In the White House: A woman’s place in politics

Moira Rayner, University of Western Australia

Hillary Rodham Clinton Living History Hodder Headline, 2003 (352 pp). ISBN 0-74725-515-0 (hard cover) RRP $43.95.

Too many women
In too many countries
Speak the same language.
Of silence

Hillary Rodham Clinton used this poem, written by an Indian schoolgirl and given to her on one of her ‘symbolic’ President’s-wife visits to the subcontinent in 1995, to make a speech and a point: her deep belief that women’s issues are not marginal, and that they must be fully integrated into government policy. ‘Silence is not spoken here’, is one chapter in her memoir: paradoxically, the real voice of Hillary Rodham—the ‘Clinton’ appeared when the wife of the Governor of Arkansas added it to the maiden name she had retained and under which she practised law, to mollify her husband’s potential electors—is not heard in her personal memoir.

What we get in Living History is an instant-coffee, offend-nobody blend packaged by ghost-writers, rather than the espresso I would expect from this smart, sharp virago intacta if she were not in mid-political career. We know there is a different Hillary from the carefully coiffured and confident First Lady on the dust jacket, not just because of the photographs of ‘bad-hair’ Hillary with coke-bottle glasses and a cheesy grin from her college and pre-presidential days, but from what others say of her.

Garry Wills, for example, reviewing Living History in the New York Review of Books, says Hillary Clinton’s quality as a raconteur and raucous laugher are uncharacteristically muted in ‘her’ book. He had heard far more mordant anecdotes than the anodyne versions served up in the memoir, and knew a Hillary who was spontaneous, sensitive, passionate, compassionate and mocking—to the point of unconsciously mimicking the accents of others whether they be client, interviewer, patron or—notoriously—subject of a joke or a debate. When she was defending her Bill from his first allegations of sexual misconduct, Mrs Clinton unconsciously slipped into a Southern drawl while saying she was ‘not some little woman like Tammy Wynette, standing by her man’, (she meant, she says, the song not the singer, but copped a hammering all the same).

But what could be expected from a woman who was until very recently not only America’s First Lady—its closest approximation to a ‘queen’—but a target of the right-wing press, a very publicly humiliated wife of a ‘great man’ with a taste for trash and risk-taking, and a Democrat Senator? Censorship just means packaging material to avoid giving offence, in the ‘public interest’. It depends, of course, on who defines the public interest—Hillary Clinton was outraged that Chinese officials scissored or softened many of her criticisms of China’s policy in Living History. (She comments on the civil liberties crackdown after Tiananmen square and the government’s efforts to gag women delegates from non-government organisations by isolating them from the ‘official’ Beijing Women’s Conference.) Even her guardedly critical remarks (about forced abortions) in her own address to the Beijing Conference were censored.

This President’s wife already knew how hard it is for a woman’s voice to be heard in politics. All First Ladies are supposed to have at least their husband’s ear if not their exclusive attention, but first-term President Clinton erred when he appointed his wife to do a serious job, right after he took the oath of office. Neither the American public nor its social and political establishment was willing to make the best—or any—use of what he offered as ‘two for the price of one’. By the end of 1994, Hillary Clinton may still have been her husband’s principal health care adviser and an active influence for welfare and other reforms in Washington, but she had been sidelined by his own administration after the failure of her health care reform project in 1994. She took responsibility for that failure, because, as she writes, ‘I underestimated the resistance I would meet as a First Lady with a policy mission’.

Hillary Clinton had broken a great taboo that has survived more than a century of feminism and the whole of the constitutional history of the United States—the only Constitutional amendment to have failed was the ‘equal rights’ one. Being seen, as a woman, to have real power is to invoke Furies. And they came. Though carefully free of self-pity or whining, Hillary Clinton’s story of her years in the White House is the tale of a hunt as told by the quarry.

The President’s cigar is the real reason people have been buying this book.

