Ah, Hillary. We still don’t know who you are.
After 16 years of high Clinton drama, after dozens of books examining the former first lady from every angle and ideological viewpoint, after hundreds of speeches and campaign rallies, the percentage of Americans who feel they really understand the woman who could be the first female president of the United States remains astonishingly small.
Part of this phenomenon is that we like famous women to fit stereotypes. Britney Spears is out of control. Martha Stewart is a control freak. Queen Elizabeth is dutiful. Benazir Bhutto was ruthlessly, irresponsibly power-hungry. Eleanor Roosevelt was selfless. Hillary Clinton is an ambitious, self-possessed creature that runs the gamut of human emotion from A to B, even when her husband cheated on her so recklessly that the whole world found out the sordid details.
So now here is Hillary Rodham Clinton, thought to be an iron lady marching down an inevitable road to the White House, losing the Iowa caucuses. What does she do? She mists up.
The country lurched into a hyper-speed psychoanalyzation of this amazing development. No, she didn’t really cry. She sort of choked up as she explained to a sympathetic woman that this election is about rectifying the mistakes of the Bush years. People should understand she doesn’t want the glorious burden of the presidency for herself but for the good she would do for the country! She is “hurt” that some people don’t like her!
Were the misted eyes calculated to make her more appealing by showing a softer side? Or was this an honest, if rare, look at a moment of vulnerability for this strong woman? And did the national fixation with a momentary salty sheen indicate yet another double standard? After all, Bill Clinton and his predecessor George H.W. Bush cried all the time, and few paid much attention.
Pundits and pollsters concluded Hillary, stunned by the possibility of defeat, had finally heeded her advisers who said that too many potential voters were turned off by her mantle of invincibility. Suddenly, Chelsea Clinton was there. Refusing to say much, she was pulled into the spotlight to prove that Hillary Clinton really is a mother. And there was the former president, so proud of his wife he could burst, hugging and kissing her on every stage in New Hampshire even as he whined he couldn’t make her taller or a male.
We’re told by “insiders” that when Hillary lost in Iowa she didn’t blow her top, as she has been known to do. She became “determined” and “firm” and “took charge,” beginning to think about cleaning house (shunting aside some advisers and bringing in a new team, not actually picking up a broom).
Yes, she chastised aides for not getting her “message” across, but she and her husband also blamed the media, yet again. This time it was for ganging up on her and not giving Barack Obama a thorough enough vetting, portraying his ride as a “fairy tale.”
And then, suddenly, women identified with her, spurred by the sight of a gutsy woman being kicked when she was down and the thought that maybe this historic moment might slip away and another man would win again. Cobbling up a victory speech in New Hampshire, the comeback lady barely stopped at home for a change of clothes before she was back on a grueling pace to fight another day with eyes firmly set on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Having covered Hillary Clinton for eight years as first lady and watched her find her footing in the Senate and find her voice on the campaign trail, I find her to be as disciplined and formidable as ever. I also find her to be as calculating (not necessarily a bad trait) and as smart and as infuriatingly secretive as ever. With her friends she is warm, funny and girlish. With her aides she is demanding but also appreciative of good work. With the public she can still be the tedious, strident, lecturing schoolmarm, wearing us down with the message that she alone knows what’s good for us. Maybe she does.
I also find her to be as exhausting as ever. A Hillary presidency would be a bumpy road, full of ups and downs. But then, all modern presidencies seem to be roller coaster rides. Her biggest weakness is that if you are not 100 percent with her, she assumes you are against her. For the shrewd “finding common ground” politician she has become, this is disconcerting.
We have miles to go before we might decide we know what makes the ever-changing, ever-the-same, hard-driving Hillary tick. Of one thing we can be certain — there won’t be many more tears.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com)