Loving to Hate Hillary

By Richard Cohen
Saturday, March 25, 2006; 12:00 AM

In order to understand what's going on with Hillary Clinton, it helps to recall a woman who lost her head and therefore her life in 1793: Marie Antoinette. She is probably best remembered as the spoiled princess-cum-queen who said, "Let them eat cake" -- a remark (the "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" of its day) that would have shown how callous and out of touch she was, if she had ever said it. She did not.

In her own time, though, it was not merely what she supposedly said that defamed her and made her so unpopular, it was also her alleged behavior. She was manufactured into an Austrian-born slut who, as Stefan Zweig put it in his classic biography, was (falsely) "guilty of every crime, every form of moral corruption, every perversion." It was necessary to have someone like her to embody the greed and corruption of the upper classes. It was necessary, in fact, to have a woman because male sexuality is, let's face it, not all that interesting. Contrast her, in fact, with her husband. Louis XVI was king and he, too, died on the guillotine but he, sad fellow, is mostly forgotten.

My feminist credentials have been impeached of late, but whatever I am, I am struck by the Marie Antoinette-ish treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton. More than 30 books have been written about Clinton, some of them as vituperative and ugly as any written about the late Queen of France. They have questioned Hillary's honesty, sexuality, parenting, wifing and just about everything else. Just as Marie came to personify all that was wrong with the aristocracy, so Hillary has come to personify all that is wrong with Bill, the Democrats, liberals, working women, independent women and women of a certain kind -- which is any kind you don't happen to like. No man could possibly match her in that department -- or departments.

It is, of course, Hillary's very wifeyness that titillates. All wives are mysterious to others (even to their husbands, I suspect) since their relationships to their men are not based on merit, as we know it, or patronage, as we know it, but on love and sex (at first), children (after a while) and then something else. Since we do not know our own marriages, we cannot know anyone else's. This engenders endless speculation about the distribution of power and the importance of pillow talk. (Somehow, it's OK for the unelected Karl Rove to advise Bush, but if Laura did it, some people would go nuts.) Did Nancy Reagan actually tell Ron what to do? What about Eleanor Roosevelt -- especially Eleanor? She was even more vilified than Franklin and all she ever did was go down into a coal mine, invite Marian Anderson to sing on the Mall and make some speeches in that high, squeaky voice of hers. Hardly worth hating, you'd think. But, oh, she was certainly hated.

Hillary, of course, is a very famous and very mysterious wife. We need not enumerate the reasons. They were more or less impeachable. Did she know? How could she not have known? Was she complicit? Is she an enabler? And now that she is a public official in her own right, even more mystery attaches to her. Who is she? What, exactly, are her politics? Is she a Cubs or a Yankees fan?

It's true, of course, that Hillary is widely considered a presidential candidate and so a certain amount of attention is warranted. In the last month alone, though, The New York Times has mentioned her about 60 times compared to 45 for her more senior colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer, the uncrowned (but undisputed) heavyweight champion of publicity until Clinton came along. Some of the Times' stories are merely about her existence -- they say little more than that -- and in this they are similar to those in other papers. It's obvious some people think that Hillary sells newspapers, although as we all know, nothing does anymore.

Some scrutiny of a possible president, even a mere senator, is expected, even required. But for one person to be so loved, so hated, and of such compelling interest -- so much more a celebrity than, say, John McCain -- suggests that more than politics is involved. Like Marie Antoinette, Hillary has emerged as the repository of so many fears, so much dread, such aspirations -- so much good and bad -- that we have to look past her office or her ambitions and suggest, strongly, that something deeply Freudian is at work. It was Freud, after all, who spoke for all men (and many women) by asking, "What do women want?" Now -- some fear, others hope -- we may finally have the answer.

The White House.

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