What 'Elizabeth' Teaches About Hillary Clinton's Challenge

Queens are meant to be looked at, not touched. Early in the new film "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," England's Elizabeth I, played by Cate Blanchett, is bored by a bad date. Watching, at close range, is a flock of curious courtiers; her suitor, a stuttering continental royal, is clearly terrified by the mob. Ever gracious, the queen offers some advice. Her secret for life in the public eye, she tells her companion, is to pretend she lives behind "a pane of glass." It keeps her safe, cuts her off from the courtly crowd. "They can't touch me," she says. "You should try it."

"Elizabeth" is worth watching in the midst of this election season even if it offers us little escape. The Virgin Queen's world, after all, is in many ways our own. A nation is in peril. Bitterly divided at home, it vacillates between two warring dynasties. Threatened by dark forces abroad, it worries that a decisive moment is coming when one great empire will rise and another will fall. And a female leader is struggling to maintain her femininity while proving she can rule as well as any man. Watching it, I couldn't help thinking of Hillary Clinton, quite possibly the next president of the United States, a woman who often seems to live behind her own plate of glass.

I should say that at times "Elizabeth" made me never want to mention Hillary Clinton's gender in the pages of NEWSWEEK again. The film underscores brilliantly how simple-minded, how often irrelevant, our discussions of women and power can be. In one scene the queen's astrologer stumbles after referring to "princes of the female gender," and quickly corrects himself: "princes who happen to be female." Elizabeth just seems bored. All too often we sound like that astrologer: how many column inches have already been wasted on what title ("First Gentleman"? "The President's Husband"?!? "The First Laddie"?!?!) Bill Clinton will hold if his wife wins the White House? Could anything possibly matter less?

But Elizabeth's sad woman warrior—triumphant and tragic, honored through the ages but never tenderly loved—matters to us. We know her type. It's not just that we expect her in movies about British monarchs (every year, it seems, another Elizabeth movie starring Blanchett or Helen Mirren). We demand her in our female leaders. We remember the Margaret Thatcher who told George H. W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War it was "no time to go wobbly." We revere, in retrospect, the second Queen Elizabeth who, in the wake of Princess Diana's death, stood behind her palace walls, the last Briton with a stiff upper lip. And we watch Hillary Clinton, a shrewd politician, always careful to keep her emotions hidden, as she seeks the highest office in the land.

Political observers, myself included, have wondered if all this concealing will hurt Clinton in a general-election campaign. But "Elizabeth" reminds us how hard it might be for Clinton to actually show her emotions off. Certainly we permit her less emotional range than was granted Elizabeth in her day. The Virgin Queen could marry herself "to England," subvert her feminine tenderness to the land she was charged with governing and be her country's mother and wife. "I am assured that the people of England love their queen," she tells one of her ministers in the film. "My constant endeavor is to earn that love." But in a democracy Hillary would have a hard time acting with similar assurance in displays of queenly love. She is still haunted, after all, by the ghost of "Saint Hillary," the First Lady of the early Clinton years who turned off Americans by acting as if she knew best.

Neither can Hillary give herself over to rage, Elizabeth's most powerful emotional tool. In the film Elizabeth is never so much The Queen as when she warns the Spanish ambassador, the agent of her enemy King Philip, that she is not to be trifled with. "I too can command the wind, sir," she warns. "I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me." Hillary too is quick to show her toughness (remember the way she chided Barack Obama in a primary debate when he suggested he would negotiate directly with dictators?). But she is dogged by the conservative caricature of her, the Angry Woman who throws lamps and seeks to destroy men, and so is careful never to appear too wrathful. On the campaign trail she is quick to soften after showing a little ire. "For 15 years I have stood up against the right wing," she said in a debate this summer. "So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

Still, Elizabeth had one key emotional weapon that Clinton might do well to use more freely: flirtation. The film suggests, rather implausibly, that through her feminine wiles and pointed sexuality Elizabeth harnessed Sir Walter Raleigh to heroically defend England against attack from the Spanish Armada. She rarely hesitates to infuse her monarchic power with a bit of feminine sexual charge. But public flirtation comes far less naturally to Clinton—whose experience in her husband's White House proves there is danger that comes when politicians demonstrate too directly that they too are sexual beings. But a little mild flirtation is a key tool for politicians of both sexes, and Clinton is certainly capable of it. Last week she joked that Republican attacks were flattering because "when you get to be our age, it's kind of nice to have all these men obsessed with you."

The emotional rule book in "Elizabeth" is complicated and hard to follow: flirt, rage, love a little but never, ever too much. Watching it, I wondered the same thing I always wonder when I watch candidates for the presidency putting themselves through the drudgery and the emotional starvation of a long, grueling campaign: is it really worth it? The film, and the Clintons, are reminders of all that gets bargained away in public life. At the end of "Elizabeth" the queen has defeated the Spanish Armada and governs over a golden age of prosperity on England's shores. Blanchett appears as a living statue in white body paint. Behind her pane of glass, a queen is victorious, ferocious—and utterly alone.