10.30.09

Hillary Finally Doffs Her Burqa

Why we like seeing our strong women get tough.

Hooray! Hillary Clinton has taken her gloves off! The blue headscarf she wore in Pakistan was becoming (great look, solves the hair problem), but she has finally doffed her metaphorical burqa.

Her sharp words on Thursday when she told a bunch of Pakistani journalists that she found it "hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they [al Qaeda] are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to” was a burst of candor that we’d like to hear more of.

"There is a perennial frustration in our reactions to women of power: we want them to do more, get tougher, fight harder on behalf of their own gender."

Or think we’d like to hear more of. There is a perennial frustration in our reactions to women of power: we want them to do more, get tougher, fight harder on behalf of their own gender. Allison Samuels’ article about Michelle Obama in this week’s Newsweek picks at the first lady for risking “failure” by “playing it safe,” and concludes that “some of the first lady's reticence may stem from a desire to avoid the missteps of her predecessors, especially Hillary Clinton.”

On Thursday night I found myself pitted against Samuels on Campbell Brown’s CNN show, with me cast as the nice one defending all those photo ops of Michelle wielding her scissors at recalcitrant parsnips in the White House vegetable garden. I argued—out of sisterly wish fulfillment, I now realize—that the first lady was just biding her time before a power surge next year. She has, after all, always been good at pacing herself. “Not my plan” is a recurring Michelle phrase in interviews when she reflects on how her husband’s political stardom had intruded on her own conception of what constituted a true partnership. But she is such a big, red-blooded star herself that we yearn for her to take center stage.

Fatima Bhutto: Hillary’s Visit to Pakistan Is a CharadeNow we’re told that next year she will be the White House point person on childhood obesity. That’s nice. Plus, she visits the veterans a lot. So far, so traditional. But that power surge of frank speaking we hunger for is hardly realistic in a media culture where a flying sound bite can impale your agenda for the next six months. When Michelle showed her kick-ass side on the campaign trail ("For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country") it caused so much flak for her husband that she was pretty much sent into hiding for two months. Do we really expect her to stick her neck out again and start sounding off on all the things Samuels wants her to raise hell about, like condoms and AIDS prevention as part of the already-contentious healthcare debate, or a full-scale attack on the junk food lobby? After all, if a first lady whose approval ratings are higher than the president’s raises an issue as a big national problem, isn’t she implicitly demanding that he do something about it? Is he going to thank her for that as he spends his long, grueling days shoveling out his predecessor’s economic Augean stable?

Hillary is more of a quandary to the still-devoted sisterhood. It’s a constant irritant to them not just that she lost the primaries to Obama, but that she was then denied the vice presidency because, again, of a man. In his new book The Audacity to Win, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe describes his boss’s musings about whom to tap for the second spot on the ticket. “I think Bill may be too big a complication,” Plouffe quotes his boss as saying. “If I picked her, my concern is that there would be more than two of us in the relationship.” Now that she’s in the third-biggest job, at the State Department, there remains an insidious carping vibe that she’s boxed in by boys who steal her thunder—not just the jostling high-profile envoys she helped to choose, but by preening grandstanders like Senator John Kerry, recently dispatched to Kabul to broker the election rerun with Karzai.

But those who long for Hillary’s big, rebellious moment forget that she is by nature a cautious politician, more like this president than the one she is married to. There is nothing radical about Obama except the fact of who he is. The same could be said of Hillary, who is by nature judicious and incremental and very pro-military, at times a little too dazzled by the medals and broad chests who come to give her briefings. Let's not forget it took an ugly Pakistani reception and a car bomb to rattle her from her smiling script.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.