Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary : Before Super Tuesday

If you're feeling jittery at not having had your fill of her for the last five minutes, you've come to the right place. Welcome to the first meeting of Hillaholics Anonymous, a recovery program for those of us obsessed with Her. And who isn't?

We admit that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable. We admit that we spend too much time thinking about Hillary's likeability, her marriage, the origins of her ambition, the depth of her sangfroid, and whether she should have turned down the Vogue photo shoot because the pictures would make her look "too feminine." We admit that we cannot let it slide that she was one of 77 senators who gave Bush the authority to invade Iraq, that she went along with the Iranian terrorism vote, and that nothing she says to weasel out of these decisions can ever make up for them. But nearly all of us admit that she is super smart, Superwoman competent, way more human than the criminally insane gang now plundering the country, and that she has the kishkes for just about any kind of battle.

As a new 12-step program, our recovery textbook -- Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary (Harper $23.95) -- has not stood the test of time. But like AA's Big Book, ours too is a collection of stories, essays in this case, by 30 wicked smart women as obsessed with Hillary as I and thou. The writers, assembled by New Yorker editor Susan Morrison, are, like Hillary herself, so ruthlessly ambitious that they have broken their anonymity and attached their names, first and last, to their pieces. This will not be held against them -- though it may impede their recovery -- but others may introduce themselves using first names only.

To get the ball rolling - not that any of us is shy, you, me, the 30 smarties in the book, and certainly not Hill -- I thought I'd begin.

Hard as it is to admit in this crowd, I don't hate her. But even kinkier, I never thought it was important that I like her to want her to be president. I like my friends, my sister, my boyfriend, even my shrink. I don't need to like my senator, my president, or my car mechanic. I have no desire to talk girl talk, or even health care policy, with Hillary (I also never wanted to have a beer with Bush, and not only because he's an allegedly recovering drunk). I have wondered about Hill's and Bill's marriage as often as the next sentient being, but more about Laura's and George's, whose every crisis I follow in the National Inquirer. I don't even hold it against Hillary that she isn't Elizabeth Edwards, who is very likable indeed. I don't wish Hill would talk more about her feelings on TV, and, unlike one of the writers in our recovery textbook, I could care less that she has no "hobbies" or, like another, that she doesn't seem to be "sensuous." Imagine the drubbing she'd get if we had pictures of that!

I admit that I opened Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary with more curiosity than fixed ideas, and, having read Michiko Katutani's review in The Times, with the expectation that it would be "uneven," the curse of the anthology genre. As much as I wanted to skip around -- from Mimi Sheraton's piece on Hill's hunger to Roz Chast's cartoon to Daphne Merkin's "Ballad of Hill and Bill" and Deborah Tannen's "Double Bind"-- I took a page from Hill's straight-A Wellesley student handbook and read this one straight through, with a pencil and a clump of Post-Its.


Far from being uneven, for me the collection gathers strength as the variety and ferocity of opinions, insights, disappointments, and projections unfolds, often revealing more about the writers than about Hillary, and more about our warring notions of power, politics, and sex roles than it seems possible to hold in any brain at one time. Such is Hillary's burden: that she inspires and provokes this level of emotion, admiration, animosity, sometimes hysteria -- and that she presses on regardless.

As much as many of the writers identify with Hillary (prominent professional women, mothers, wives) and hold it against her that they can't identify more (too ambitious, too buttoned up, the yellow pantsuit made her look like a Republican), what comes through, as the insights and accusations pile up, is that Hillary is different from you and me. If she weren't, she would not have been the first student at Wellesley to give the commencement speech. She would probably have ditched Bill long before the indignities of Monica. She would not be running for president, even with her husband's help. And yes, if she had not been married to a popular two-term president (which puts her, all on its own, in a category by herself), she would not have made it as far as she has. As Lara Vapnyar notes in her essay, with the clear eyes of a very recent immigrant to the U.S., "I would prefer a woman who rose to prominence all on her own. But let's be realistic. We are not there yet, and we are not even firmly on the way to getting there."

Another way that Hillary is not like the rest of us is that she has long been the object of maniacal obsession by the left, right and center, and that will not end anytime soon, win or lose. She is different from the smart, accomplished writers who make up the provocative, glittering mosaic that is Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, and she is different from every man who is running or has ever run for President: no one has been dissected the way she's been, no one has been subjected to relentless and catty condemnation of his hair, his wardrobe, his popcorn-eating habits in college, his cooking, his cookie recipes, his invented sexual proclivities, or his marriage -- even the faithless Giuliani or McCain, with the trophy wife for whom he ditched his previous wife -- the way Hillary has been.

We should be grateful she isn't inclined to share her feelings with Barbara Walters. If she weren't such a heartless policy wonk, she'd let us have it twice a day over our petty cruelties toward her, our appetite for going through her garbage, our odious double standards, and our ignorance about what it takes to prevail in national politics.

I entered this book with an open mind and closed it feeling more sympathy and admiration for Hillary than I had thought possible, not because I can now forgive The Vote -- I can't -- or the other smarmy tradeoffs she's made at home and at work, but because too many of these 30 wonderful writers treat Hillary with what ends up sounding like small-minded contempt. No one forgets that we've come a long way, baby, but let's also not forget that Hillary is still the only person who has ever run for president of the United States -- much less had a shot at a party's nomination -- who does not have a penis. And that there isn't another woman with anything that approaches her power on the national political stage. Her association with her husband has clearly been necessary for some of this -- but not sufficient for all of it.

For better and worse, Hillary Clinton is, in her bones, a politician. And even in the age of Oprah -- and especially in the land of Rush, Rove, Drudge, and Bush vs. Gore -- politicians are ruthless, hard-nosed compromisers, not purists, not idealists. If Hillary were the candidate we want her to be, she'd be Dennis Kucinich: perfect voting record, completely unelectable.

All of that said, come Super Tuesday, I'll probably vote for John Edwards, because whoever wins needs to be reminded of his message: that corporate greed and malfeasance are our worst enemies, next to the Republicans, who are planning, even as we speak, to steal this election too (watch for the Indiana Voter ID case in the Supreme Court).

But if Hillary wins the nomination, I'm her girl. I'll sign up and go to work.

Now that I think of it, election season is no time to promote the serenity prayer, the usual mantra of the 12-step franchise. For myself, for the time being, at difficult moments I'll repeat Lorrie Moore's cool-headed remark from her Thirty Ways essay, which sums up the bind that Hillary's in and that so many of us are in as we contemplate her: "She may not be a thrilling person to vote for. Still, it would be a thrill to see her win."

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of many books, including the novels Almost, The Practice of Deceit, and Slow Dancing, and The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. For a copy of her essay, "What I Learned About Sex on the Internet," please click here.