Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary
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Hillary Clinton elicits reactions so intense, so vehement and at times so odd it's a wonder the poor woman manages to continue performing on the political stage. She's been called everything from a doormat to a drag queen, and her public image somehow manages to encompass both the story of Chaucer's Patient Griselda and the tale of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. She plays a large role in the internal psychodrama of many American women, who often seem convinced that Hillary Clinton finds them personally wanting.
There's something about Hillary, but what is it? Susan Morrison, a longtime editor at the New Yorker , decided to try to get to the bottom of our obsession with the former first lady and current presidential candidate by asking 30 well-known female writers and journalists to explore their thoughts about her. The result is a compulsively readable but ultimately erratic anthology devoted to all things Hillary: Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers (Harper 2008).
Morrison's goal was worthy, but one wishes she had gone about it by, well, mixing it up a bit. The vast majority of the contributors to her book are card-carrying members of the chattering classes, with more than half residing in New York City or the immediate surrounding area. Almost all identify as feminists and Democrats. As a result, there is a lot of hand-wringing over female competitiveness and the persistence of double standards for everything from grooming to likeability for men vs. women. A few more red staters, women who don't identify as feminists, or even a male viewpoint or two might have gone a long way toward shedding light on the topic of Hillary Clinton.
That's not to say the conversation isn't sometimes enlightening. Two of the best pieces in the collection are written by lawyers, who might well have a greater understanding than most of us for the environment that molded Clinton into the person she is today. Susan Lehman's piece "Firm Hillary: How the Culture of Corporate Law Shaped Hillary," ultimately attributes her controlled and controlling public persona, at least in part, to the 15 years she spent at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. She makes a compelling argument about what makes Clinton tick, even if you don't agree with her ultimate conclusion that after eight years of George W. Bush, a successful corporate lawyer is just what the United States needs.
In addition, Slate's Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick writes a compelling brief about what women do and don't like to see in other members of their sex. In her view, Hillary Clinton reminds us of "someone shrill and judgmental" like a know-it-all neighbor. The genius of the piece lies in Lithwick's refusal to let either herself or us off the hook for feeling that way, arguing we are unlikely to elect any American female politician to the top job until we learn to "judge female candidates less brutally."
Nonetheless, a number of the essays in Morrison's anthology are intensely self-involved, more about the authors' reactions to Hillary Clinton than Hillary Clinton herself. There's little examination of Clinton's political skills or her record in the Senate. Despite what some of the essayists in this anthology think, the personal is not always political. Our need for action on problems ranging from healthcare reform to ending the war in Iraq go way beyond what these writers think of Hillary Clinton's -- or any other candidate's -- various haircuts or personal life. And whether one is pro-Hillary, anti-Hillary or an agnostic on Hillary, that's a sentiment all voters should share.
AlterNet sat down with Morrison in her New York office to see what insight she could offer into our fascination with Hillary Clinton, why she chose to approach her subject in the way she did and how she plans to vote in her state's primary on Feb. 5.
Helaine Olen: Why did you decide to edit an anthology on Hillary Clinton?
Susan Morrison: She clearly pushed different kinds of buttons than other politicians pushed. When people are talking about her, they were, more often than not, not talking about policy and ideas. They were talking about kind of strange, personal, emotional reactions. We have different expectations of her just because she's a woman. That's the jumping off point for the essays in this book.
Olen: Why didn't you include any male writers in the anthology?
Morrison: I found that the most complicated and in some cases the most vociferous reactions to Hillary were reactions that women had. It's kind of a social commonplace that women can be toughest on one another. This just seemed like a way to explore that. How do women react to other powerful women? Are they more judgmental of them than they are of powerful men? Is there an element of competition? And I think that looking at all of these emotional reactions is a really useful and valid way to think about Hillary as a candidate.
Olen: Yet, the women writers in your anthology often seemed to be blaming men for their own reactions. For example, a number of your writers went on and on about men talking about Hillary Clinton's hair or looks. They said it was men. But they were also going on and on and on ...
Morrison: Well, men seize on her chubby calves and eyebrows and go nuts with it. But women do too. As Deborah Tannen points out in her piece, there's so many fewer bells and whistles that men can attach to themselves in terms of appearance. There's so many fewer kinds of hairstyles or ties and suits. There's an infinite array of ways that a woman can look. That's just the way it is historically. The fact is that culturally, for thousands of years, we're just used to evaluating women in terms of the way they look.
