Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

First impressions

Hillary Rodham Clinton is her own woman and a smart and successful lawyer, a former young Republican who became America’s First (Democrat) Lady not when her husband became its president, but when she lost her role as his appointed but independently powerful policy-maker. JFK’s appointment of his brother Robert as attorney-general could be borne, but not a later Democrat’s sharing real power with his wife.

Most First Ladies are assumed to have at least some influence from their supposed intimate relationships with powerful men, and exercise it in their own ways—fashion icon (Jacqueline Kennedy), drugs campaigner (Nancy ‘Just Say No’ Reagan) or grandmother to the nation (Mrs Bush, no-nonsense wife to George the First). Eleanor Roosevelt exercised her real power after FDR succumbed humiliatingly, in the arms of his mistress, and she was appointed to chair the committee then drafting the declaration on human rights in the United Nations. But when first-term President Clinton appointed his wife to do the serious job, in his own administration, of reforming health policy, neither the power brokers in Congress, nor the public, nor the self-appointed guardians of public policy (the columnists, pundits, reporters and talk-show hosts) were willing to make the best—or any—use of what Clinton jokingly offered as ‘two for the price of one’. The joke was sour.

By the end of 1994, Hillary Clinton was still her husband’s policy confidante and a power in Washington, but had been sidelined from direct power when what she called her ‘missteps’ or misjudgments sank her health care reform project that year. She writes, ‘I underestimated the resistance I would meet as a First Lady with a policy mission’. That’s putting it mildly.

Even strong, self-confident women have a relatively tenuous hold on power. Hillary Rodham, feminist and partner in a prestigious law firm, felt obliged to add ‘Clinton’ to her name well after her marriage. Her husband was Governor of Arkansas at the time, and the Arkansas electors drew unsatisfactory conclusions from her keeping her ‘maiden’ (and professional) name. How much did she identify with her husband, then? ‘I’m not some little woman like Tammy Wynette, standing by her man’, she told a TV interviewer, doing exactly that when Gennifer Flowers revealed a long affair with Hillary’s husband. Following public reaction to that interview she  learned not to make jokes unless they were scripted.

An intelligent, educated and policy-driven woman, as Hillary Rodham Clinton has clearly always been, would expect a ‘real job’ when her partner attained the highest office in the land. Women like her observed the real power of the forces against women in positions of political determinism. As the president’s wife, she had broken a great taboo in being politically active—not behind the scenes, but in paid office. Her armies of enemies sprang from the furrows. Some attacked her husband through her. Others avenged themselves on the emancipation of women, making the president’s wife, as she says, a ‘lightning rod for political and ideological battles … and a magnet for feelings ... about women’s choices and roles’. The cost was enormous: not only the failure of her health reform plans, but the rallying of the right behind the odious Newt Gingrich, a focus for opposition to ‘the Clinton agenda’; a hostile Congress and a spooked Democratic party.

Hillary Clinton was to be hounded on TV, on talkback radio and by newspaper columnists; by congressmen, senators and that remarkably interested ‘special investigator’, Kenneth Starr, throughout her White House years. She endured intense speculation about her role in their financial affairs, her understanding of Bill’s other kind of affairs, a Grand Jury investigation into their joint finances, her father’s death (just when the health package reached a crucial stage in its passage through Congress) and the death of her husband’s mother. But most of all, she endured the loss of great friends, one to suicide but others because she walked away from their once shared, purer aims. Power has a different quality once achieved.

It is, however, not this woman’s frustrations but the president’s predilection for sex with much more ordinary women than his wife that will drive most people to read Living History. They will find this its least satisfying aspect. The name Monica Lewinsky is not even in the index. There is no mention of the details of the affair, except for her husband’s late confession. There is no real clarity about ‘whether she knew’, before that day, though plenty of hints  that the man had demons, and that warnings were sent.

Perhaps, because she is undoubtedly a feminist, Hillary Clinton could not attack her husband’s nemesis, another woman. Perhaps, too, she is aware of the possibility of losing whatever she values in their ongoing relationship if she goes into too much detail. The marriage, I think, was so tough that it could withstand infidelities, but not disloyalty. Clearly it was the lies that caused the real pain. So why did she stay? Maybe a deal was done. When the last term ended, and her husband was not impeached, Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to run for the Senate.

The art of compromise she demonstrated obviously arose from her solid, Republican upbringing and the sense of agency, values and confidence taught by her resilient mother (abandoned and abused in her own childhood) and one of those generous, judgmental, strong, supportive and loving fathers who so
commonly figure in the lives of remarkable women.

Hillary Rodham was a young Republican who changed sides in the 1960s, in part through feminism but also because of the stupidity of the establishment of the time. She became an advocate for children’s rights and a member of the Watergate investigation team, a partner in a law firm who ran civil liberties litigation for the poor. She married a handsome young Rhodes scholar who shared her political values, and who had as an unhappy a childhood as her mother’s. Hillary put her career second to his.

It is a careful book—as you would expect from a woman with an ongoing political career. She does not dwell on the loss of old friends from her community advocacy years—friends who did not make the transition with her into political power, which requires unthinkable compromises. When the great children’s advocate Marian Edelman, a close friend and colleague, disparaged her choices and departed it must have cut deeply, but she does not say so. Nor does she wallow in her humiliation over the president’s dalliances with the young intern.

She allows only superficial insights into the machinations of international politics and into what it is like to work under the most dim man to become president in the history of the United States, and to watch the rapid loss of the civil rights and the liberties fought for in the ’60s and ’70s.

As I finished this review, Arnold Schwarzenegger was resoundingly elected to be the Republican Governor of California. Hillary’s greatest challenge is the people’s desire to identify with their leaders—and they do not think they are intelligent. And yet they love Hillary Rodham Clinton, because she represents something else that they can identify with: the dignity of ‘failure’ and the strength in bearing betrayal.

This is an imperfect but significant book because it may say something important about what makes people love some political women. Joan Kirner, first woman premier of Victoria, is loved by many because of, not in spite of, her failure to return Labor to power in 1992, after a series of catastrophes under the Cain premiership since 1982. Living History is written by a woman favoured by 44 per cent of the national electorate to be the next Democrat president. I wouldn’t write her off. ?

Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Hodder Headline, 2003. isbn 0 7472 5515 6, rrp $44.95

Moira Rayner is Senior Fellow at the Law School, University of WA, a barrister and writing the authorised biography of Joan Kirner for Hodder Headline.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Fast forward

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 12 June 2006

Although it feels like last Christmas was only about four months back, it also seems like a year since Reggie Bird walked out of the Big Brother house, and an absolute aeon since Kath & Kim finished.


Film reviews

  • Lucille Hughes, Allan James Thomas, Tim Metherall, Siobhan Jackson
  • 12 June 2006

Reviews of the films Ten; Kill Bill Vol. 1; Intolerable Cruelty and In This world