Stand by your man. Elaine Showalter on how Hillary Clinton has become a symbol of the professional woman's confused search for identity, at once reviled and praised for supporting her husband

Bill and Hillary

Christopher Andersen <em>Warner Books, 352pp £7.99</em>

ISBN 0751530352

Christopher Andersen specialises in a very modern literary genre: biographies about relationships of the "great power couples". In these mythic, super-sized love stories, he sees signs of the times, revealing paradigms of "the mysterious forces that draw people to each other and the equally mysterious forces that hold them together, often against seemingly insurmountable odds". Previously, he has concentrated on Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and on Jack and Jackie Kennedy, with a detour to examine the last day of Princess Diana. Now, casting the cold eye of a biographical ambulance-chaser, he's taken on the turbulent, enigmatic marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Drawing on rumour, hearsay, unattributed gossip and the testimony of the Clintons' worst enemies, Andersen presents a lurid melodrama indeed: the romance of a self-destructive, lascivious political hero (along with other juicy titbits, he reports that Clinton was in the bathroom groping a guest at his own wedding) and a proud, idealistic feminist professional, "destined to be remembered less for her accomplishments than for being the ultimate Wronged Woman". Somehow, according to Andersen, this tale of masculine sexual hubris and feminine sexual humiliation, constitutes a "curious, compelling and uniquely American love story".

Why uniquely American? Some might think that there are parallels in the stories of Jeffrey and Mary Archer, of Robin and Margaret Cook, even of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. But in Andersen's view, the Clinton saga of overreaching male entitlement and wronged womanhood behaving nobly under painful circumstances is a rewriting of the great myth of the Kennedys. Throughout their lives, he suggests, the Clintons have modelled themselves on the Kennedys. He makes much of 16-year-old Bill Clinton's photographed handshake with JFK as an Arkansas delegate to Boys' Nation. He claims that Clinton was thrilled to go to Acapulco for his honeymoon, even in the company of his in-laws, because he "knew that Acapulco was the vacation spot where a young Senator John F Kennedy and his beautiful wife Jacqueline honeymooned in a pink clifftop villa overlooking the Pacific". He even speculates that five years after Jackie Kennedy's death, the wounded Hillary, dealing with the shock of scandal, "used her New Age reflective meditation techniques" to "talk" with Jackie and to ask her for advice: "She could retreat into the shadows, salvaging what remained of her own pride and leaving Bill to fend for himself. Or she could, as Bill was praying she would do, jump into the icy waters and rescue him from himself as she had countless times in the past."

Bill Clinton is, as we know, no JFK. There was a moment when it looked as if an assassination attempt might be Clinton's best career move, and a moment when Hillary got a lot of public sympathy as the betrayed, long-suffering wife. At the point that Andersen's book ends, Hillary is thinking wanly about her own personal and political future; Bill is publicly eating crow, but privately uncontrite and gearing up to unleash his Dionysian libido one more time.

Today, however, Hillary is gearing up to run for the Senate in New York, and looking like a star. Her recent appearance on the David Letterman Show was a dazzling success, with so many viewers that, for the first time in years, Letterman outdrew Jay Leno. The Clintons have stayed together, and as Hillary confidently prepares to campaign on the basis of her accomplishments, some of the old media hostility towards her has returned.

Throughout the 20th century, many American First Ladies have attempted to exert political power and have been criticised for wielding political influence. But Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most highly educated, professionally successful and personally ambitious woman to have filled the role, and she is also married to one of the most charismatic, intelligent presidents. Not surprisingly, she has attracted an unusual amount of attention and anger - denounced as a bitch, a liar, a feminazi, a communist, a dyke, even a murderess. On 25 January, a talk-show host in Albany, New York, asked her if she ever wondered why so many people were "foaming at the mouth" about her, and whether their "venom" disturbed her. "I know that it's out there," she replied, "and I think some of it is because of the positions that I've taken, and maybe a little of it is because I'm a woman taking those positions. And maybe some of it is because people don't like my hairstyle. I don't know what it is." Immediately, Rudy Giuliani's campaign manager complained that Clinton was blaming her political woes "on her gender". So she is stuck in the double-bind of the successful woman of the millennium: a lightning rod for everyone with an agenda about women, and yet attacked for playing the gender card if she takes any notice of the situation.

The prohibition seems particularly unfair because much criticism of Hillary is so overtly about issues of femininity and feminism. Other biographers, including Joyce Milton in The First Partner and Gail Sheehy in Hillary's Choice, have emphasised the contradictions and conflicts between the tough feminist lawyer and the soft-hearted, devoted wife. They perceive these as antithetical identities, so that whatever choice Hillary makes, it will be a self-betrayal. Right-wing journalist David Brock, in The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, depicted her as a co-dependent who had made a Faustian bargain for the sake of power. Other critics have seen her choices as fraudulent and calculated. Camille Paglia, the alleged champion of the persona, scathingly condemns her as "a consummate theatrical artefact whose stages of self-development from butch to femme were motivated by unalloyed political ambition. She is the drag queen of modern politics, a bewitching symbol of professional women's sometimes-confused search for identity in this era of unlimited options." The forthcoming biography by a former speech-writer for Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan, The Case Against Hillary Clinton, should be even harsher.

But on the personal side, Hillary has given clear and consistent statements about her views on the need to confront difficulties in marriage since she became visible in public life. In 1992, she told one reporter: "You've got to be willing to stay committed to someone over the long run, and sometimes it doesn't work out. But often, if you become real honest with yourself and honest with each other, and put aside whatever personal hurt and disappointment you have to really understand yourself and your spouse, it can be the most wonderful experience you'll ever have." The same year, she told Newsweek's Eleanor Clift: "We haven't run away or walked away. We've been willing to work through all kinds of problems." Her decision to stay with Clinton is more a demonstration of mature values than of girlish infatuation.

On the political side, some commentators seem amazed, even outraged, that Hillary Clinton should allow political ambition to motivate her behaviour. She has used her position as First Lady, they say, to make contacts, to build up networks, to benefit from all the gravitas, aura and power of the White House. But in the American political system, where success is so dependent on fund- raising, horse-trading, visibility and clout, no woman candidate, no matter how brilliant, can yet make it to the top purely on the strength of her own talent. During her time in the White House, Hillary Clinton has learnt from every mistake, and has worked hard on finding ways to make her positions clear and acceptable to a wide range of voters. How will Bill deal with being the spouse of the candidate? The husband of the senator? The elements of this marriage that could make it a truly American love story have yet to be seen.

Elaine Showalter is professor of English at Princeton University

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