Of course a woman like Hillary would have the guts to take on and try to deliver long-overdue health program reform, after all those years of public endeavour and achievement and with such a close working political relationship with the man she undoubtedly loved—and probably still loves—especially now his head rested (uneasily) under its republican crown. And a woman like Hillary, with the perfect vision of hindsight, can say in 2003 that it failed because they ‘tried to do too much too soon’ (it was ambitious, to seek success within months of the inauguration); but that she felt a personal responsibility too, for her own mis-steps, for failing to understand the nuances of ‘Washington’ politics (and her own Party’s). But it is also true that her failure led to her becoming a ‘lightning rod for political and ideological battles … and a magnet for feelings … about women’s choices and roles’.

The price of the health reform failure was Hillary Clinton’s ‘demotion’ to the standard position of First Ladies—influence rather than power—but it was far more than that. It was the far right’s reason and excuse to rally around Newt Gingrich, which led to the establishment of a hostile Congress for the balance of the Clinton term, and the frustration of most of its plans. Hillary Clinton’s ‘ambition’ was the justification for suggesting an unwholesomeness, a ‘witch-like’ taint to the whole of the Clinton administration agenda. A clever woman’s leadership of a complex health reform proposal in a political culture built to accommodate the camaraderie of men was easily depicted as against the natural order of things, and ‘wrong’—much more than, say, JFK’s appointment of his brother Robert as Attorney General and his drive for a civil rights reform agenda. The forces against their initiatives were similarly obsessive, and lethal in intent.

Hillary Clinton, guilty of the unsuitability of being both born female and her own person despite being married, found that the scent of her own and her husband’s affairs—business and personal—was to be pursued through thickets by a pack of obsessively ideological, political and journalistic hounds and by a prurient and evidently partisan watchdog, the ‘special investigator’ Kenneth Starr. In her time in the White House, she endured a Grand Jury, the death of her father and her mother-in-law, the loss and even deaths of friends, including the devastating suicide of their friend, Vince Foster, and the President’s predilection for quickies with plain, needy women.

The President’s cigar is the real reason people have been buying this book, yet the ‘Monica’ story is its most unsatisfactory part. It comes late; says nothing we did not know or think we knew, and the name, Monica Lewinsky, is never mentioned and does not even appear in the index. Was Hillary Clinton humiliated? Yes. Did she know? Well, she tells us she knew nothing of the affair until the last minute—but there are many hints (‘more to the affair’) and allusions to her husband’s demons and their childhood origins, if you look for them.

Hillary Rodham was hauled up anti-Communist and strongly Republican.

As a feminist, it is ethically difficult for one woman to attack another, and perhaps that is one reason for her reticence on Ms Lewinsky, and Gennifer Flowers, and Paula Yates, and all of the others. Ethical authors and writers who need to preserve ongoing relationships they value or need think of the consequences of expressing a view. Yet I was left with a suspicion, no more, that a coiffed head was turned—willingly—away, and that the real damage done to the marriage by the President’s belated and forced admission of guilt and dishonesty was not so much the infidelity, or many infidelities; nor the lies and evasions and half-truths, but rather the banality of the acts that will overshadow all else, and the consequence: exposing his child, as well as his best friend and political partner, to the unwanted sympathy of strangers.

Women’s grasp on power is less confident than a man’s. Our important relationships are influenced by structures in the institutions of family, school, College, workplace and less so in the political world, but particularly in our intimate relationships, and the power that is contained within them, and within the home.

The memoir is that of a strong woman, and strong women are almost always tired beyond belief. It is extraordinary that, when the last term ended, with her husband avoiding impeachment more by luck than good management, Hillary Rodham Clinton decided to run for the Senate. Perhaps there was an explicit agreement about ‘turns’, or perhaps it was a decision driven by the failure of her husband’s endeavours.

The most interesting part of Living History, to me, lies in the childhood of this woman, and understanding the effects of the privileged, family-solid, and soundly Republican childhood she had. Hillary Rodham had a strong, understanding, loving, and supportive father, who, along with her not-so-fortunate mother, who had been an abused and abandoned child, is credited with giving her the confidence to try anything.

