Tuesday, August 5, 2008

One tough cookie

[Comments are not allowed for this post. I’ve realized that some posts I do are in the nature of a cri de coeur and I would prefer not to see comments about them. You are certainly welcome to email me about this post.]

I loathed the Clintons for 16 years. Long before anyone had heard of Monica Lewinsky, a coworker asked me how I - a dedicated feminist - could so despise a genuine liberal like Bill Clinton. “Because,” I replied, “I went to school with guys like him. Now they’re all working as used car salesmen and sleeping with their secretaries.” Through all the years of his Presidency my view of him as fundamentally sleazy never wavered.

As for Hillary, my initial dislike was based on her having the bad taste to marry Bill combined with a disdain for her decision to subjugate her own brilliance and political connections to serve his interests. Not to mention her backing down from her decision to keep her own name when it conflicted with Bill’s political interest. My dislike grew into loathing when she so totally screwed up her universal health care assignment early in Bill’s first term. I believed devoutly in the importance of this issue and believed - still believe - that the secrecy with which she surrounded her effort was both wrong and impolitic.

What hardened my loathing for both of them once and for all was their destruction of feminism. True, institutional feminism had already begun to self-destruct with its embrace of people of color throughout the world who had suffered under the lash of white patriarchy. The inability of institutional feminists to see that this meant embracing male people of color who treated women worse than they had ever been treated by the white patriarchy made the political apparatus of feminism merely one more interest group that had outlived its ideals. That ideal, though, still had life and was still most accurately expressed in the original phrase: Sisterhood is powerful.

Then came Bill Clinton’s pitch-perfect Madonna and whore attitude toward women, updated for the 90s as a distinction between well-educated professional women and less-educated pink-collar women. The former were honestly respected as colleagues; the latter were sexual prey. This update was wildly successful as many well-educated professional women defended Bill against the claims of his “low class” victims. And, of course, at the head of the women in this well-educated professional defense brigade was Hillary. I found them both contemptible.

It was a member of that defense brigade of well-educated professional women that drove the final nail in the coffin of feminism. Molly Ivins went on the Imus show and mocked Gennifer Flowers by making fun of the low-class spelling of her name. To honestly believe Flowers was lying and say so would have been fine. To attack her on a class basis was despicable: if feminism did not mean that women stood together across the divides of class then it meant nothing. I turned to my husband and announced that feminism was now officially dead.

Then came the 2008 Democratic primary and I became one of those women who slowly, grudgingly developed a respect for Hillary Clinton. I suppose there was one earlier sign this could happen. When Hillary ran for Senator in 2000, I saw the portion of the debate where her challenger invaded her personal space. Like many others, I saw his actions as an attempt to intimidate. More important, though, I admired Hillary standing her ground mostly because I knew I would have stepped back. It was one very small “go Hillary” moment but it presaged what would come later.

In the Fall of 2007, however, I was in agony. It looked like the Republicans would nominate someone I simply could not vote for and the Democrats would do the same by nominating Hillary Clinton. Then came Iowa and my reaction was gratitude that the nominee apparently wouldn’t be Clinton and a “good for him” feeling about Obama’s victory. Then came the media’s response and my attitude changed.

The media seemed just a little bit too happy about Hillary’s defeat. Just a little too gleeful. Just a little too sneering. I still didn’t want Hillary as the nominee but I also realized I didn’t want her to go down to ignominious defeat. I didn’t yet articulate this feeling to myself in terms Cokie Roberts would later describe as that sense that here’s an older woman who has worked hard all her life and now some young guy is getting her promotion. I simply wanted Hillary to put up a decent showing. Call it team pride if you will. I couldn’t stand her but she was on my gender team so “go Hillary”.

Then Hillary cried. As I recall the incident, she was campaigning in New Hampshire, sitting at a large table with a group of people, and someone asked her how she was doing because she looked so tired, and she choked up. Instantly I was back in a meeting years ago. I’d been doing my first client installation, getting about 5 hours of sleep a night for what seemed like forever, getting no support from my company, and getting nothing but pressure and grief from the client. I held it together, though, and did my job with a stiff upper lip until I sat in a status meeting and someone said something nice to me. I choked up.

No, I still wasn’t a Hillary fan. But I’d been brought face to face with her honest humanity and that meant the media’s insistence that she had only cried because someone mentioned her appearance or she had cried as a ploy because no one as tough as her could cry honestly struck me as not merely sneering but bordering on vicious. So when Hillary won Iowa I cheered.

And that’s how it went from there. The more the media snarled the more I wanted Hillary to win. It wasn’t reaction to the media, though, it was admiration for Hillary. Again she stood her ground when I know I would have stepped back. For all her endless list of serious faults, this was one tough cookie.

If she had won the nomination, would I have voted for her in November? I honestly don’t know. I do know that sometimes when I look at the two candidates we have I find myself with the sinking feeling that Hillary would be far better than either. When the candidates talk about FISA or energy policy or taxation, I find myself wanting to hear what Hillary would have to say on the issue. And I find myself often missing her grasp of both detail and big picture, her complex humanity, and most of all her grit.