The Nine Lives of Hillary Clinton

From Goldwater Girl to Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton’s changing incarnations have defined her.

Apparently, America’s worst kept secret will soon be blown: Hillary Rodham Clinton is about to run for president again. Surprisingly, despite years of buildup, even key Clintonites admit “they need to reintroduce Hillary to America.” If Bill Clinton were running for the third term he wishes he could seek, he would need little reframing. The Bill Clinton of 1992 mostly remains the same roguish, raffish, sophisticated, seductive politician and visionary we see—and many miss—today. But, as “Hillaryland” contemplates yet another Hillary makeover, her earlier incarnations reveal why she has needed nine political lives—and counting.

In going from a 1960s’ Goldwater Girl to America’s first serious female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton has embodied the sexual revolution’s cultural, political, and social upheavals. Attitudes about women’s roles have clashed repeatedly and changed dramatically. In Living History—her White House memoir—Clinton has made Hard Choices—her State Department memoir—regarding policy matters, her own identity journey, and her search for an appealing image.

The feminist scholar Cheryl Van Daalen-Smith laments that women feel compelled to be like chameleons, “other-defined not self-defined.” As the ultimate political wife turned career politician, Hillary Rodham Clinton has needed to be “ultra-adaptive,” and it shows.

Almost since her birth in 1947, to Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, Hillary Rodham Clinton has confronted the modern woman’s dilemma: how to find feminine fulfillment while thriving as an equal in what remains a man’s world. Raised in her Father Knows Best family in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois, supporting Barry Goldwater’s 1964 candidacy made perfect sense.

As The Beatles and The Mod Squad eclipsed Ozzie and Harriet, her Methodist upbringing—and her youth minister Donald Jones—opened her to the hip call for “service.” Attending Wellesley College from 1965 to 1969, Hillary Rodham embraced the counterculture’s ideals more than its vices. Enrolling in Yale Law School, she chose reform over revolution and a nice career path too.

“On her deathbed she wants to be able to say she was true to herself and is not going to do phoney makeovers to please others.”

At Yale, Hillary met Bill Clinton and volunteered with him on George McGovern’s 1972 “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” presidential campaign. Labeled Sister Frigidaire in high school, she loved “Elvis” Clinton’s people smarts. Tired of Southern beauty queens, he loved her intellect. Since 1975, the two have had a rollercoaster marriage but a solid political partnership.

In moving to Fayetteville, Arkansas, Hillary chose Clinton over a conventional career. This Goldwater Girl turned McGovernik endured great frustration as Arkansas’s First Lady during 12 long years in the statehouse. After Bill lost his first re-election bid in 1980, with voters muttering about “that feminist in the governor’s mansion,” Hillary adapted. Turning to her now signature blonde-hair with no glasses look, Hillary Rodham became Mrs. Bill Clinton for the comeback. Using the Baby Boomer rationale for selling out—err, compromise, she figured: “It meant more to them”—Arkansans—“than it did to me.”

Hillary thus imagined Bill’s 1992 presidential campaign as her own get-out-of-jail ticket. He exulted: “buy one, get one free!” She crowed: “If you vote for him, you get me!” When she back-pedaled, critics snickered. One cartoon had Mrs. Clinton clutching her daughter Chelsea and yammering: “Hi there! I’m Hillary Clinton—the new Hillary Clinton! …. Do you like my new hair style? Do you want to hear about my family values?”

In the White House, Hillary proved to be a polarizing First Lady, too unconventional, too controversial, too close to power for most Americans’ comfort. Many jokes reversed traditional assumptions, by hailing the president… and her husband, or citing Hillary’s alleged comment after seeing an ex-boyfriend managing a gas station that, if he had stuck with her, he would be running the country and Bill would be pumping gas.