Hillary Rodham was hauled up anti-Communist and vigorously Republican. She was a young Barry Goldwater supporter and lobbied for Republican senators, but as she travelled through her College experiences, in the 1960s, something shifted, and so did she. She changed sides. She publicly challenged a Republican senator she had once campaigned for, because he derided student protesters. She wrote a thesis on the radical activist, Saul Alinski. She embraced feminism and became an advocate of the rights of the child, and then she became a partner in a prestigious law firm—and ran pro bono cases for battered women and mental patients and children. She hesitantly married a handsome, charismatic but poor Democrat with political ambitions and an unhappy childhood, too, and formed what was clearly a politically and personally passionate partnership with a man whose promising presidency was to end in notoriety, to whose career she put her own in second place.

The book is widely described as a disappointment, but it is not if a reader approaches it as a preliminary document written by a highly intelligent human being who may just possibly have a chance to become the first woman president of the United States.

There are few of the human revelations we long for: her husband’s other infidelities and the feelings of grief and loss she must have felt when old friends of her advocacy years reproached her or walked away over the Clinton welfare compromises—the experience of all who attain high public office after political activism. Loss of friendships is especially poignant for women, to whom women’s friendships are often vital. A cool sorrow is expressed when pragmatic choices and changes to the welfare program lost Hillary’s valued long term friendship with the great children’s advocate, Marian Edelman. It must have been worse than that. Nor is there anything in this book about how Hillary Clinton felt as it became suddenly obvious that the young intern who ‘flashed’ at the President had also revealed to the world, as well as his wife, that he was a liar, a sleaze, and a user.

The voters of the United States are afraid of electing intelligent leaders.

Hillary Clinton does not give more than superficial insights into the machinations of international politics (but plenty of menus) or into the failure of the administration of which she was such an involved member. That failure, and the right wing alliance that fed on hatred of Hillary, not only virtually defeated the Clinton presidency but managed to achieve the most supremely stupid President in the history of the United States, the militarisation of the US economy and of ‘civil’ society, and the undoing of most of what Clinton achieved. Her appearance at the end of the ‘golden age’ of democracy in the United States, puts in stark relief the decision of the people of California to elect Arnold Schwarzenegger—pro choice, pro gay rights, pro women’s rights, and serial sexual harasser—as Governor of the fifth largest economy in the world. The voters of the United States are afraid of intelligent leaders. They want someone like themselves.

Garry Wills remarked ‘there would be no point for a woman still in the midst of her political career to stir up old animosities, re-fight battles, attach blame to possible allies in the future’ (2003). But there is a point in Hillary Rodham Clinton, future presidential candidate for the Democrats, documenting her hopes, their aspirations, the dignity that can accompany ‘failure’ and the strength that can be born from betrayal.

In 1969, as a student, Hillary Rodham told the man who had been ‘her’ choice of Republican senator just three years before, that women have every right to protest when they are not satisfied with decisions being made on their behalf: that if we did not like what we find, and are disappointed by the gap between our expectations and reality, we should not be satisfied with the best intentions or powerful hold of those in authority.

This is, despite its imperfections, a significant book because women in politics are significant. Living History is the story of a clever woman who had the capacity to rule, not just side by side with her husband but, when both his party and the people’s representatives rejected her role, was willing to bide her time, bite her tongue, be a ‘good wife’, and then grab the ball and run with it. This is the story of someone whom 44 per cent of the national electorate favours as the next Democrat president, someone who, I reckon, just might go for the Democrat nomination next year, because a woman might be ‘too old’ to challenge in far-off 2012. Only a bloke with Alzheimer’s disease could seem to be ‘the President’ in his seventies.

It would have a nice dynastic ring to it: President Clinton, the second. The better half.


Wills, G. 2003, ‘Lightning Rod’, New York Review of Books, vol. 50 no. 13. [Online], Available:

Moira Rayner is a Senior Fellow at the Law School, University of Western Australia. She was a hearings Commissioner for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commissioner for Equal Opportunity in Victoria and (acting, 2002) Western Australia, where she is an Anti-Corruption Commissioner. She is author of Rooting Democracy—Growing the Society We Want (with Jenny Lee, Allen & Unwin 1997) and The Women’s Power Handbook (with Joan Kirner, Viking, 1999). Moira Rayner is writing the biography of Joan Kirner for Hodder Headline.