Hillary for President: No Joke
If you’re old enough to remember the beginning of the first Clinton Presidency, in 1993, you may remember a joke that circulated at the time. It went something like this: Bill and Hillary Clinton are driving near her home town. They stop to get some gas, whereupon Hillary recognizes the station attendant as a high-school boyfriend. After they drive off, Bill tells her, smugly, “See, if you’d married him, you’d be working at a gas station.” Hillary smartly replies, “If I’d married him, he’d be President.”
The humor of the joke lay in its recognition of the distinctive characteristics of Hillary Rodham Clinton, as she was still known back then: she was a political spouse who didn’t pretend to be apolitical, a professional woman who hadn’t shelved her own career to support her husband’s, an unapologetic possessor of a steely intellect who didn’t restrict herself to traditionally female spheres. While campaigning for the Presidency, Bill Clinton actively touted Hillary as a potential asset in government, telling supporters that his slogan might as well be “Buy one, get one free.” That Hillary was her husband’s equal in ability and acuity—if not, at the time, in political charisma—was a given. What was new was the open acknowledgement that a man as driven, intelligent, and ambitious as Bill Clinton might want a wife who was his equal in all those dimensions, rather than one who was a helpful, pliable, even decorative subordinate.
But the comedy of the gas-station joke also depended upon a deeper cultural assumption: that the closest Hillary was going to get to the Presidency was being married to a man who was President, not by inhabiting the role herself. If, during the 1992 campaign, some pundits were sufficiently impressed by Hillary’s mastery of policy to express the opinion that she should have been on the ballot instead of Bill, their saying so was a means of articulating admiration for Hillary, rather than describing a realistic scenario. Her Presidency was less plausible, even in humor, than the political ascendance of a gas-station attendant. Back in the early nineties, it felt like a tremendous advance in sexual politics that the nation had, at last, acquired a First Lady who—campaign-trail cookie-recipe posturing aside—didn’t have to pretend to be less formidable than she was. But Hillary Clinton’s Presidential candidacy, still less her Presidency, was imaginable only in an alternate universe.
It turns out that to arrive at that alternate universe, we simply had to wait: with her announcement this weekend, Hillary becomes the Democratic candidate presumptive, and the strongest contender in the entire Presidential field. All policies and positions aside, her anticipated nomination is the belated righting of a historical wrong: a feminist landmark within reach, almost a century after women achieved the vote in the United States, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, one year after the birth of Dorothy Howell Rodham, Hillary’s mother. Two women have represented the major parties on Presidential ballots before now, but only in the role of Vice-Presidential nominee: Geraldine Ferraro, in 1984, seconding Walter Mondale, and Sarah Palin, in 2008, alternately supporting and undermining John McCain. The Vice-Presidency is frequently a route to the Presidency itself; Hillary’s nomination would present the first opportunity for a woman to be installed in the top job without having to use that side door.
But Hillary has been in and out of the White House before, conducted by her husband. This means, inevitably, that her triumph would be a more ambivalent victory than that promised by the abstract idea—or ideal—of the first female President. What does it say to women that their first path to the Presidency is through marriage? What might it someday say to their daughters? For better or worse, President Obama, when running for office and when newly elected, offered a tabula rasa for the projection of hopes and aspirations; some of those dreams have turned out not to have been entirely unfounded. (Millions more Americans now have health insurance, for one thing.) Hillary Clinton, by contrast, reminds us that we’re still a long way away from gender equality. Her candidacy embodies the compromises and the qualifications that so frequently make a woman’s route to success more circuitous and perilous than those of her male peers.
“Compromise” or “Settle” makes for a less grabby one-word lapel button than does “Hope,” but such words capture an important aspect of Hillary’s political and domestic persona—one that, in the end, may be no less persuasive and inspiring to those female voters for whom Hillary’s ascent is cause for celebration. In a way, the path that Hillary has taken to arrive where she is—within striking distance of having the job which, two dozen years ago, seemed so beyond her—is a confirmation, not a repudiation, of what most women already know: that a goal is more likely to be arrived at incrementally than it is to be accomplished sweepingly. Once we have elected the first female President whose husband is a former male President, we can elect the first female President whose husband has never held elective office. Eventually, perhaps, we will elect the first female President who is married to a woman, or who isn’t married to anyone—although, admittedly, the alternate universe in which that last might happen still seems many years away. Meanwhile, did you hear the one about the time Bill and Hillary met a cocktail waitress in a bar just outside Hope, Arkansas?