Unprecedented metamorphosis

November 10, 2000|By Ellen Goodman

NEW YORK -- What a portrait for the history books. Up on the podium of a jammed Grand Hyatt ballroom, the president of the United States is holding his daughter's hand and fighting off tears.

The portrait of a political spouse, he's standing silent, smiling, while the victorious candidate is running down her thank-yous.

"I know I wouldn't be here without my family," she says, and then comes the list: "I want to thank my mother and my brothers and I want to thank my husband and my daughter." Tonight the president is just a "husband."

Hillary has won, big time. After years as a performer in a high-wire balancing act, standing behind her man and on her own two feet, she's made the double-digit leap from first lady to senator, from the East Wing to the Capitol, from political wife to politician.

She's made a transition unprecedented even for a generation of women composing and recomposing their lives without a plan or even a roadmap. It's her turn.

Eight years ago, in a ballroom on the other side of this town, I watched Hillary speak to and for a line of women running for the Senate in the so-called Year of the Woman. A New Yorker standing beside me cheered her on and then sighed, "Gee, I wish she were running for the Senate."

Right from the start, folks who admired this political wife wished she were speaking for herself. And right from the start, folks who hated Hillary wished she'd shut up.

A polarizing figure? Even in the two-for-the-price-of-one days, before health care, before Monica, she was -- as she has said with unabating wonder -- "a Rorschach test" for the messy, complicated changes in women's lives and ambitions.

Since then, she's been a lightning rod for the right wing, a sure-fire target for half a dozen books, a magnet for fund raising. When Rick Lazio went looking for dollars, he wrote smugly: "It won't take me six pages to convince you to send me an urgently needed contribution. ... It will only take six words: I'm running against Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Now, she's standing exuberantly before a crowd saying, "You came out and said that issues and ideals matter." But the truth is that in this race, the issues were all Hillary. It was Hillary, her motives and her marriage, that mattered most. When she was running against Rudy Giuliani and when she was running against Rick Lazio, it was really Hillary vs. Hillary.

From the outset, when I thought she was nuts to run, New Yorkers didn't know whether the first lady was running to get out of the White House or get into it. They argued about whether the Senate race was therapy for a humiliated wife who didn't want to be seen as a victim, or a celebrity cakewalk for an ambitious outsider.

But gradually New York cynicism became grudging respect and then just plain respect. It wasn't always a pretty race. Nor was it always high-minded. The debates hinged on "moments" when the moderator asked Hillary why she stayed with Bill, and when Mr. Lazio came on the attack. The last weeks were small-minded, nasty squabbles in the state's ethnic turf wars.

In the end, though, she won this election, as Charles Schumer, the other senator from New York says, "the old-fashioned way; she earned it." Hillary earned credits in Intensive New York. She became a New Yorker one handshake at a time. She became a New Yorker by getting knocked down and picking herself up.

By October she seemed as comfortable in her skin as she was in her black pantsuit. She found her own voice the way she finally found her haircut.

The candidate even won over her toughest critics, the women who couldn't figure her out because they couldn't figure out her marriage. As Ann Lewis, a Democratic veteran who worked this campaign, says, "It was 16 months of 16-hour-days. Women began to see her as someone who worked hard to meet her responsibilities. That was the key that opened up the door so she could have a conversation with women voters."

Now, back on the podium this election night Hillary is rattling off statistics. The campaign started, she says, on a sunny July morning and "62 counties, 16 months, three debates, two opponents and six black pantsuits later ... here we are."

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been called a lot of names from "rhymes with witch" to carpetbagger. Now she's called senator. The man standing behind her is leaving office; she's entering. This first lady gets a second act.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist with the Boston Globe and can be e-mailed at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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