02/26/2008 03:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Many Faces of Hillary Clinton

Oh, do we remember the White House days when Hillary Clinton was first lady and changed her hairdo constantly -- you never knew what face of Hillary you were going to see on a given day.

On the 2008 presidential campaign trail, the stakes are much higher, but it's the same story all over again in every news cycle. As a candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton's hair has stayed nicely in place, let's give her that, but voters have had to meet a dizzying array of her personas. Some Hillarys are better than others, and there's no telling which one will show up tonight at the final Democratic primary debate when she squares off with Sen. Barack Obama.

The latest incarnation of Hillary has traces of the Methodist camp ground preacher she probably was in another life. Sounding as loud as if she were leading a revival meeting, Clinton spoke of the sky opening, light coming down and a celestial choir singing, only to scoff at the notion that politics could create a perfect union. Politics is the pragmatic art of the possible, in other words: nothing more or less, compared to a naive idealist like Obama. This is the hardheaded, superior Hillary who knows better because nobody else (but Bill) has traveled the world, walked the halls of Washington, and seen what she has seen.

Speaking of Bill, he lent a note of Greek pathos to the yearlong drama. His part in the narrative was to be her righthand man at every stop along the stump. His vocal presence gave Hillary the confident air of a woman with a popular former president at her command, having completely conquered their marriage's pitfalls and pratfalls.

Yet even as Bill Clinton tried mightily to make up for his adulterous sins, he let his wife down -- again. He said something sloppy in South Carolina about the role of race in the primary, just as she was getting ready to dust off the hurt of losing the Iowa caucuses. That unfortunate media moment cast the Clintons in a different light and Hillary suddenly catapulted back to the role of the injured political wife. It took some of the shine out of her win in New Hampshire.

It also raised the question in voters' minds whether we want to watch many more years of the diverting Clinton psychodrama play itself out on the pages of history. They may need an audience more than we need to see another act.

In New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton effusively thanked supporters for helping her find her own "voice." That was one of the most curious lines of the yearlong campaign, because it seemed to acknowledge something deep down. To wit, the senator was saying she had not fully come out to voters, leaving doors of herself closed or silent, but now she was ready to get real. This is the Hillary that's getting better all the time, like the song says, ever since the day she graduated from Wellesley College. As the class speaker at her 1969 commencement, she had plenty of voice and things to say about perfecting the world and making society more "ecstatic."

Clinton's visions as a young woman are at least frank, and today nobody would doubt her sincerity and conviction on health care reform. But her public voice in the month since winning New Hampshire was all over the range: from thoughtful and classy to biting and harsh, all in a day's work. As her wounded campaign started tilting like the Titanic, the serenely inevitable Hillary has gone below the waves like the captain of that glorious ship, the one who said before the 1912 maiden voyage: "God himself could not sink this ship."

In the most recent debate, starkly different sides of Hillary showed up. On the one hand, she accused Obama of plagiarism, adding that he offered "change you can Xerox." That snipe did not go over well with the audience. Yet toward the end, she appeared to take a high road and said something that struck a gracious chord: that she was "absolutely honored" to be there with Obama. She repeated that twice and the two shook hands.

The warmth froze over quickly. Hitting a woman-of-the-people populist note over the weekend, she accused Obama of distortions of of her views worthy of the Republican rascal intriguer, Karl Rove. That's tough talk from a strong woman.

Maybe the real Hillary Clinton has arrived at last -- face, voice and all -- to give 'em hell.

Jamie Stiehm is a writer based in Baltimore.