She changed the game irrevocably, and now she’s about to transform it again-by walking away.
As of this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes something she has not been in two decades: a private citizen. A mind-boggling thought, really, rich in amusingly prosaic implications. Will she drive a car? Is she going to pop up at the Safeway (you’re supposed to bring your own bags now, Madame Secretary!) or be found standing in line at the local store? She’ll still have Secret Service protection, and she has more than enough money to send other people out on a CVS run. But even so, she is now, for the first time in a very, very long time, just one of us.
The images amuse because, of course, she’s not just one of us. She’s been the most famous and admired woman in America for 20 years. A December Gallup poll had her as the most admired woman in the world, and No. 2 on the list (Michelle Obama) wasn’t remotely close. Not everyone is in on this love-fest, as we well know, by a long shot. But even the seething hatred has, over the years, embroidered her legend-debates about Clinton have somehow always ended up really being about us as a nation, who we are and who we want to be, in such a way that even those who dislike her are implicitly acknowledging that, yes, she is the touchstone.
She’s the most important woman in America. More: she is almost certainly the most important woman in all of our political history. Already, even if this retirement proves to be permanent, which few people think it will be. No? Well, who, then? Who has been first lady, senator, secretary of state? No other woman, that’s for sure. Not many men have held as many high-profile jobs and performed them as well.
And on top of the jobs themselves-in a way, far harder than the jobs themselves-was having to be that barrier breaker, having to be The Woman; the little daughter of a starchy Republican drapery-peddler who would cash in her Goldwater chips and whom fate would eventually select to embody liberation and insolence and cultural transformation, transformation that millions of Americans embraced but that a different set of millions found ruinous, repulsive; having to carry all that on her shoulders, year after year after year, watching people call her all kinds of names and accuse her of all manner of treachery (up to and including criminal behavior and sympathy with terrorists), all that on top of just the normal run-of-the-mill stuff, and knowing that she had to stay above it all and smile, smile, smile, and never take the bait? An impossible job. Who else has had to do all that?
Of course, there is Eleanor. Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian who has been a fierce Clinton supporter over the years, casts his vote for Clinton but notes that “without Roosevelt, Clinton would have been impossible.” He nods, also, to the great female pioneers of the 19th century: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and the one I always thought might be Clinton’s clearest antecedent, Frances Willard. But they, Wilentz notes, never had real power.
There are modern women who also never had official power but whose influence was vast-like Gloria Steinem, say. Or, on the right, Phyllis Schlafly-arguably, in my view, America’s most influential conservative woman ever. These women changed American society in direct and immediate ways. Clinton, says NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein, hasn’t quite: “I just don’t see her laying out a new ideological or intellectual direction for the country, or putting forward a transformative vision.”
Perhaps not. But Clinton has done something else: she has shown that women can wield official power and can do so with moral force equal to, and in some ways greater than, men. Mrs. Roosevelt did this, too, both through her influence on her husband, and with her own clout in the public square. She continued on, many people forget, as an important figure long after she left the White House, playing a key role in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and leading the reformers’ wing of the Democratic Party in the 1950s and early 1960s.
For Columbia historian Alan Brinkley, it’s a close call, but: “I do think that as a woman in government and politics, Clinton probably has been the most important woman in American politics-and may become more so. She was probably the second-most important person in the White House during Bill Clinton’s presidency. She was one of the most important senators during the Bush years. And she has been one of the most powerful secretaries of state since Dulles.”
Read more from Michael Tomasky at NEWSWEEK here.