Hillary Clinton’s autobiography comes out barely a week after Martha Stewart is indicted for obstruction of justice and fraud related to alleged insider trading, and you still don’t believe in God? Two blond middle-aged icons of female pre-eminence, each virtually unique in the testosterone-drenched worlds of politics and business, are ruling the headlines and obsessing the talk shows at exactly the same moment–how likely is that? Obviously this is some kind of harmonic convergence intended to induce mass heart attacks at Fox News. It’s not just the sheer excitement–“Hil: Wanted to Wring His Neck”! “Martha’s Mug Shots”!–that’s raising pulses. It’s the fact that despite everything, millions of women insist on adoring them anyway.
I’ve written many a column criticizing Hillary Clinton for the rightward tilt of her politics–her support for welfare reform, capital punishment, “family values” and so on. I even made a catty remark about her hairband back in 1992, for which I’m truly sorry. Truth, moreover, compels me to admit that Living History, her mega-hyped memoir, has that unfortunate, processed-cheese, as-told-to taste. It’s the verbal equivalent of her Barbara Walters appearance: one long fixed, glazed smile under the pink lights. But none of that matters. People aren’t lining up by the thousands to purchase signed copies because they want to get the real scoop on tax policy or even Travelgate. They want to know if she really believed Bill when he told her there was nothing to the Monica story, how she felt when she finally learned it was true and why she stays with him. The answers to be found in her book are yes; she was really upset; and thanks to prayer and marriage counseling she was eventually able to move on.
Whether this is the whole truth is impossible for a stranger to know. Like Joe Klein, I tend to believe she really loved him–she writes in the book about her first impression of him as a “Viking” and lyrically describes his hands, his boundless energy, his fascinating conversation. I was ready to date him myself! She certainly wouldn’t be the first smart, straitlaced woman who fell for a sexy charmer and ended up, as the joke goes, believing what he told her instead of what she saw. Nor, on the other hand, would she be the first wife who decided to live with what she couldn’t change rather than throw away a relationship that was also a way of life. Or the first First Lady who put up a good front in public while quietly seething at home. I doubt the right-wingers going after Hillary for staying with Bill would have cheered if evidence of George Bush Sr.’s rumored infidelities had come to light and Barbara had abandoned him in his hour of need. Hillary must be the only woman the family-values crowd has ever castigated for sticking with her marriage. Just you try suggesting, though, that Pat Nixon was maybe not the most fulfilled woman in America, or that Laura Bush sometimes looks a little subdued, a little out of focus, and see how fast you get accused of being an East Coast elitist, slut and traitor.
For the right, Hillary’s book comes just in time. In the third year of the Bush Administration, it was beginning to look like conservatives might finally have to acknowledge that Bill Clinton is not President anymore. Now they can sink into a nostalgic delirium–ah, for the days of Whitewater, Morgan Guaranty, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Vince Foster and all the other horrors from which the Supreme Court rescued us in December 2000. Hillary’s book is handy, too, in helping Bill Kristol and his fellow talking heads brush aside pesky questions about the shifting rationales for invading Iraq, and those missing WMDs. Could Bush have been shading the truth? No, it was Bill Clinton who “lied to the American people.” Right, and about something so very important, too! In right-wing mythology, if Hillary knew about Bill’s women she is an ambitious schemer; if she didn’t, writes Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, she’s not fit for higher office: “Blinders are understandable in a wife, but could be a concern in a future president.” According to Alter, when Bush claimed an “imminent threat” from Iraq or said the “average” tax cut is $1,000 a year, “he is deceiving us, not himself,” a pettier crime. So if there’s one thing worse than lying to the American people, it’s believing your husband is telling the truth.
One hears so much from people who hate Hillary, one forgets that millions think she’s great, a self-made working wife and mother who actually managed to turn the routine subordinations–and, in her case, profound humiliations–of political wifehood into real power: from First Lady to senator! Martha Stewart offers the same contradictory blend of traditional femininity and modern feminism: She is a brilliant businesswoman, but she sells retro domesticity. Her fans seem to have no trouble integrating these two rather different visions of womanhood or believing that she’s been singled out for prosecution as a woman while Ken Lay walks free. Marthatalks.com, a website she set up to mobilize support, has received 7 million hits and features fervent e-mails thanking her for introducing graciousness and beauty into harried and humdrum lives. And why not? Martha never tells women they should quit their jobs in order to make apple pie from their very own organic orchard. She doesn’t say they’re ruining their kids and ought to work harder at sex. She just tells them a lot of neat stuff about, oh, slipper chairs and how to take the thorns off roses.
Martha’s reputation as a first-class bitch (on full view in Cybill Shepherd’s portrayal in a recent NBC movie) hasn’t put a dent in her cult, and that’s only fair. This is a nation that reveres Donald Trump, for heaven’s sake, who famously trashed his wife and has devoted his entire life to profiting off gambling and hideous buildings. Donald Trump, icon of manly capitalism, destroyed the beautiful Art Deco frieze on the Bonwit Teller building after promising to preserve it. That’s a lot worse than $45,000 worth of insider trading, in my view. True, Trump is a man, and successful men have always been allowed to be mean and worse than mean; only women have to be sweet, kind, gentle, modest, sexually circumspect and scrupulously honest 24/7 no matter what–even in the nasty worlds of politics and business.
Or they did until Hillary and Martha came along.