Madame Secretary — Madame Senator — Madame First Lady . . . Hillary Clinton is an enigma who is best seen in stages; as a series of parts, not a whole. Stage Number One was the Goldwater girl from the Midwest, an overachiever raised by conservative parents, and a girl who later rebelled in Stage Two, becoming the classic late-60s Ivy League feminist, who brought her bad hair, bad clothes, thick glasses, and in-your-face views into backwater Arkansas, proudly disdaining adornment and deference, or at least till Bill lost. Then came Stage Three, when she changed herself into a southern belle (or a northern idea of one), losing the glasses, going much blonder, and taking Bill’s name. For the campaign, there was Stage Four, when she emerged as America’s sweetheart with the glossy blonde flip and soft dresses who giggled with Tipper, as the Clintons and Gores stormed their way through the heartland on that great double date that enchanted America. That didn’t last long.
Stage Five was the New Kind of First Lady, perhaps better known as the Age of Confusion, unnerving the country as never before. The New York Times Magazine put her on its cover, dressed in white as “Saint Hillary.” The American Spectator put her on its cover, dressed in black, riding a broom. She was most things to all people, and the same thing to none: She was the woman empowered as never before by a sensitive New Man who adored her intelligence; and the woman embarrassed as none before in her station by an old-fashioned bounder for whom her intelligence was not quite enough. She ran (into the ground) her husband’s premier domestic initiative, stood by his side as he owned up to seducing an intern, and went out to campaign for his party when he became an embarrassment, and after it all posed for the cover of Vogue looking resplendent in burgundy velvet. Through it all was a dazzling array of hair and dress styles that only increased the confusion: “pretty in pink,” dowdy dresses, dowdy curls, short bobs, the long flowing blonde locks of a mid-1940s film star. A frump and a film star, a wronged wife and a strong woman, a victim and a leader: Which was she, and what did it mean?
Then she found a way of becoming a leader through being a victim, rising above Bill by using his power, laying a claim to her own slice of power by having stood by him when he was disgraced. It was about this time too that she found her own style, settling into the iconic, ubiquitous pantsuits, and the shorter and close-to-androgynous hair. This was Stage Six, as she settled into the Senate, an Empress in Waiting, preparing her own run to return to the White House, on the base of feminists and big-government liberals she had built up and relied on since Stage Two. But then she was hit by the Hurricane Known as Obama, which washed this base out from beneath her, and sent her reeling back to Stage One. Attacked from the left, Hillary surfaced her inner Republican, speaking out to the center-right wing of her party, touting God, guns, and a tough foreign policy, becoming, if not quite like Barry, perhaps Reaganesque. This was Stage Seven, which set her up for Stage Eight: Madame Secretary, Obama’s own Iron Lady, a Margaret Thatcher who will never go wobbly, but shore up his reach to the Right. Such is the Circle of Life now for Hillary Clinton. But where will she go for Stage Nine?
– Noemie Emery is author of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.