Hillary might just have the last word, after all

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, October 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — "We have concluded that Mrs. Clinton is an unusually promising talent." Now that is a new experience for us and for our national inkblot, otherwise known as first lady: three clear, unfreighted words — "unusually promising talent" — conferred Sunday by The New York Times in its editorial, "Hillary Clinton for the Senate."

We’ve heard Hillary Rodham Clinton called a lot of things since she burst onto the national scene nearly a decade ago. But the most revealing label was Rorschach test, from columnist Frank Rich in the Times Sunday magazine in June 1993. She has surely been that, calling up in each of us all the turmoil — the pain, hope, envy and resentment we feel, men and women alike — over how different things are for the two sexes today. So huge a transformation, so incompletely digested.

But a Rorschach test tells us about ourselves, nothing about the object of our observation. It’s there to set off our outpouring. Now the Times, judging her for herself, has found her an unusually promising talent. Talented she clearly is, and her talent is why she might win the New York Senate seat on Nov. 7.

Still, it would be something of a miracle. She’s running for the Senate from New York, never having run for office and never having lived in New York. New Yorkers have never elected a woman to statewide office. And her opponent is a handsome and likable moderate Republican congressman.

Against all these odds comes this person who sets off emotions like no one else in public life. I don’t mean just the venom that spews from dark corners. I mean openly, by apparently normal people such as the New York State Republican chairman who, in a fund-raising letter, called her "cold-blooded and hotheaded … abrasive and annoying, brash and bitter, calculating and scheming, distant and deceitful, polarizing and power-hungry, a fraud, a phony and a pretender."

Hillary hadn’t been first lady for a year before she’d been compared frequently to Lady Macbeth, Glenn Close’s character in "Fatal Attraction" and the Wicked Witch of the East. She was, we read, a feminazi, a dragon lady, an overbearing wife, an unelected consort and, of course, that label appropriate to any woman who so much as ties her own shoes in public: a lesbian.

A Wall Street Journal piece from January 1993, its accompanying drawing depicting Hillary with that trademark headband (let’s not get started on hair), was prescient: "Voters seem to sense that Mrs. Clinton is going to be a daring high-wire act, and they already are holding their breath as the drama begins to unfold."

Unfold it did: One day we’d see Hillary on the front page checking place settings for an official dinner. Next time, she’d be meeting with congressmen on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, as the Journal piece put it, "The question for Republicans is whether to begin attacking Mrs. Clinton now, as a way of getting at her husband, or allow her enough time to do damage herself." As it happened, both worked fine. Hillary’s big initiative, on health care, was a disaster. And the criticism swelled.

Occasionally, we’d still see the great lens of public observation sweeping across Hillary, trying to place her: a spiritual seeker here on the cover of The New York Times magazine, an emerging beauty there on the cover of Vogue. But the nation had delivered its verdict: We were not, despite some early efforts, going to stomach this aggressive woman in the White House.

So Hillary took to curbing her emotions, choosing her words with painstaking calculation and almost dropping off our charts. By October 1997, when a Washington Post reporter heard her in Buenos Aires deliver a rousing address, his wonderment at her "broad discourse on feminism" was apparent. Mrs. Clinton, his story concluded, "is often more outspoken abroad than at home."

Then, suddenly, she was famous again, this time as victim. And, after the scandal cooled, came the bombshell: her Senate campaign. Back in the early days of the administration, U.S. News and World Report had noted, "the Republican plan is to make ‘Hillary’ into a first-name-only bugaboo." Now, she is a first-name-only Senate candidate, the ultimate transformation.

But this is still Hillary, still the inkblot. So, while she talks public issues, we talk inner emotions: She should have left him. She shouldn’t be milking our pity. She’s deserting her first lady position. She should have waited.

The test goes on. But this time the inkblot may have the last word. It could be freeing for all of us.

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