Belittled Woman

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

At some point along the way, Hillary Clinton became "poor Hillary" and it stuck.

She went up against a charmer who once made an audience cheer just by blowing his nose (poor Hillary), and she lost states and delegates and she bet on a filly that died (poor Hillary), and nobody cares that she won West Virginia because it's over, except she can't see it because she's . . .

"Poor Hillary," write the op-ed writers and the bloggers and the newspaper letter-writers. "Poor Hillary's done," writes a gleeful reader in Portsmouth, Va., on Mother's Day. "The Billstone Around Poor Hillary's Neck," reads a New York Daily News headline yesterday. The talk show host Bill Maher has used the phrase, and the occasional CNN anchor, and, of course, the conservative yakkers who like the pure, distilled schadenfreude of those two words.

"Poor Hillary," Sean Hannity said at one point during this never-ending primary. "Running out of money, couldn't pay her staff."

"Bless her heart," said his conservative guest.

There is something about that woman -- that woman! -- that refuses to bend, and something about a large portion of this country that despises her for it. The person who once conjured a vast right-wing conspiracy now refuses to exit a race she's almost surely lost, and it Drives. People. Crazy.

"Poor Hillary" is their response, an attempt at death by condescension. "Poor Hillary" means Clinton finally is being brought low (she is forever being brought low, isn't she?), the know-everything who tries so hard but never gets enough votes to be class president. Eons ago, the smart folks at Slate likened Clinton to Tracy Flick, the hyperactively ambitious teenager played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie "Election." And it's true; somewhere in our collective gray matter, Clinton is still wearing those schoolgirl headbands from when Bill first ran for president.

The phrase goes back to those days, actually. Its first-ever publication was in 1992 when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a story on "the newest allegations of infidelity that are plaguing Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton."

"He's got a pretty, smart wife and a nice little girl," said Andrea Evans, 19, a National Car Rental employee in Little Rock. "Poor, poor Hillary -- that's his wife. What's he need to be looking around for? He needs to be looking to solve this country's problems."

"Poor Hillary" speaks volumes about an old truth: Clinton's wounds have always defined her. The haters are always on the lookout for her comeuppance, and the lovers love her more for what she has endured. The women who turn out to see Clinton holler for her to stick it out, tell her they like her grit.

"She felt everybody was bashing poor Hillary," says an elderly supporter at Leisure World of Maryland, recalling how a friend founded a Clinton fan club back in 1992; and that's empathy, organizing to bash back, and there's a huge gulf between that and pity. Pity never got anyone elected. (Except in New Hampshire, where Hillary cried and won the state. Or so goes the Conventional Wisdom -- undermining poor Hillary.)

Hillary hate is something profound, something that may never be fully unraveled. It is her very name, so polarizing; it is Slick Willy and Vince Foster and Whitewater and that nickname "Shrillary" and her supposed unending ambition and . . . something else, something ancient. It is Hillary Clinton stretched like taffy, the photos you see of her on right-wing Web sites with her eyes all big and crazy:

Is it about her womanhood? Or is it about this woman? Is that a false distinction? ("Poor Hillary: right gender, wrong woman," goes the headline on the Web site of a Scottish newspaper, as if you can separate the two. But it's all mixed up. And you don't find too many references to "poor Johnny" or "poor Barry," even when their campaigns hit black ice.) Republican pollster Frank Luntz once said Clinton reminds certain men of their first wives. He probably should have said "mother-in-law," our modern-day version of the witch.

Anyway, so there she is, all bruised and ugly, this alternate version of Hillary Clinton. (The shrinks would say we despise in others what we fear most in ourselves. The shrinks talk a lot.) There she is, and then you see the real Clinton on TV this week after her West Virginia win. Brian Williams tries to lead her into an autopsy of her campaign, and she keeps coming back with that smile. She looks rested. She looks like she knows exactly what she's doing.

"Made of steel," is how John Edwards describes her Wednesday, just before he endorses Barack Obama.

"We'll know a lot more on June 4th," the candidate herself says, placid as a lap cat. "I don't believe in quitting. I don't believe in being pushed out."

Or being poor-Hillary'd out.

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