Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, I ran into Hillary Clinton outside an armory in Manhattan that served as a sort of clearing house for tragedy, where people brought pictures of the missing and checked for information. She talked for a long time, very freely, about Washington politicians who had always hated New York but were turning out to be helpful in the crisis.
The conversation was memorable not for the information but for her manner. For all her intensity about the city, Clinton was more relaxed than I’d ever seen her while chatting with a member of the press. She was operating in a new space – for the moment, no one really cared that she was a senator who’d gotten elected from a state she’d never lived in, the survivor of the best-known political sex scandal in American history, the former first lady who ran for office while her husband was still president. The country had temporarily lost interest in celebrities, and she seemed to find her relative insignificance liberating.
When Clinton is nominated for president later this week in Philadelphia, we'll be talking about her as the first woman to get a crack at running the country. But she’d also be one of the most famous people ever to get the honor. In America, she’s been part of the backdrop of our lives for nearly a quarter of a century. We’re watching a very familiar face making a brand-new mark on history.
In 2000, when she first ran for the Senate, the fact that New York had never sent a woman to the Senate was an afterthought, given all the other stuff there was to consider. “It was the first time I’d been a candidate and the first time I’d lived in New York,” she recalled in a phone interview. The very idea of that race was incredible – maybe outrageous. And it didn’t begin well. She had trouble with the carpetbagging issue. At one point, Clinton attempted to woo the locals by claiming that although she’d been brought up as a Chicago Cubs fan, she had always rooted for the Yankees because people need a team in each league. This was contradictory to every law of Midwestern fandom, which holds that no matter what else you do, hating the New York Yankees is a central principle of life.
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Then she turned everything around. Went on an endless “listening tour” of such anti-glamorous, earnest wonkiness that reporters who trailed after her from town to town began to develop nervous tics and drinking issues. But it was the perfect strategy. By the end, she had worn down her aura of outsiderdom. And she seemed to be enjoying herself. While all politicians at her level have stupendously sturdy egos, Clinton does appear to get a certain relief being in venues where the focus is on somebody else.
That year on the trail, Clinton wore the very same thing almost every day, a black pantsuit with a bright blouse. It seemed like a stroke of genius – proof that female candidates could eliminate the endless clothing commentary by simply doing what guys do and wearing interchangeable outfits. Later, of course, she’d go back to her romance with jewel tones, and by 2008, reporters would sometimes post the color of the day at the back of the press plane. I asked her once why she’d given up the original outfit plan and she said she just got bored.
The thing I remember most about those trips from Oneonta to Cooperstown to Horseheads – besides the tedium – was the intense reaction she got from middle-aged women, who yelled and waved and begged for autographs. They were the ones who remembered what it was like when the newspapers had separate “help wanted” columns for men and women, who needed a male co-signer when they got their first car loans. I suspected that a lot of them, like me, still had credit cards in their husbands’ names because that was just the way things worked when they first began to charge stuff at Macy’s or use American Express.
And there was something else. Hillary Clinton represented the possibility of a second act. The country was full of women who had come of age with the women’s revolution, who had tried to have it all, raising children while having good – but maybe not spectacular – careers. Now there was the about-to-retire first lady, in her new persona, suggesting they might be able to start a whole new episode in life. Driving around through upstate New York, Clinton was in the home territory of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had broken the old rules about staying home, rearing the kids and then retiring to a rocking chair.
Stanton in particular argued that instead of the end, middle age could be a jumping-off point for adventure. You could do all the things you weren’t able to do when the children were young – you could travel, make speeches, start newspapers, lead rallies. You could do things no women had done before in the public arena because you looked mature and trustworthy and people could see you had paid your dues. The prospect was so exciting, women began writing paeans to menopause as a time for “superexaltation.”
OK, none of that specifically came up during the listening tours. But I swear it was there in the background.
When the campaign was over, Clinton was in fact elected the first woman senator from New York, although she says she was “too busy learning about dairy compacts and watersheds” to think much about the feminist-history angle. Even when she ran for president in 2008, she didn’t usually make it a specific campaign theme. But gender was on her mind. She frequently told audiences that her mother had been born before women had the right to vote. And when her chances of winning got increasingly slim, she’d complain, in private, that some Obama people seemed to think she was going to automatically get out of the way and defer to what the guys wanted. “I’m not going to tell my daughter, ‘Oh, I quit, because I’m the girl and they’re all being mean to me,’” she said at one point.
Over the last eight years, Clinton has grown more comfortable stressing the idea of becoming the first woman to serve as president. She thinks it really came into focus after she lost in 2008 and made that speech about putting 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.
“This time, I decided I’d be more explicit,” she said, and “make it part of the campaign.”
Because this is a story about Hillary Clinton, you know this upbeat resolution is going to be followed by a problem. Young women are not universally crazy about the first-woman thing. Some just see her as an imperfect candidate. For others, it’s because the whole gender thing seems like yesterday’s news. “There aren’t as many overt questions about ‘Can a woman do it? Is it something the country is ready for?’” Clinton acknowledged.
That’s probably true, and if it is, she deserves a lot of the credit. You can argue the pros and cons of Hillary Clinton’s character, or her potential to change the nation, or her position on trade policy. But you can never take away the fact that she was the one who made the idea of a woman becoming president so normal that many young women are bored by it.
Clinton comes out of a very specific zone of U.S. high school culture in the middle of the 20th century – the girls behind the homecoming float-building committee. (She tells a story in her autobiography about being told as a teenager that she was “really stupid” to think she could be senior class president, losing the election and then agreeing to run the committee that did all the behind-the-scenes work.) She drew a terrible straw in 2008, when she had to run against a guy who was not only a making-history candidate himself, but also clearly a member of the prom king sector. Now she’s pitted against the rich kid who throws wild parties when his parents are out of town.
The Republican convention last week made it clear how vicious this campaign is going to be – the only real platform appeared to be the desirability of locking up Hillary Clinton, and she was blamed for everything from ISIS to the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls. Donald Trump painted a picture of a wrecked, emasculated America in a dystopian world created by Obama-Clinton malfeasance. We don’t know yet whether Clinton can counter forcefully with a sunnier vision. What we do know is that she won’t be cowed.
Whatever her defects, she is a candidate with a very long and event-filled history of toughing things out, who finds solace in stupendously hard work and in doing her homework. She’s one of the best-known people on the planet, but she can happily spend a day listening to complaints about watershed pollution or flying halfway around the world to sit through a conference on sustainable development.
When she was still secretary of state, I asked Clinton about another presidential campaign and she waved the idea aside. Her future plans, she said, involved sleeping and exercising and traveling for fun. “It sounds so ordinary, but I haven’t done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired,” she said.
She may never find out.