The Hillary Dilemma

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By Liza Mundy
Sunday, March 21, 1999

"I'm going to drive. That's understood," says a dashing Ingrid Bergman in an early scene of Afred Hitchcock's 1946 spy thriller

scene of Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 spy thriller "Notorious," as she vamps an intelligence agent played by Cary Grant. Fascinated and repulsed by Bergman's sass, Grant gets in the car but then, in a bit of unmistakable symbolism, overpowers her and seizes the wheel. It's the beginning of a long and spirit-crushing journey: By movie's end, having endured emotional neglect at the hands of Grant and poisoning at the hands of the Nazi she was forced to marry, Bergman lies in bed, too weak to walk.

Only then does Grant, seeing her helpless and suffering, realize he loves her.

As happy endings go, this one is pretty ambiguous. But hardly more ambiguous than the recent stream of tributes to Hillary Clinton appearing in venues from Vogue to Vanity Fair to Newsweek. Hardly more ambiguous, for that matter, than the nationally televised moment, late in the president's January State of the Union address, when Bill Clinton paused to "honor" the first lady, taking advantage of the resulting applause to mouth the words "I love you." Surely there is something wrong with this picture: Here is Hillary Rodham Clinton, facing the two entities responsible for her greatest public humiliations -- Congress, which rejected her health care plan, and her husband, who had betrayed their marriage not once but serially -- and here they are, Bill Clinton and Congress, madly clapping.

They aren't the only ones. In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the first lady's national poll ratings are higher than they've been at any time since the 1993 inauguration. She's now ranked as the woman Americans most admire. Her popularity has, in turn, started a frenzied political conversation in which she's being hyped as the runaway favorite in a New York Senate race, should she decide to run.

What has she done to bring about this national change of heart? Nothing, apparently, except stoically endure. A nation that long regarded her as Glenn Close, the homicidal working woman in "Fatal Attraction," now apparently sees her as Anne Archer, the long-suffering wife who welcomes her husband back to the hearth. She's become a performance artist of pain, a vaudevillian, like someone who swallows swords or walks, unscorched, over hot coals. How much pain is she feeling? How much more can she take?

More to the point: How do we reconcile Hillary the strong-willed feminist leader with Hillary the mistreated wife? Here's how: "She's a woman who has made choices," declares her longtime friend Sara Ehrman, a few days after watching the State of the Union speech. "And her choices are her own."

Choice. The word recurs, mantra-like, in conversations with Hillary Clinton's friends and colleagues. "She has always talked about women having the freedom to make choices and to choose the path that seems right for them," says Mandy Grunwald, a political consultant and confidante of the first lady. "And that that should be the goal: that women should be free to work all day, stay home all day, free to have children, not have children . . . To her, that is the ultimate kind of liberation, it's the freedom to be whoever you want to be."

Choice is also the word invoked by leaders of the women's movement as they try to make sense of Hillary Clinton -- her silence, her suffering, her decision to stay with her husband, her newfound popularity -- and how all these things affect her status as a feminist leader. Because it seems fair to say that they do, or should, affect that status. Just as it's gotten a lot harder to characterize Bill Clinton as a friend of the working girl, so too has it become more problematic to lionize Hillary as a feminist standard-bearer. This, remember, is a woman who campaigned with her husband on a platform that emphasized women's equality. During her tenure, she has championed women's rights in venues from Beijing to Kampala. Yet she -- of all people! -- has stayed in a marriage that, whatever blessings it has brought her, has also brought unimaginable pain. In doing so, she has stuck with a man who, in the course of his womanizing, is alleged to have harassed and even sexually assaulted other women. Hillary has endured not only her pain but theirs.

How to accommodate such contradictions?

Choice, apparently, is the one concept strong enough to dissolve the inconsistencies and explain the devolution of Hillary Clinton's public persona. It's the ideal that permits her supporters to accept her dual role as one of the world's most articulate advocates of women's rights, and, at the same time, a wife who has endured months -- years, decades -- of emotional mistreatment.

"When Lee Hart did not leave Gary Hart," allows Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women, "a fair number of women just wanted her to leave him flat." But Hillary Clinton, Ireland suggests, is different. She is a woman who has made most of the money in her family, a woman who presumably knows what she's doing, a woman who in some ways symbolizes the mature understanding of all '60s activists. "People make complicated lives," Ireland reflects, and Hillary has chosen to be where she is. "The feminist movement," she points out, "has always been about women's ability to make their own choices."


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