The Nine Lives of Hillary Clinton

From Goldwater Girl to Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton’s changing incarnations have defined her.

Apparently, America’s worst kept secret will soon be blown: Hillary Rodham Clinton is about to run for president again. Surprisingly, despite years of buildup, even key Clintonites admit “they need to reintroduce Hillary to America.” If Bill Clinton were running for the third term he wishes he could seek, he would need little reframing. The Bill Clinton of 1992 mostly remains the same roguish, raffish, sophisticated, seductive politician and visionary we see—and many miss—today. But, as “Hillaryland” contemplates yet another Hillary makeover, her earlier incarnations reveal why she has needed nine political lives—and counting.

In going from a 1960s’ Goldwater Girl to America’s first serious female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton has embodied the sexual revolution’s cultural, political, and social upheavals. Attitudes about women’s roles have clashed repeatedly and changed dramatically. In Living History—her White House memoir—Clinton has made Hard Choices—her State Department memoir—regarding policy matters, her own identity journey, and her search for an appealing image.

The feminist scholar Cheryl Van Daalen-Smith laments that women feel compelled to be like chameleons, “other-defined not self-defined.” As the ultimate political wife turned career politician, Hillary Rodham Clinton has needed to be “ultra-adaptive,” and it shows.

Almost since her birth in 1947, to Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, Hillary Rodham Clinton has confronted the modern woman’s dilemma: how to find feminine fulfillment while thriving as an equal in what remains a man’s world. Raised in her Father Knows Best family in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois, supporting Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy made perfect sense.

As The Beatles and The Mod Squad eclipsed Ozzie and Harriet, her Methodist upbringing—and her youth minister Donald Jones—opened her to the hip call for “service.” Attending Wellesley College from 1965 to 1969, Hillary Rodham embraced the counterculture’s ideals more than its vices. Enrolling in Yale Law School, she chose reform over revolution and a nice career path too.

At Yale, Hillary met Bill Clinton and volunteered with him on George McGovern’s 1972 “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” presidential campaign. Labeled Sister Frigidaire in high school, she loved “Elvis” Clinton’s people smarts. Tired of Southern beauty queens, he loved her intellect. Since 1975, the two have had a rollercoaster marriage but a solid political partnership.

In moving to Fayetteville, Arkansas, Hillary chose Clinton over a conventional career. This Goldwater Girl turned McGovernik endured great frustration as Arkansas’s First Lady during 12 long years in the statehouse. After Bill lost his first re-election bid in 1980, with voters muttering about “that feminist in the governor’s mansion,” Hillary adapted. Turning to her now signature blonde-hair with no glasses look, Hillary Rodham became Mrs. Bill Clinton for the comeback. Using the Baby Boomer rationale for selling out—err, compromise, she figured: “It meant more to them”—Arkansans—“than it did to me.”

Hillary thus imagined Bill’s 1992 presidential campaign as her own get-out-of-jail ticket. He exulted: “buy one, get one free!” She crowed: “If you vote for him, you get me!” When she back-pedaled, critics snickered. One cartoon had Mrs. Clinton clutching her daughter Chelsea and yammering: “Hi there! I’m Hillary Clinton—the new Hillary Clinton! …. Do you like my new hair style? Do you want to hear about my family values?”

In the White House, Hillary proved to be a polarizing First Lady, too unconventional, too controversial, too close to power for most Americans’ comfort. Many jokes reversed traditional assumptions, by hailing the president… and her husband, or citing Hillary’s alleged comment after seeing an ex-boyfriend managing a gas station that, if he had stuck with her, he would be running the country and Bill would be pumping gas.

As First Lady, Hillary Clinton repeatedly changed hair styles, adjusted her roles, experimented with different identities. “Is she Betty Crocker or Eva Peron?” one columnist teased. The role that proved most popular was her fifth incarnation, as Wounded Wife, when her husband betrayed her with Monica Lewinsky, but her dignified suffering and partisan politicking saved his presidency.

Pity, not respect, redeemed Hillary Clinton. Before, “non-feminists” believed she rejected “their values, looking down her nose at them,” the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake explained. As a victim, “They now see her as a woman demonstrating their values.” Maureen Dowd called her the “single most degraded wife in the history of the world.”

Finally rejecting her “vicarious role,” Hillary became the first First Lady to run for political office. Hillary!—that’s how she ran for Senate in 2000—now emerged as a “real person.” Freed of the First Lady’s baggage, Senator Clinton could wield power comfortably. Secure as a global, first-name-only, celebrity like Madonna or Cher, Hillary could reveal her warm, down-to-earth side.

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All this patience was supposed to pay off in a 2008 presidential cakewalk, until Barack Obama intervened. Initially, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was chaotic, with no real strategy beyond expecting victory. She adapted once again, demonstrating grit and grace. Peddling economic populism while benefiting from blue-collar racism against the first black candidate, she finally wooed Midwestern males.

In her eighth incarnation, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton left no defining doctrine or legendary legacy while leaving her successor a lengthy to-do list. But in visiting 112 countries and crusading for women’s rights, she helped Obama make America’s foreign policy more global and less confrontational.

Now, as presidential hopeful take two, Hillary Rodham Clinton hopes to do it right. Alas, after all these shifts, and the 1990s’ Whitewater shenanigans followed by the recent email scandal, only 42 percent of Americans trust her. She needs ballast and vision to win.

One key to Hillary Clinton’s sanity, success, and popularity among working women has been her elasticity. Reporters kept boxing her in as “saint” or “sinner” (Newsweek), as “crusader” or “hypocrite,” (Vanity Fair). Spurning this zero-sum game, Hillary—like so many working women—has synthesized: working woman and mom, feminist First Lady and feminine First Lady, policy maven and hostess, pioneer and traditionalist.

Hillary Clinton now must balance the adaptability she has always shown with a core consistency she has, but frequently fails to project. She must charm voters while tackling controversial issues. She should overcome 2008’s mismanagement while demonstrating the focus of 2000. And, as she has done for four decades, she must manage the blessing and curse of Bill Clinton, tapping his political wiles without being upstaged by his charms or derailed by his demons.

Hillary’s confidante Diane Blair noted after chatting with her in 1996, that, “On her deathbed she wants to be able to say she was true to herself and is not going to do phoney makeovers to please others.” That aspiration will remain unrealized, but this latest, biggest makeover better feel authentic.