After 4 Decades Of Breaking Molds, Clinton Failed To Shatter The Ultimate Ceiling
After nearly two years of running for president, on Thursday, Hillary Clinton went for a hike near her home in Chappaqua, N.Y. It was a quiet moment after a devastating loss that likely marked the end of her political career.
Over four decades of public life, Clinton has always been a disruptive presence, who went places and did things that haven't been done before — at least not by women.
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he advertised it as a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. Hillary Clinton was a political spouse who broke the mold, she had her own high-powered law career, and when she defended it in an offhand remark, that set off a firestorm.
"You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life," said Clinton to a scrum of reporters in a diner in 1992.
This quip was taken as an insult to stay-at-home moms. But for Clinton it was merely a statement of fact. And the fact is, Clinton has always courted controversy by being herself. She was a full partner with her husband on policymaking and political strategy. When she and Bill got married, she didn't take his name — that is until they decided his political career depended on it.
"She's always broken glass ceilings wherever she's gone for herself and for others, and when you do that, sometimes you get nicked by some of the broken glass," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.
Clinton was the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley College, but took heat for her remarks. She was the first first lady with an office in the west wing, the part of the White House where the president and his top aides work. And she was met with skepticism when her husband put her in charge of health care reform.
"I think that in the coming months the American people will learn, as the people of our state did, that we have a first lady of many talents, but who most of all can bring people together around complex and difficult issues to hammer out consensus and get things done," Bill Clinton said, pitching his wife as the head of his ambitious health care efforts.
Clinton's effort at health care reform eventually collapsed under its own weight, with resistance from Republicans in Congress and not enough support from Democrats. A chastened Hillary Clinton never had such a public role in her husband's administration again. That doesn't mean she didn't keep working. She just did it more quietly, including behind-the-scenes work on the Children's Health Insurance Program.
She's always broken glass ceilings wherever she's gone for herself and for others, and when you do that, sometimes you get nicked by some of the broken glass.
And the whole time she worked on health care reform, she and her husband's administration were embroiled one scandal after another — Travelgate, Vince Foster's suicide, Whitewater. The investigations — the Clintons would consider them witch hunts — would be a fixture of their time in the White House, at times sucking oxygen away from efforts to enact policy.
In 1998 Clinton went on NBC's Today show to defend herself and her husband from what she believed was another false attack — this time it involved a White House intern.
"The great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president," said Clinton.
Of course, the Monica Lewinsky affair turned out to be real. But David Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post who has written extensively about the Clintons, says she has actually spent her entire public life under attack from the right.
"You know, getting called before a grand jury, having to testify for 11 hours before a congressional committee, being investigated by the FBI — you know, it wasn't all her fault by any means. And none of these things led to anything in the end, yet, but it was a really — it was a heavy load to carry," Maraniss says.
Just as Bill Clinton was being impeached, Hillary Clinton made a choice not to hide, but to chart out the start of her own political career. She would run for the open U.S. Senate seat in New York. At one point she talked it through with a group of friends from her Wellesley years.
"Someone said, 'Well, why do you want to do it? You've been so criticized, so overexposed to criticism,' " remembers Clinton's political science professor Alan Schechter.
What Clinton said stuck with Schechter — she wanted to fight for children and families, as she had throughout her life.
He remembers her saying, "I will always have a voice if I'm a former first lady, but if I run for the Senate and win, I will have a much stronger voice. And I am willing to take the politics of personal destruction as the price I will pay for having that potential influence."
Clearly her mind was already made. Her Senate campaign announcement has echoes of the campaign for president she would run 16 years later.
"Because I believe we can meet these challenges together, I am honored today to announce my candidacy for the United State Senate from New York," Clinton said to cheers.
She won that race and and became the first female senator from New York. While in office, Clinton worked well with her fellow senators, including Republicans who had voted to impeach her husband. It's when she's running for office that the questions of likability and trustworthiness emerge and linger.
Pollster Celinda Lake says that for Clinton, the wounds of battle became scars in part because she was private about so much else of herself. She focused on the work, and wanted that to be enough.
"They don't have the personal context for understanding her and that makes the negatives more vivid," Lake says.
Lake points to a focus group she did in 1992 where they asked about the Clintons' favorite foods. For Bill everyone offered an answer even if they didn't know: barbecue, doughnuts "or whatever you put in his face, because he was just like the joyous warrior that liked everything," says Lake. "And when we asked what is the favorite food, you think, of Hillary Clinton they go, 'I have no idea, maybe lettuce.' And that wasn't a compliment."
For female politicians, she says, there is a double bind. Voters require them to be strong leaders and likable. And it's hard for women to pull off being both. And it was especially hard for Clinton who readily admitted she wasn't a natural politician.
When she ran for president in 2008, her likability was an issue, as it was this time. Back then, it even came up in a debate. She was asked what she would say to voters who respect her resume but like Barack Obama better.
"Well, that hurts my feelings," Clinton said with a smile. "He's very likable. I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad."
Obama chimed in, "you're likable enough, Hillary."
Like she would again eight years later, Clinton offered experience in a campaign where voters were hungry for change and saw it in the big personality of her opponent. In 2008, she fought through to the very end of the primary. In her concession speech, there was a hint of hopefulness.
"Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it," Clinton said.
The light was shining through, she said, giving hope that the path would be a little easier next time. And in some ways it was.
Clinton came out ahead in the primary this year, despite a steady drumbeat of controversy over Benghazi, her email server, the Wall Street speeches. Headed into Election Day, she was leading Donald Trump in most polls and had a vastly superior campaign operation — but it seems none of that mattered.
"I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling but someday, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now," Clinton said the day after the election.
Clinton didn't tear up. Unlike her running mate, she kept her composure throughout, no doubt from years of training herself to project the kind of strength that voters demand from female leaders.
When Clinton gave her concession speech in 2008, it was in the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., underneath a ceiling made of glass. In that primary race, she had won the popular vote, but lost in the delegate count. This year, her election night party on Tuesday was held under a glass ceiling at the Javits Center in New York City. But the candidate would not speak that night. On Wednesday morning, she was ahead in the popular vote, but had lost the presidency in the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton ultimately ended her political career in a small hotel ballroom with a white plaster ceiling.
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