Although most people see Bill Clinton as the great American statesman, few realize Hillary Clinton is the great family phrasemaker. Bill Clinton has always been too much the quicksilver seducer wooing crowds to be the Churchillian orator delivering chisel-worthy lines. And although Hillary Clinton would happily forget some doozies, her most pungent lines have charted her public evolution—and American women’s journey—since the 1990s.
Back in January 1992, when most Americans first “met” Hillary Clinton, she uttered a memorable, regrettable line. To refute accusations of adultery both Clintons denied for years until he confirmed them, Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on a special “Sixty Minutes” segment, broadcast right after the Super Bowl. As Steve Kroft probed, asking, “What do you mean … that your marriage has had problems?” and Bill Clinton parried, Hillary finally snapped: “You know, I’m not sitting here [like] some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Her snide reference to a legendary country star’s ode to fidelity offended millions of fans.
Two months later, with word of Whitewater financial chicanery first seeping out, Mrs. Clinton insulted millions of homemakers by boasting, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was pursue my profession.” Her sharp tongue confirmed anti-feminist stereotypes of career women disdaining American homemakers. Journalists cruelly branded her “the overbearing Yuppie Wife from Hell.”
In the White House, the backlash against Hillary as the first Feminist First Lady ultimately required a retreat. Rather than function as “co-president,” rather than lead America toward a “politics of meaning,” as she hoped, she became a more traditional First Lady, with a modern twist. In September, 1995, her bold speech in China for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women upset American and Chinese diplomats. “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all,” she said, coining this memorable phrase. The New York Times said the speech “may have been her finest moment in public life.” Alas, her husband undermined her by claiming “There was no attempt to single any country out.”
The next year, her best-selling, Grammy-Award winning book, It Takes a Village, was the most dramatic mark of her makeover, while launching another epoch-defining phrase. In accepting the 1996 Republican nomination, Senator Bob Dole would sneer: “it does not take a village to raise a child; it takes a family to raise a child.”
Hillary’s publicizing of this African folk teaching marked a milestone in American cultural history. Equal parts Martha Stewart, Nancy Reagan, and Jane Addams, her book reflected the odyssey of the Clintons’ Baby Boomer peers who had rejected traditional mores only to rediscover them. Clinton publicized studies showing that divorce, drugs, and promiscuity are bad, and “every child” needs an “intact, dependable family.” This was Hillary the super-mom and aphorist, helping her husband win re-election as America’s “Good Father.”
Unfortunately, Bill Clinton was a better father than husband. In January 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded, Hillary Clinton had to save her husband’s presidency. The First Lady had long struggled over the First Family’s “zone of privacy,” a phrase from the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case reading into the Constitution a right of privacy that allowed married people to buy birth control. In April 1994, apologizing for awkwardly handling Whitewater files, Hillary had joked that her “zone of privacy” was being “rezoned.”
Four years later, in 1998, Hillary Clinton spearheaded the counterattack against the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to destroy her husband. Not since the widowed Jackie Kennedy waxed emotional about “Camelot” had a First Lady uttered a more potent phrase. The scandal would paralyze Washington for months—but Hillary’s words helped keep her wandering man living in the White House.
Running for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton was out-matched by the silver-tongued, “Yes We Can” candidate Barack Obama. Her best line came from her campaign commercial asking: “It’s 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep…. Who do you want answering the phone?” The ad then showed a serious, reliable, Hillary Clinton, answering the phone, protecting the nation.
Still, Hillary lost. In her graceful concession speech, hailing the record number of votes cast for America’s first serious female presidential candidate, she weaponized a by-now familiar cliché, “Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time,” she said, “thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
While repeatedly Bartlett’s Book of Quotations-worthy, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s success as America’s wordsmith reflects her political career’s defining paradox. These phrases have been weapons in America’s gender wars, fired from various angles. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly rejected the shackles American expectations have foisted on her. She resisted being a stand-by-your-man woman, a stay-at-home mom, a cuckolded wife, or a loser limited by that “highest, hardest glass ceiling.” She wants to be the human rights and women’s rights campaigner. She wants to be the bold political navigator re-zoning the zone of privacy, defeating the vast right-wing conspiracy, emerging as the toughest, boldest, most visionary, most experienced, person in the room 24/7, not just at 3 A.M.
Yet the identity politics that boosted her career imprisons her. Following 1994’s “angry white man’s” revolt that elected a Republican Congress for the first time in 40 years, Mrs. Clinton concluded: “I’m the projection for many of those wounded men. I’m the boss they never wanted to have.” Fourteen years later, Fox News would inadvertently confirm her fears of sexism with an ugly “expert’s” report claiming that when male voters hear Hillary Clinton’s “nagging voice,” they hear: “Take out the garbage.”
Just as Barack Obama remains defined by the four-word headline, “America’s First Black President,” Hillary Clinton will be most defined by how far she goes—or doesn’t go—as America’s First Serious Female Presidential Candidate. Yet while that identity motivates millions of “it’s our time” supporters, it risks preventing her from being seen as a president of all the people. How she solves that conundrum will determine her fate in 2016, and define her legacy.