No Girlfriend of Mine

One woman’s estrangement from Hillary Rodham Clinton
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Sometimes I imagine Betty Currie (remember her?) starting another long morning of her golden retirement. She pours a cup of coffee, glances at the headlines of the newspaper on the kitchen table, and then, with a sigh of infinite resignation, she cinches the belt on her dressing gown a little tighter, finds a plastic bag, and heads to the bathroom to clean the litter box of a former celebrity.

When I first heard, during the strange final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, that the first couple were going to jettison Socks, the family cat, I assumed that it was one of those weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, in this case one easily dispelled: a single photograph of the kitty happily curled up on a window seat in his new home, and that would be the end of it. But then, as so often happens with weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, the story turned out to be 100 percent true. Reporters asked Bill about it during a press conference, and he hemmed and hawed. As the final days passed by—which, as you may recall, included a newsy sluice of pardons and outrages, hardly a time when journalists had to invest minor incidents with greater importance—reporters couldn’t quite get their heads around the business with the cat.

In this hour of crisis, the official Socks the Cat Fan Club sent an inquiry to its namesake’s most stalwart champion. Hillary’s Senate office replied with a note—at once chilly and patronizing— suggesting, more or less, that they butt out.

In the annals of human evil, off-loading a pet is nowhere near the top of the list. But neither is it dead last, and it is especially galling when said pet had been deployed for years as an all-purpose character reference. All presidential pets become famous, but the national affection for Socks during his time in the White House was unexpected and politically miraculous. He did the impossible: He humanized the Clintons. Socks stood for Chelsea (whose cloistering lent her allure) and for something Hillary desperately wanted us to understand about herself: that no matter how powerful or successful she becomes, first and foremost, she’s a mom; that no matter how incomprehensible her marriage may appear to outsiders, at its deep center is the only imperishable bond a man and a woman can share—a child. Conveying these two simple facts during the long and punishing 1992 campaign had eluded Hillary, and by the time the family was crating up its belongings to move to the White House, even those of us who had helped punch their ticket thought they were odd ducks.

But then a group of photographers baited Socks with catnip outside the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, and the rest is history. They shot some adorable pictures, and by the next day Socks was a front-page cat. The vast group of Americans (schoolchildren, mothers, teachers, old folk, simpletons) who share a good-natured, apolitical enthusiasm for the particulars of White House domestic life—and who were suddenly high and dry with a first lady who didn’t bake cookies, a president with a trail of girlfriends, and a daughter who was rightly shielded from a vicious press—had finally, finally been given something to work with.

Hillary started taking Socks with her on personal appearances, and a cartoon version of him was installed on the White House Web site, so that children could take virtual tours of the building with Socks as their guide. And then, of course, there was Hillary’s crowd-pleaser, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets. The book showcases the way Hillary wanted to be seen as a first lady: not an aesthete like Jackie, not a shopaholic like Nancy, not a country-club dowager like Bar. Hillary wanted to be seen as warm, spontaneous to the point of being a little bit silly sometimes; someone who always has a twinkle in her eye whenever children are around. The book is, perforce, cloying, super-cute, and pun-riddled, and it would stand today merely as a curio if Hillary had—for once in her life—avoided her characteristic flaw. If only she had resisted the urge to drift past the homey anecdotes and family photographs, everything would have been fine. But, Hillary being Hillary, she had to turn the book into a lecture on pet care, and the person whose shining example we should all follow was none other than Hillary herself.

In Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, we are hectored never to give away a pet, always to regard one as an “adoption instead of an acquisition,” and to be forever on guard for its physical safety (cold comfort to Buddy, who had barely sniffed his first Chappaqua crotch before the poor beast ran off and got killed by a car, as had the Clintons’ previous dog, the much-loved but equally ill-tended Zeke). Hillary tells us that the Clintons “didn’t take on the responsibility of our pets lightly,” and more than anything, the reader is left with a vivid impression of Socks’s central position in the heart of the Clinton family: When they arrived in Washington, they brought with them from Little Rock their “family traditions, favorite pictures, and personal mementos to make the White House feel more comfortable.” But it was only when Socks appeared on the scene—bringing with him his “toy mouse”—that “this house became a home.” (Hillary’s literary exploitation of Socks continued long after she discarded him. On the second-to-last page of her memoir Living History, she offers a dreamy, after-the-ball portrait of her family savoring their last days in the White House: wandering down to the Children’s Garden one last time, Chelsea and Hillary admiring the handprints of former presidents’ grandchildren, Bill tossing the ball for Buddy, while Socks … “kept his distance.”)

Hillary’s insistence that we follow her example in pet ownership, when she should really be on Cat Fancy’s Most Wanted list, makes her a tiresome bore. But exploiting the emotions of good-natured people (including “many of the retired servicemen and women who live at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C.,” whose bravery and patriotism she honored by having them send out kitty-cat “greetings” to Socks’s correspondents)—well, that’s just another example of her three-decade-long drift from the girl she once was to the woman that circumstance and ambition have made her.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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