Lightning Rod

Everyone Sees the Hillary They Want to See

Hillary Clinton has been a divisive figure for decades. The controversies erupting around her new memoir promise more of the same down the road.


I first interviewed Hillary Clinton in the fall of 1991, shortly after her husband announced for president, an era when political wives with ambition and a law degree were still rarities on the campaign trail. Her unflinching advocacy for issues that stirred women made her a target from the beginning, and the following spring, when Vice President Dan Quayle attacked sit-com character Murphy Brown for her fictional out-of-wedlock child, the culture wars flared and became part of the presidential contest between President George H.W. Bush, a Greatest Generation war hero, and the baby-boomer Clintons, “Buy one, get one free.”

It seemed preposterous for Quayle to assail a made-up television newswoman for her “poverty of values,” but Democrats suspected it wasn’t the long-running CBS show that Quayle was after, but the hard-charging Hillary new on the national scene and a role model for women. Newsweek noted that cultural pioneers get high ratings in Hollywood, but make people nervous on the campaign trail. In a presidential race that could turn on the question of values, the magazine harrumphed that a candidate can ill afford to have a wife who somehow seems to symbolize the “wrong” ones.

Republicans had great fun at their ’92 convention portraying Clinton as a radical feminist with a Rasputin-like influence over her husband to implement her not-so-hidden agenda. Even the headband she once favored took on an ominous tone. The assault on Clinton backfired, but it silenced her for much of the fall campaign. A cartoon on the final weekend showed Bill Clinton assuring a box with air holes, “Only a few days more, Hillary.” On election night, with victory in hand and his voice gone, Clinton turned the podium over to Hillary. A campaign staffer in Little Rock, watching TV, yelled, “Hey guys, the headband’s back.”

Twenty-odd years later, Clinton is no longer the avatar of radical feminists but a center-right politician who has to worry about her left flank, and whose values as a mother, soon-to-be grandmother, and steadfast wife are no longer questioned. In an interview with The New York Times Book Review, she was asked to “name one book that made you who you are today.” She cites the Bible, calling it “the biggest influence on my thinking.” Laugh if you will, for what politician could go wrong citing the Bible, but those who know Clinton say this is for real. Lissa Muscatine, her longtime confidante and speechwriter, told The Washington Post there are three things that explain Hillary. She’s a Midwesterner, hard-working and earnest; she’s a Methodist, which drives her commitment to social justice; and she was born in the middle of the last century, which put her on the trajectory of the women’s movement.

My recollections of Clinton circa ’92 and ’93 are in a compendium of Newsweek articles that I contributed to about her at a time when she was perceived as far more liberal than her husband. Republicans cast her ill-fated health care policy task force as a “shadow government.” Her book about parenting, It Takes a Village, would be seen as advocating the end of parental rights. And the haughtiness she displayed in talking to Diane Sawyer about how she and Bill needed to make money to buy houses (plural) and pay for Chelsea’s education has its roots in Arkansas when she was the family breadwinner, and her marriage was shaky. Bill Clinton never cared about money, or worried about it—that was her job.

In her new memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton reflects on lessons learned, on how to grow skin thick as an elephant and take criticism seriously but not personally, and how to understand the double standard that still exists for women. In an interview with NBC’s Cynthia McFadden, Clinton said she was surprised at the backlash in Washington to the health care policy role she assumed in her husband’s administration. After working as an advocate on education reform in Arkansas, she didn’t foresee any conflict in becoming an unpaid policymaker in the White House. She said that in retrospect, she should have settled for being a spokesperson, which is hard to imagine given her longstanding suspicion of the media. Clinton was blamed for the failure of health care reform and the Democrats’ loss of both houses of Congress in 1994, yet she regrouped and recovered, and today is seen by Democrats as their best chance to hold the White House in 2016.

She is perceived as tougher than her husband, and to the right of President Obama on defense and national security issues. She is the first woman who would enter the race without having to convince the voters that she could be commander in chief. She’s cleared that bar, and the methodical decision-making that she lays out in Hard Choices should further strengthen the confidence voters have in her as a leader. She doesn’t feel everybody’s pain like her husband famously did, neither is she as emotionally distant as Obama.

“I try to be who I am,” was the headline quote in her interview with me after the ’92 election. That is the consistent thread. From left-wing activist and feminist to national security hawk, the many faces we have projected onto Hillary Clinton over the years say more about our changing culture and politics than any significant shift in how she sees the world. The stability in her image that she achieved as America’s top diplomat will surely be shaken in the rough and tumble of a campaign, should she proceed as seems likely. The rocky nature of her book rollout is fair warning that the road ahead will not be easy.