Hillary at 65: Here's to Nature, Blow Out the Candles, Let's Skip Pin the Tail on the Donkey

"Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; life shapes the face you have at thirty; but at fifty, you get the face you deserve." Coco Chanel, Abraham Lincoln and George Orwell are all credited with some version of it. The fashion legend, the Great Sufferer and the prescient futurist -- they would know.

Hillary Clinton turned 65 this past Friday, October 26 and, according to Reuters, the Secretary of State wants to take time off from public life, regardless of the outcome on November 6.

Since I was first introduced to American history beyond the Pledge of Allegiance, in fifth grade, I've always equated "suffrage" -- a word of universal connotation related to voting and political rights -- with women suffering.

In Hillary Clinton, I see a quality of suffering and fatigue that can only be explained as the far end of her trajectory, from the huge smile of the brainy young Yale activist to vessel for Bill Clinton's intergalactic ambition and insouciant philandering, the stoic shouldering of shared shame, graceful public co-parenting and personal redemption as a United States Senator and Secretary of State.

Even this last -- the most prestigious and, after the presidency, the arguably most powerful job in the United States government -- was delivered to Hillary as a kind of a backhanded slap, a consolation prize when even the swing states opted for a mixed-race man over a woman four years ago. America set off fireworks for ourselves Election Night for having come so far -- but let's remember that the 19th Amendment came 52 years after the 14th.

This week, I watched Rory Kennedy's extraordinary new HBO documentary Ethel, profiling her mother. There are qualities Ethel Skakel Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton share which might start with simply loving, then surviving brilliant, flawed husbands. Their qualities are circumscribed by a supernal capacity for carrying on, for taking up family and causes outside themselves, and it is this which is reflected back to me in the faces of these two women, in this year of their lives.  

Other than my surprise that there are any Kennedys about whom multiple documentaries have not been made by now, I'm unsettled to discover that the sensitively selected archival footage -- including the sublime extemporaneous speech by Robert F. Kennedy breaking the tragic news of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Indianapolis in 1968 -- could evoke the same paroxysm of grief as when I first saw it, many years ago. To add to the ineffability of the documentary, Daddy, as the entire RFK family refers to him, was shot exactly two months later. The filmmaker was a fetus in Ethel's belly.  

In the old black-and-white news footage of Robert F. Kennedy campaigning for the U.S. Senate in New York, less than a year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I likewise can't say which is more eerie: seeing the acid resentment of Republicans, who were probably still festering over the 1948 defeat of Thomas A. Dewey, calling RFK a "carpetbagger" or remembering the exact same epithets being hurled at Hillary Clinton in 2000 -- for the same political office and for the same reason. (Since Americans are notorious political amnesiacs, the New York GOP will inevitably deploy "carpetbagger" one day again, despite the fact that the carpetbaggers have a way of winning.)

Those who make their fortunes by filling the airwaves with vicious personal polemics would, we would think, affect Hillary by now no more than buzzing flies. Being trapped for most of your life in a very close space with clouds of flies would drive most of us insane, yet Clinton is anything but:  that expression of suffering she shares with Ethel Kennedy is, for me, the reflection of forcing herself to stand calmly before the unrelenting camera of history, while inwardly flailing.

After a lifetime of negotiating Bill Clinton's flexible conscience, piggish males, virulent traditionalists of both sexes and the yammering pundit class with her mysterious code of pragmatic faith, I believe her tenure on the global chessboard has been simpler than the nostalgic Parker Brothers game of Sorry! for Hillary.  We think of chess as prognosticated strategy, but it's actually about simply outlasting your opponent -- being the one left standing. With our quadrennial swapping out of top players and the professional fundraising class known as Congress, America is far more Sorry! than chess.  For Hillary Clinton chess, by any name, is child's play.

I see a woman who's infinitely tired of the game.


I saw today that Living History, her autobiography by Hillary Clinton, happens to be on my library shelf next to Conscience and Courage , The Year of Magical Thinking, and On Blondes.

I confess I'm a little spooked, but though I don't believe in ghosts and goblins, I'm a great believer in wishbones, toasts and birthday candles.

We can skip Pin the tail on the donkey.

Happy birthday, Lady.

Illustration ©2012 Marie Woolf.