national life. The intensity and longevity of the Hillary cult were revealed in 2012, when she suffered a health scare that drove Tina Brown round the bend. “Losing Hillary has seemed . . . unbearable,” the celebrity editor wrote on her website, giving her heroine magical powers. “She has become, literally, the ship of state. She stands for maturity, tenacity, and self-discipline. .  .  . [She is] a caring executive. .  .  . Her determination to defy fatigue and keep going beggars belief.” Brown then ripped into varied “goaty Republican[s],” saving her best for bewhiskered John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations, of whom she wrote in extremely high dudgeon, “Bolton is not fit to wipe her floor with his mustache.”

Not surprisingly, Hillary accepted this view of herself, believing not only that she was entitled to use the power her husband had given her, but that she was entitled to use it without opposition or scrutiny—because she was a pioneer who spoke for all women, and because she was the first lady, a post traditionally honored by both parties as above and apart from the fray. As Smith writes, she took it personally “that wives were subject to criticism,” ignoring the fact that wives were not criticized when they played no political role—when they did little (Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower) or promoted the arts (Jacqueline Kennedy) or planted flowers and trees (Lady Bird Johnson) or encouraged reading (Barbara and Laura Bush). When Betty Ford was criticized for controversial statements, she did not whine; nor did Eleanor Roosevelt, a seasoned and tough political operative who understood that dealing a blow meant being willing to take one without complaining. Hillary behaved otherwise. While claiming Mrs. R. as a model, she never adopted her attitude. At an event to raise funds for a statue of Eleanor, Hillary spoke of “the conversations I’ve had in my head with Mrs. Roosevelt,” in which she had asked her predecessor, “How did you put up with this? . . . How did you go on day to day .  .  . with the kind of attacks that would be hurled your way?” 

Eleanor never responded, but it turned out not to matter: Down but not out after health care had cratered, Hillary Clinton got a new lease on life when Bill was impeached on charges related to his affair with an intern, and she, on a wave of support for the brave little woman, was swept into the Senate from the state of New York two years later, by a margin of more than 12 points. While her approval ratings had been in the 40s for much of her time as first lady, they were close to 70 by the summer of 1998: In the most bitter of ironies for the trailblazing feminist, she had been rejected while being a maker of policy, and embraced as victimized wife. “It gnawed at Hillary that her role as the silent, aggrieved wife earned her record approval ratings,” Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta report in their biography, Her Way. “She isn’t thrilled at being forced to play the wronged little woman,” a Clinton friend told the two writers. “You go with what works.”

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