Olen: There is no question there is a misogynist edge to some of the talk that surrounds Hillary Clinton. Is it possible to be unaffected by it?
Morrison: Gosh, I guess I just think it's so pervasive that we don't even hear it. But of course if you really think about it, those things trickle down in their real attitudes. There is also a way in which it makes you defensive towards her. It makes you think, "Oh brother, this is insane."
Olen: The book is a very eclectic collection of essays. Some of the pieces are very political, others are extraordinarily personal takes and a few take on things like Hillary Clinton's eating habits. Do you think such an approach inadvertently trivializes Hillary Clinton?
Morrison: The intention was to create a pointillist portrait. Just lots and lots of different takes. I thought that the reader would be happy to have some things that were just kind of, like, the sorbet course in between the more complex, probing pieces. And there's been enough op-ed page stuff written about Hillary. This book isn't really trying to be that. It's trying to look at all of the different kind of little emotional reasons that we like her or don't like her. So I felt that having some things that were kind of light and lively worked. I don't think it trivializes her. You want to take the full measure of the person who might be president.
Olen: One of the criticisms of this anthology is that it is unclear if some of the essays are about Hillary Clinton or the essayist.
Morrison: I think that that tells us something. I think it tells us that we don't think about male politicians that way. It would never occur to me to look at Jack Kemp and think about my inner life in any way that's connected to Jack Kemp's inner life. And yet I think there's something about Hillary because she's a baby boomer, because she's a working mom, because she's a lot of the things that a lot of us are that make us project onto her. And even thinking about her makes us think about ourselves and our own situations. And that's what makes this such a rich and tangled up subject.
Olen: Which essay came closest to your viewpoint and why?
Morrison: I think Dahlia Lithwick's. There's just a couple of lines that really stuck out. I feel that she was really getting something. She said roughly, "Sometimes I think that successful -- that men look at a successful man and they think, I want to emulate that. And that women look at a successful woman and try to look, to see all the hairspray and bobby pins that are holding it together." She also, I think, got at some of the more subtle things that legitimately bother some of us about Hillary. There's a paragraph in the essay where she describes Hillary speaking at an event and saying, "Privacy? What on earth do I know about that? There has been so little in my own life. But I have a firm commitment to protecting it for the rest of you." She does have a bit of a self-righteous thing that way.
Olen: I confess that's one of my favorites too. But it's for the conclusion. I don't think you need to be a Clinton supporter to agree that with Lithwick that as long as we are expecting someone to be all things to all people, no woman will make it to the White House. And that struck me, because I can't think of a male politician we expect to be all things to all people. Can you?
Morrison: No. I don't think we realize that we have different expectations of a woman leader and a man leader. Jane Kramer puts it pretty well when she writes we are trying to look for the right combination of sweet and steely. There may be things about Hillary that aren't completely right. It may be depressing from a feminist perspective that the first woman presidential candidate is riding her husband's coattails. But as I think Lara Vapnyar says in her essay, once you break the ceiling, the ceiling's broken. And then however she got there, she'll have gotten there. And then we won't have to be going through this exercise anymore. I mean, it'll just be a level playing field.
Olen: Do you believe that?
Morrison: To some extent. I wouldn't advocate that women vote for Hillary just because she's a woman. You want to vote for her because she's a candidate who you think would be a good leader. A good president. But I do think that once that barrier is broken, it will pave the way for it to be easier.
Olen: Could you say Hillary Clinton is a strong feminist who got to this great achievement in the most traditional of ways?
Morrison: I think that's exactly right, and I think that's why some feminists have a problem with her. There is this sense among certain die-hard feminists that the first woman achieving this achievement shouldn't have got there in such traditional ways. She shouldn't be running for president because her husband was president, and there's something about that that's a little depressing and regressive.
Olen: You wrote in the introduction that you felt authenticity was shaping up to be the buzzword of the 2008 election. Do you still feel that way?
