Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary by Susan Morrison [editor]

[14 February 2008]

By Howard Cohen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Call it the Case of the Cleavage that Consumed the Senate.

The infamous incident—important only because a number of social critics deem it so—has come to be known as Cleavagegate. Or, as writer Judith Warner dubs it, “The Cleavage Conundrum.” The flap occurred in July 2007 when Sen. Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidate for president, stood on the Senate floor in Washington to talk about the rising cost of higher education, and “her cleavage crept out of her decolletage.”

“It was not the sort of Hooters display that might leave you bug-eyed. It was far more subtle. It wasn’t inappropriate, but it was noticeable. It stood out because of the location and because of its owner,” opines Washington Post Pulitzer-winner Robin Givhan in her essay, “The Road to Cleavagegate,” one of 30 featured in the new anthology Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers.

In the book’s final and arguably most lucid essay, Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, slams Givhan for cracking wise over Clinton’s lapse in propriety. “Hillary made one tiny slip and allowed the public to be reminded that she has—gasp!—breasts. Oh my. The Washington Post, in the person of an overwrought fashion writer, immediately succumbed to the vapors.”

Cleavagegate is one of the few pointed debates in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, a book that suffers for its predominantly homogenized view of the first viable female candidate for the nation’s highest office. The collection is a brisk read and undeniably well-written, but it’s more of a guilty pleasure than a serious debate on the subject’s suitability to be president.

Thirty Ways is also something of a misnomer. You may desire 30 views on Clinton, but what you get instead are 30 accomplished writers, most from the East Coast, who are primarily obsessed with Clinton’s appearance.

Apparently, the idea of a woman in power in the United States—perhaps “this” woman in particular—rattles women as well as men. In her essay, novelist Lionel Shriver credits Bill Clinton’s “coattails” for his wife’s rise.

That’s a fair point for debate. Also relevant is “Hillary Rotten,” Katha Pollitt’s thoughtful examination of gender. She recounts the pejoratives that have been used to describe Clinton and conducts an experiment by Googling “Hillary Clinton + slut” and finds 208,000 results. For the record, at presstime, that figure is up to 241,000. “Barack Obama” + the noxious n-word that must not be spoken unless you’re a rapper: 65,900. Shirley Chisholm, the first black female candidate for president, predicted this chasm of ignorance as far back as her run in 1972, when she was famously quoted saying, “Of my two `handicaps’ being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”

But other essays obsess over Clinton’s headbands circa 1992, her hair style, pantsuits, taste in food and what that says about her. Does she prefer dishes that are hot and spicy or cold, a word that appears more than any other in this collection?

The essayists also wonder whether she likes pets and question her musical taste, and many of the writers leap wildly to judgment and spurious assumptions. New Yorker scribe Lauren Collins strains to find meaning in Clinton’s MySpace profile, on which the senator posted that Carly Simon’s “Into White” was her last album purchase. (Hey, give her points for not illegally downloading it.) Collins turns this triviality into a veiled jab at Clinton’s privileged class. “Might be inspired less by musical affinity than by their shared habit of vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard.” Isn’t it also safe to assume that Clinton, 60, simply “likes” the music of a pop singer from her own generation?

Thankfully, Lorrie Moore’s “Boys and Girls” and Bennetts’ “Beyond Gender” at least attempt to bring back the book’s conversation to the practical arena, where substance resides, by eschewing hair styles and ankle size. These writers argue that, in the face of our mounting national challenges, Clinton’s policies are what we should be analyzing.

Besides, male or female, as Moore notes, “Anyone who runs for president is a freak—presidential candidates do not represent any ordinary person at all, though they always pretend otherwise.”

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