Back in 1992, just before Bill Clinton managed to elbow Jerry Brown, his last remaining competitor, out of the Democratic presidential nomination, my father said something to me that I have never forgotten. "I don't understand," he said, "why you're not more enthusiastic about Clinton. He's got that impressive wife. I would think you'd be excited to see a woman like that in the White House."
"Not as first lady!" I harrumphed in a manner particular to 22-year-olds who've been out of Vassar for less time than the gestation period of a hamster. "She already has a career! She can forge her own political path! Why should she throw it all away to pick out china patterns?"
This was, of course, right around the time that Hillary Clinton was scandalously deriding Tammy Wynette and defending her choice not to stay home and bake cookies. There was nothing terribly original about my assertion, nor do I think my father meant to imply that the job of first lady is a springboard to a high-powered political career. More likely, his paternal concern for the future of his own ambitious daughter was melding with the very-1980s-but-still-pervasive-in-1992 idea that women could "have it all."
In Clinton's case, that paradigm was never about bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan she is, by her own admission, not much of a cook but about a much-higher-stakes form of multitasking. As much as people like me might have looked at her and seen at least at first glance a woman who was sacrificing her career for her husband's, it quickly became clear that she saw it otherwise.
For Clinton, having it all meant marrying the gifted politician and carving out her own political career too. It meant publishing typical first lady fare like "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets" while trying to maintain her credentials as a serious policy thinker. It meant parlaying what is arguably the nation's most ceremonial job into a seat in the U.S. Senate. Finally, it meant overcoming all the battle injuries, personal indignities and media mistreatment and making history in a gigantic way. It meant not just having it all but being the be-all and end-all of having it all.
But Clinton is not going to get there. Her fate as things stand is to have only one residency at the White House, in which, alas, "Hail to the Chief" wasn't her personal theme song.
There are, of course, as many opinions as to why this is as there were about her hairstyle in the 1990s. But as I've watched Clinton inch toward concession like a mourner working her way through the five stages of grief (including a notably protracted denial phase), I've been thinking back on that conversation with my father 16 years ago.
Had my barely-post-college self been correct to think that Clinton was "throwing it all away" for her husband? Would her ambitions have been better served without the detours through the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Ark., and the East Wing of the White House? Were her chances of becoming the first female president silently and irrevocably dashed on that day in 1975 when, after two years of putting off his proposals, she finally agreed to marry Bill? Who should the first female president be married to, anyway? An equal partner? A doormat? No one at all?
These questions are unanswerable, especially now that the idea of a female president has returned to the realm of abstract thought. Until we actually have one, we won't know what it takes to be one. But part of what tested so many people's patience with Clinton in recent months is the way she often seemed to be hunting the job as though it were a shark that had swallowed her arm and chewed her family into small bites. It was as if she were trying to avenge the office of the presidency, to wrest it not only from the clutches of the current administration but, perhaps, from the tortured legacy of her own husband.
If I were still as sure about what's best for others as I was at 22, I might suggest again that Clinton's fatal error lay in her inability to let go of the prospect of having her cake and eating it too, of thinking she could marry the scoundrel and keep her dignity, of having the glorious gall to think that the first lady could become the leader of the free world.Even though Clinton is looking like a gambler who should have walked away from the table several hands ago, I no longer think she was crazy to play all the hands she was dealt over the years. She might never win the presidency, but she is etched deeper in the public consciousness and probably will be a more significant historical figure than many who have. Whether that constitutes "having it all," it sure sounds like enough. And for it, we owe her a debt of gratitude.
Meghan Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles. E-mail her at [email protected].