A How-to for Hillary

by Meta Wagner

3 February 2008

How we want Hillary to appear before us says a whole lot more about us than it does about her.

Politics, with all the attendant debates, sound bites, and YouTube moments (who will ever recover from Mitt Romney’s blessedly brief rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out”?) has provided a desperate nation with the single most enthralling form of entertainment this season.  It’s sport.  It’s theater.  It’s cinema.  And the leading lady, of course, is Hillary Clinton.

Years ago, during the (first) Clinton administration, I went with my friend Gina to see Hillary speak at Wellesley College.  It happened to be just at the time when New York Senator Al D’Amato was making a name for himself by attacking the First Lady on unfounded charges.  So, when we got in line to shake Hillary’s hand, I said something like, “I’m ashamed to come from a state that would have Al D’Amato as its senator.”  I meant it as a show of support.  But I received that steely-eyed/frozen smile look that we’ve all seen her shoot at Barack Obama during the debates.  Brrrrrrrrrr.  Not exactly the response I was hoping for.

I was hoping that the first time I had the chance to vote for a woman president, I’d be simply thrilled and moved by the experience.  I was hoping it would be someone I could fully admire and relate to, without reservation.  I was hoping it would be someone whose political success was not entangled with that of her husband. 

But, you know what?  Hillary is who we got this first time out.  And, you know what else?  Whether or not I vote for her in the Massachusetts Democratic primary (which may have already occurred by the time this article appears), I feel deeply indebted to her.  Not only is she accomplished and impressive, she’s the one who’s willing to put herself out there, willing to take the heat no matter how intense it gets, willing to break some barriers and shatter some ceilings for the rest of us. 

Who among us could stand such unrelenting media scrutiny, armchair psychologizing, innuendo, charges of playing the “race card”, and all else that’s come her way?  What other woman could stomach having her hair, makeup, clothes, jewelry, shoes, and figure (not to mention her marriage) judged so publicly?  Who do you know that could handle being called “inauthentic” or “not genuine enough” no matter what she said or did?

Back when Bill Clinton was running for president, the media labeled Hillary a “polarizing figure”, and the term has been repeated so many times over so many years that it’s come to be regarded as a truism.  But the real truth is that Americans—male and female—are polarized about how they want women in power to “behave”.  What we want from Hillary says a whole lot more about us than it does about her. 

Can you imagine the infuriating advice Hillary must receive all the time from pundits and pollsters and campaign advisors about how to present herself to the voters?  I can.  It goes something like this:

It’s okay to appear ambitious.  Ambitiousness shows that you’re confident and secure—a leader. 

Don’t appear too ambitious; it freaks men out and offends less accomplished women.

Don’t cry, or it will expose you as too weak to lead our fine nation.  And, remember, if you cry, then Jesse Jackson, Jr. will accuse you of crying out of self-pity, rather than for Hurricane Katrina victims. 

Do cry, because you don’t want to appear unfeeling and robotic; crying humanizes you!  And even if you simply well up a bit, they’ll call it crying, anyway, so you may as well let the waterworks flow.

For God’s sake, don’t laugh.  Your laugh is a crazy cackle, and whenever you let loose, you’ll be accused of deflecting attention away from an issue you don’t want to confront. 

Do laugh, or else people will think you have no sense of humor, and the last president to lack a sense of humor was Nixon—you certainly don’t need that comparison.

Don’t allow fine lines to appear on your face, or Rush Limbaugh, that paragon of GQ handsomeness, will question whether the nation is ready to witness a woman age in office. 

Do age naturally, because if you go for cosmetic surgery or even Botox, it will reinforce the perception among some voters that you are not genuine. 

Flash some cleavage to remind us you’re a woman. 

Cover it up because it’s unseemly for a woman “of a certain age” to dress like a slut.

Wear pantsuits because they make you look both fashionable and authoritative. 

Don’t wear pantsuits, because Anna Wintour says not to, and you don’t want to mess with the devil.

Use Bill Clinton to campaign on your behalf because he’s the best there is (or at least he used to be) and people still like the two-for-one deal. 

Don’t use Bill Clinton because you ought to run on your own record and, besides, he’s really annoying the crap out of a lot of party leaders.

Refer to yourself as ‘Hillary’ because it makes you seem accessible. 

No, refer to yourself as Senator Clinton because it reminds people of your experience. 

No, call yourself Hillary Rodham Clinton to show show you maintain an identity separate from your husband’s.

No, call yourself Hillary Clinton (without the Rodham) to show you are committed to your marriage despite all the whispered rumors.

Oh, hell with it, call yourself ‘Hill’.  It’s a win-win-win:  it makes you one of the gals and it reminds people that you work on Capitol “Hill” and it lets you avoid the whole ‘Clinton’ imbroglio.


And of course no list of advice for Hillary Clinton would be complete without the following:  Above all else, be yourself.

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