Hillary’s girlfriend-to-girlfriend moment was awkward because if she wanted to talk that way she would have to be willing to let us women in on the big, underlying struggle of her life that is front and center in our understanding of who she is as a woman. Her husband’s sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest—and most womanly—ideals and convictions, for the Clintons’ political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible. To call her husband a philanderer is almost to whitewash him, for he’s used women far less sophisticated, educated, and powerful than he—women particularly susceptible to the rake’s characteristic blend of cajolery and deceit—for his sexual gratification. In glossing over her husband’s actions and abetting his efforts to squirm away from the scrutiny and judgment they provoke, Hillary has too often lapsed into her customary hauteur and self-righteousness, and added to the pain delivered upon these women.
I’m 45 years old—not young, but hardly old, either. Yet I can vividly recall being informed by more than one schoolteacher that the reason America was a great country was that any boy, even one of the unprepossessing ones in our own classroom, could grow up to be president. It never occurred to me to think of that as an unfair supposition. Obviously, there were certain things a woman simply couldn’t be: She couldn’t be a king, or an astronaut, or the American president. That we could move, in the space of a few decades, from a civic life in which women’s exclusion from national political office was an absolute article of faith, unthinkingly promulgated by female schoolteachers, to one in which we may very well have a female president in two years, is an astonishing and marvelous thing.
Recently, on David Letterman, Hillary said that she has been touched by the number of parents across the country who bring their young daughters out to see her, and it was an image that caught me off guard with its loveliness. Clearly, in some authentic corner of her soul, Hillary does care a great deal about girls, and clearly to her and to many women of her generation, this is almost the point of the entire campaign: to break through, to win the final battle of a war that has been so hard-fought, so grim, so difficult.
Why, then, are so many of the most liberal and educated women ambivalent about Hillary? Perhaps it’s because when they get excited about the notion of a woman president, it’s not because they merely want to settle an old score. It’s because, to them, to imagine a superpower that is shaped not around men’s values but around women’s—a superpower that puts caring for the weak and the vulnerable above everything else—is to imagine a world that is much better than the current one. But because Hillary long ago attached her ideals and political destiny to Bill Clinton’s, she has of necessity made herself complicit—in ways that go far beyond the traditional role of first lady and candidate’s wife—in all sorts of unsavory actions, including the way he treated vulnerable women.
What remains of the old Hillary, the one I would have followed anywhere, are the worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband. In short, to get excited about Hillary is not to get excited about how a woman can change the world, but rather to endorse the way a certain kind of man—over time, and holding her hostage not only by her ambition but by the love she has for a child whose home she desperately didn’t want to destroy—can diminish the very best of a woman.