For her last hurrah as a presidential contender yesterday, Hillary Clinton repackaged herself yet again, this time as a vocal and thoughtful feminist. I like this Hillary. Where has she been the last six months?
She began her campaign as the Rightful Heir and Chosen One, imagining that this would be enough. It seemed the safest road to go since she wouldn't have to actually say much of anything that was challenging or controversial or even substantive. Then this new guy Barack Obama showed up acting like a real person, and it was obvious that some of the powder she had been keeping dry would have to be put into use, so she repackaged herself as Ms. Ready-to-Be-Commander-in-Chief-From-Day-One.
Though Hillary as Chosen One was rather bland, Ms. Ready-to-Be-Commander-in-Chief-From-Day-One struck me as a step backwards in a country where the militarism of Bush-Cheney has been the order of the day for eight years. When that proved yet again to be insufficient, she again disappeared into wherever it is she goes to transform and emerged as Working Class Hero.
This was an interesting twist. In general, I prefer Working Class Heroes to Commander in Chiefs. What was remarkable was how well she sold it, given that this makeover coincided with the release of her and her husband's tax returns which showed that they had been piling millions upon millions of dollars in the bank, and nothing in her actual economic program had changed from the days when she had pointedly sought to define herself as the corporate-friendly alternative to the populist program John Edwards. The main take-home I got from watching this Hillary tear through Appalachia was that she and her husband really were an extraordinary team of politicians to be able to pull that off so successfully.
But the nomination still seemed to be slipping away, so she went back into her phone booth and emerged as the Lady-With-the-Most-Balls. This was the period when people around her started making laudatory statements about her testosterone level, when James Carville helpfully noted that she had so many testicles that if she gave one to Obama they both would have two. This was plainly pathetic. But then she piled her promise to "obliterate Iran." That was where she really lost me. Could I ever vote for someone for Commander-in-Chief-From-Day-One of the largest and most destructive arsenal the world has ever seen, who has no problem promising to obliterate other countries in order to win votes?
Finally, with the race over, yesterday we were presented with the kinder, gentler Hillary. And you know what? I liked her. She spoke passionately .- about things she had not mentioned during all those previous incarnations! She spoke as the worthy spokeswoman for gender equality. She radiated confidence and appeal. She called us to our better selves. She made us believe that we could move past the divisions that have hobbled us. . (Is this starting to sound familiar?) "Yes, we can!" she proclaimed.
"Hillary," I shouted back, "where have you been? This country is in dire shape! The planet is in dire need! The moment is critical! We need a woman like you! Have you ever considered running for president?"
What are we to make of this latest makeover? Has Hillary fallen victim to Al Gore Syndrome, that crippling malady in which Democratic presidential candidates get so trussed up and straight-jacketed by their advisors that we don't find out what appealing people they are until they lose and finally get to be themselves again? Is this the end of the play, when the actress who has played several different characters over the course of the drama emerges for her curtain call, and the revelation of her out-of-character demeanor serves to further highlight her abilities to convincingly convey characters with which the real actress has little in common? Or is the newest Hillary as phony as all the rest, leaving us ultimately in the dark as to who this woman really is? Or is there are real Hillary at all? Has four decades of full bore political life left her without a real Hillary there? Or are all her personas real in some sense or another, different manifestations of a complex and ambitious politician?
How would I know? How would any of us know? What I do know is that I hope this Hillary stays with us. She could do so much more for her party and her country than all the other Hillaries.
The contrast between the stream of Hillary makeovers and the steady course of the political persona cultivated by Barack Obama has been central to her defeat. From his early work as a community organizer, through two autobiographical books, right through to his acceptance speech, Obama has been the same political person, a person with an uncanny ability to convey a sense of staying real even in the midst of the American political circus.
Maybe his success has convinced Hillary that it is OK now to come out of the closet as a compassionate, progressive, liberal political leader. Like that moment when you have walking down the street in the rain with your umbrella over your head lost in thought, and then you look up and see that the guy walking toward you has no umbrella at all and is not getting wet.
Hillary, it has stopped raining. You can take down that umbrella.