Sex and the Presidency

Where do things stand now with Hillary Clinton? What is her trajectory almost a year since it became clear she was running for the presidency?

Some time back I said she doesn’t have to prove she is a man, she has to prove she is a woman. Her problem is not her sex, as she and her campaign pretend. That she is a woman is a boon to her, a source of latent power. But to make it work, she has to seem like a woman.

No one doubts Mrs. Clinton’s ability to make war. No close or longtime observer has ever been quoted as saying that she may be too soft for the job. Instead one worries about what has always seemed her characterological bellicosity. She invented the War Room, listened in on the wiretaps, brought into the White House the man who got the private FBI files of the Clintons’ perceived enemies.

This is not a woman who has to prove she’s tough enough and mean enough; she is more like a bulldozer who has to prove she won’t always be in high gear and ready to flatten you. In private, her friends say—and I have seen it to be true—that she is humorous, bright, interested in the lives of others. But as a matter of political temperament and habit of mind, she is neither patient, high minded nor forbearing. Those who know Mrs. Clinton well, and my world is thick with them, have qualms about her toughness, not doubts.

But she is making progress. She is trying every day to change her image, and I suspect it’s working. One senses not that she has become more authentic, but that she has gone beyond her own discomfort at her lack of authenticity. I am not saying she has learned to be herself. I think after a year on the trail she’s learned how to not be herself, how to comfortably adopt a skin and play a part.

Her real self is a person who wants to run things, to assert authority, to create systems and have people conform to them. She is not a natural at the outsized warmth politics demands. But she is moving beyond—forgive me—the vacant eyes of the power zombie, like the Tilda Swinton character in ‘‘Michael Clayton.’’ The Boston Globe, dateline Manchester, N.H.: ‘‘Clinton is increasingly portraying herself more as motherly and traditional than as trailblazing and feminist.’’ In a week of ‘‘Women Changing America’’ events Mrs. Clinton has shared tales of Chelsea’s childhood and made teasing references to those who are preoccupied by her hairstyles and fashion choices. On ‘‘The View’’ she joked of her male rivals, ‘‘Well, look how much longer it takes me to get ready.’’ This was a steal from JFK’s joke about Jackie when she was late for an appearance: ‘‘It takes her longer to get ready, but then she looks so much better.’’

PunkinHer fund-raising emails have subject lines like, ‘‘Wow!’’ and ‘‘Let’s make some popcorn!’’ Her grin is broad and fixed. She is the smile on the Halloween pumpkin that knows the harvest is coming. She’s even putting a light inside.

In New York this week she told a women’s lunch that ‘‘we face a new question—a lot of people are asking whether America is ready to elect a woman to the highest office in our land.’’ She suggested her campaign will ‘‘prove that America is indeed ready.’’ She also quoted Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘‘Women are like tea bags—you never know how strong they are until they get in hot water.’’

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Mrs. Clinton is the tea bag that brings the boiling water with her. It’s always high drama with her, always a cauldron—secret Web sites put up by unnamed operatives smearing Barack Obama in the tones of Tokyo Rose, Chinese businessmen having breakdowns on trains after the campaign cash is traced back, secret deals. It’s always flying monkeys. One always wants to ask: Why? What is this?

The question, actually, is not whether America is ‘‘ready’’ for a woman. It’s whether it’s ready for Hillary. And surely as savvy a campaign vet as Mrs. Clinton knows this.

Who, of all the powerful women in American politics right now, has inspired the unease, dismay and frank dislike that she has? Condi Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein? These are serious women who are making crucial decisions about our national life every day. They inspire agreement and disagreement; they fight and are fought with. But they do not inspire repugnance. Nobody hates Barbara Mikulski, Elizabeth Dole or Kay Bailey Hutchison; everyone respects Ms. Rice and Ms. Feinstein.

Hillary’s problem is not that she’s a woman; it’s that unlike these women—all of whom have come under intense scrutiny, each of whom has real partisan foes—she has a history that lends itself to the kind of doubts that end in fearfulness. It is an unease and dismay based not on gender stereotypes but on personal history.

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But here’s why I mentioned earlier the latent power inherent in the fact that Hillary is a woman.

It is true that 54% of the electorate is composed of women, and that what feminist sympathies they have may be especially enlivened this year by a strong appeal. It is not true that women in general vote in anything like a bloc, but it is probably true—I think it is true—that they share in a general way some rough and broad sympathies.

One has to do with what it is to be a woman in the world. To be active on any level in the life of the nation is to be immersed in controversy. If you are a woman, the to and fro, the fights you’re in, will to some extent be sharpened or shaped by what used to called sexism. There isn’t a woman in America who hasn’t been patronized—or worse—for being a woman, at least to some degree, and I mean all women, from the nun patronized by the bullying bishop to the congresswoman not taken seriously by the policy intellectual to the school teacher browbeaten by the school board chairman to the fare collector corrected by the huffy businessman. It happens to every woman.

Conservative women tend not to talk about it except to each other, and those conversations are voluble and pointed. They don’t go public with their complaints because they’re afraid it will encourage liberals to pass a law, and if you wanted more laws, or thought laws could reform human nature and make us all nice, you wouldn’t be a conservative. Their problem is sharpened by the fact that some conservative men are boorish and ungentlemanly to show how liberated they are. But I digress.

Or rather I don’t. The point is there are many women who will on some level be inclined to view Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy through the lens of their experience as women, and there is real latent sympathy there if she could tap it, which is what she’s trying to do.

But first, or more important, she will have to credibly and persuasively address what it is in her history—in her—that inspires such visceral opposition. That would be quite something if she did, or even tried.