Say Goodbye To The Virago

Hillary. Now that I have your attention, here's the inside scoop on the book, from someone who hasn't read it yet but knows the subject: she worked hard, she did well, she had doubts, she made mistakes, she didn't know, she found out, she freaked out, she went on, she worked hard, she did well.

Yep, it's the story of Everywoman. And once again the former First Lady, the junior senator from New York, the uber-author, the lightning rod, will be held to account for Everywoman's compromises, changing roles and inevitable shortcomings. Not to mention Everyone Else's discomfort with all of the above.

In the process the unremarkable will be made astonishing. The wife of a womanizer who didn't know and then forgave! The brilliant helpmate with her own ambitions! The public servant who wanted to make some big bucks from a book! Be still, my heart! Television pundits suggested that this is designed to abet Senator Clinton's push toward the presidency, as though writing a memoir was a nefarious plot to circumvent the usual sterling-silver process of phony ads and staged debates.

So let me get this straight: a former First Lady wants to write a personal history that casts her in a positive light, just as virtually every First Lady has done before her. And a woman who has given some of the best years of her life to public service when she could have been making a mint in the private sector, who has shown time and time again that she has a sophisticated grasp of national issues, who was overwhelmingly elected against all odds to the Senate, may want to run for president.

Where's the problem?

The most interesting development is that there isn't any problem, at least for many Americans. A Gallup poll last week in USA Today showed that almost two out of three considered Senator Clinton honest and trustworthy, as well as warm and friendly, while a whopping 93 percent think of her as intelligent. And a story in The New York Times last year quoted her astonished Republican Senate colleagues on how pleasant and collegial the artist formerly known as the virago of Pennsylvania Avenue was once you got to know her.

"What a surprise, right?" the senator herself said with her piano-key smile at a charity event not long afterward.

Those still behind the curve on the demonization front fall largely into two groups: the right wing and the media. Maybe that's because Hillary has never fit easily into the boxes convention and custom create for women. She tacked on her husband's surname, and she messed around with her hair, but she couldn't hide the fact that she was smarter and more ambitious than most people. If she were male, both those qualities might have been seen as commonplace. No excuse, just fact. Being called opinionated when we have opinions, feisty when we're angry, bossy when we're assertive. Deal with it. That's what Hillary has done, big time.

Unlike Martha Stewart, the other smart blonde on the hot seat last week, Hillary didn't present a convincing facade. Note well that when Martha pretended to be all about gilding and forced bulbs, people loved her. When it became clear that behind the work shirt was a sharky corporate giant with a ruthless streak as wide as a banquet tablecloth, her approval ratings dropped. Now that she's been nailed to the wall by the Feds (and always use a small piece of masking tape so the plaster won't shatter), there's a sympathy vote. How well the damsel in distress still plays, even if she's accused of insider trading!

In distress Hillary has soldiered on, damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, like most powerful women, expected to be tough as nails and warm as toast at the same time. (My favorite reflection of this is the New Yorker cartoon that shows a king and queen in the throne room, with the queen complaining, "Yes, but when a woman beheads someone they call her a bitch!") If she'd left Bill she would have been pilloried; she was pilloried when she stayed. If she'd failed to write about l'affaire Lewinsky, she would have been accused of shortchanging the reader and the publisher. Because she did address the matter in her memoir, it is considered unseemly or political.

"I have created a lot of cognitive dissonance," she once said, and even in those who should know better. During a 1994 interview I asked her skeptically about a much publicized trip she'd made to a Safeway. Weren't the pink sweater and the chat with the produce manager merely a cover-up for a very different sort of woman?

She leaned forward and asked what I had done that morning and what I planned to do that night. Hadn't I taken my kids to school? Wasn't I planning to cook dinner? Was that domestic behavior merely a cover-up for the liberal feminist columnist lurking beneath?

I learned two things that day: not to apply standards to the lives of others that I wouldn't want applied to my own, and not to underestimate Hillary Rodham Clinton. Those two lessons go on sale in bookstores across America this week.

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