Two jokes, from the early 1990s:
Hillary and Bill Clinton have packed up their things and are on their way to the White House. Bill pulls into a filling station in Little Rock, and the owner comes out of the garage to shake his hand. Suddenly, Hillary hops out of the car: she’s recognized the guy. It’s Tommy, a guy she’d dated briefly in high school. They chat for a while, and then the Clintons get back in the car and get on the road. Bill turns to Hillary and says, “life’s funny isn’t it? Here’s a guy you dated years ago, and he owns a filling station. You could have married him or me. You chose me, and look at what a difference it made. You’re the First Lady of the United States, and he’s married to a gal who’s married to a guy who owns a filling station.” “I know,” she says. “I could have married him, and then I’d be First Lady, and you’d be married to a gal who’s married to a guy who owns a filling station.”
And the second joke:
Air Force One has just landed in Washington. Bill Clinton is returning from a visit to Arkansas to see his mother. A Marine stands at attention at the foot of the airstairs. The President emerges – and he’s carrying a pig under each arm. As he makes his way to the bottom of the stairs, the Marine comments, “Nice pigs, sir.” Clinton turns to the Marine. “Pigs?” he says. “These aren’t pigs. These are genuine Arkansas razorbacks. I got ‘em for Chelsea and Hillary.” The Marine nods. “Nice trade, sir!”
Two jokes, two sides to the way people saw Hillary Clinton – and still see her, I reckon.
I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next President. But I feel for her. I don’t think she’d be a terrible President. I don’t think she’s a horrible person. She doesn’t give me the creeping horrors that she gives so many observers, particularly observers from the Right. (I don’t feel like scratching her face the way I do when I see John Edwards, for example.) Unlike some who have run – and won – she is not running out of vanity or the desire for honor, or out of obscure psychological motivations. She is a serious person who really believes she would make a difference to the country – a positive difference – were she the President.
I think of Hillary Clinton, in fact, as a kind of tragic figure. Here she is, an enormously talented woman, with a huge work ethic, piles of ambition, a keen mind, a disciplined temperament, and the ability to inspire lasting loyalty in those who work for her. I can completely see her rising to a Senate seat on her own power, without the benefit of celebrity and her husband’s political network. I can even imagine her running for President.
She, at least as much as her husband, was the driving force in their marriage of minds and ambitions. And she sacrificed herself for him: Arkansas can’t have been her first choice of home coming out of law school, and First Lady can’t have been her first choice political destination. More important: she sacrificed, in considerable measure, her dignity, and her self-respect, in the dark days when Bill looked like he might throw it all away on a selfish and meaningless fling.
And now, here she is, making it on her own, her own way, and she can’t do it because of him. She cannot be herself, alone; she cannot be the mistress of her own fate. Whether she brought him into the race or whether he pushed himself in hardly matters. He’s there, and everything people remember about him, unfondly, is reflected back on her. And regardless of the positive feelings most people have about the 1990s in retrospect, and the positive opinion most people still have about Bill Clinton as President, when reflected onto Hillary Clinton the bad memories outweigh the good. The man she did everything to promote and support and sustain is going to be an insurmountable weight around her neck. And there’s nothing she can do about it.
When she was in the White House, one of the tropes of abuse on the Right was to refer to her as Lady Macbeth. On a naive reading of the Scottish tragedy, it’s all the fault of the woman. She plants the idea of murder in her husband’s head; she eggs him on to do it, questions his manhood when he hesitates, declares her willingness to dash out her own babes’ brains to win the crown. But such an interpretation will not stand scrutiny. The crown, after all, is his, not hers. All she does, she does for her man. And he is the one who first touches on the theme of forcing fate. He tempts her, not she him; and while she is more intelligent and more disciplined than he, he is the one who wades on and on through blood declaring that to return were as tedious as to go o’er, while she, abandoned by her husband, goes mad. Macbeth is, ultimately, not a story about murder; or, inasmuch as it is about murder, we distance the play from us emotionally. It is about ambition. It is about fate. And it is about marriage, and a peculiarly modern marriage, a marriage of intellectual and spiritual equals.
Lady Macbeth is aiming for the crown herself now, as she could not in Shakespeare’s day. Count me as one of those who suspects that, if she really wanted to be President one day, she should have married the guy who owned the filling station. (Well, a chain of filling stations. A big, national chain. Never hurts to have a little money in the bank if you want to make it in politics.)