Morrison: Yes, even though I recognize that the concept of authenticity in politics or authenticity in a politician are completely at odds. As Amy Wilentz writes in her essay, what if you had to live a life where you couldn't let people know that you spoke French and you couldn't dress the way you wanted to dress. You couldn't order foie gras if you wanted it. Or everything that you did, every breath you took, had to be managed with an eye toward how it was going to be perceived.
To a certain extent, anyone who wants to be in public life has to be a little bit crazy and be at home with the idea that their personality and public persona have to be kind of market researched. People say, "Well, Bill is more authentic than Hillary." What does that really mean? Is he just better at being charismatic than her? Who knows?
Olen: Did you think Hillary Clinton's tears the day before the New Hampshire primary were authentic? A number of commentators -- mostly male -- did not.
Morrison: I did think that the tears were authentic. Although, at the same time, I think she's such a political animal that she must have been completely mindful of the fact that they weren't going to hurt her. Hillary is never more popular than when she looks like a victim, then when she looks vulnerable, particularly with women voters. I didn't mind it. I felt that she reminded me in that moment of -- I'll probably get jumped on for saying this -- well, I recognize this tone in my own voice sometimes when I'm talking to my children. It's like, "You kids, you don't appreciate what I'm doing for you."
But I think the more interesting observation about the tears incident is that I don't think that she won because she wept. That clip was played on TV over and over and over and over and over again. And yes, she was looking emotional. But also, she was saying again and again on television, "We do it, each one of us, against difficult odds. We do it because we care about our country. Some of us are right, and some of us are not. Some of us are ready, and some of us are not." It's a brilliant attack ad. So under the guise of this kind of womanly tearful moment, she basically had this kind of killer attack ad playing dozens of times on national television. I can't tell you if it was intentional or strategic or not.
Olen: You wrote and said today you wanted to do this anthology to try to figure out what buttons Hillary Clinton pushes in people. Did you change your views about what buttons she pushed in people over the course of working on this book?
Morrison: No, I just knew she pushed different buttons on different people. And you can see how some women are really turned off by the fact that she didn't throw Bill out after Monica. Some women are turned off by the fact that they think that her whole marriage is opportunistic. Some people are turned off by the fact that they think it's anti-feminist to ... you know, has she paid her dues out of her own account or her husband's account? And then some people are just bugged by her mannishness. You know, there are people who compare her to a drag queen. I think everybody has different buttons.
Olen: What was your ultimate take? Where were you at the beginning? Where were you at the end?
Morrison: Well, in the beginning I think I saw Hillary as obviously an intelligent woman, but I didn't have such a great, positive feeling about her. When I started working on this book, I read more about her, learned more about her, I found myself quite liking the woman that she was in her 20s, and I found her passion very convincing. Her passion for different kinds of traditional liberal social causes and children's welfare and all that, and I found her to be an incredibly impressive person. Also the more I thought about her, the way she is often criticized and judged now as a candidate, I began to realize that this American obsession with likability is kind of ridiculous, and at the end of the day, she would be a really competent president. I was as guilty as anybody of judging her more harshly than I would a man just because she wasn't particularly charismatic.
Whether you agree with her vote on the Iraq war or not, I have this idea that deep down inside she's closer to that person who battled for social causes and children's rights when she was in her 20s. And I came to feel that all the criticism of her being charmless, grating and calculating were not such terribly important things.
Olen: What do you want people to take away from this book?
Morrison: I would hope that the thing that people will get from this book is a realization that the reactions and judgments that we make about people, including political candidates, come from our personal histories, come from our relationships with other people, and are both very subjective and objective. But it's worthwhile and interesting to really think about why we come to the conclusions we do, and then try to evaluate which of those reasons are rational and which are irrational, and that perhaps will help us make a better decision.
Olen: So are you voting for her?
Morrison: Well, like a lot of Democrats, I'll vote defensively. I mean, I'll vote for whoever we can get into the White House who isn't a Republican. In a primary I'll probably vote for her. But I feel like we have a lot more to watch between now and then. I would be very happy to have Edwards, Obama or Clinton in the White House. I feel actually good about it.
Helaine Olen is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Salon.com and numerous other publications. Her book, co-written with Stephanie Losee, Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding -- and Managing -- Romance on the Job, was published in 2007. Her Web site in progress is www.helaineolen.com.