Hillary Clinton has been a reflection of the changing images of women in America for decades. She's had more re-incarnations than Shirley MacLaine, more fashion makeovers than Cher, more comebacks from bad press than Madonna. The images always need updating. She's the life-size balloon toy, weighted at the bottom, that a child smacks over and watches with surprise and suspicion when it bobs upright again.
The latest smack-and-bob was at the press conference she called at the United Nations to "explain" her emails, and if she was short on explanations, her performance will nevertheless pursue her until the public finally accepts or rejects her, probably after her last campaign for president. No matter how curious the public has a right to be, she insists no one has a right to read her private emails about yoga, Chelsea's wedding or her mother's funeral. (Who asked for that?) "Trust me," she says, the family stuff is all the public has missed. She says she wants to protect those emails sent between husband and wife. Bill apparently didn't get the memo about that, because his spokesman was saying at the very time Hillary was at the podium at the U.N. that he only sent two emails in his life, and neither one was addressed to Hillary.
Saturday Night Live, the temple of television satire, beat her to that last whopper. Kate McKinnon, the new Hillary impersonator on SNL, spoofs her style in an anniversary note to Bill, which she describes as "mature romance." It begins, "Dear Sir or Madam," and suggests "a sit-down at our earliest convenience." Writing satire about the Clintons is easy.
You could compare Hillary's performance at her press conference with her performance as secretary of state, handing Vladimir Putin a mock "reset" button to repair U.S.-Russian relations. That reset didn't work, and she will need more than a reset button to change her own image. Only a male reporter from Turkey was willing to serve up a softball the size of a Halloween pumpkin, asking whether she would have faced the same scrutiny if she were a man.
Her most believable if least persuasive explanation for putting the nation's state secrets on her private email account was that it was for her own "convenience," and the rest of us have a responsibility to trust her. But why worry? That's "herstory," and she's sticking to it.
But "herstory" isn't history. The Associated Press has now filed suit for her emails and government documents. Earlier reminders of the Clintons doing it their way lurk in her taut smiles and clipped sentences. She wants to be the first woman president, and on her terms. Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live gets that right, too -- depicting her running for president before she was born. Hillary is portrayed as an embryo with a banner planted in her mother's womb: "Hillary 2008."
Hillary's old classmates at Wellesley thought Hillary could be the first woman president, but she settled for First Lady to get an early look at the White House furniture. She learned a hard lesson in major-league politics with a disastrous health care proposal. But as hard as she fell, she bobbed up to exploit the changes taking place in the role of women. She wrapped herself in the rights of other women, but the focus of attention always returned to her.
I watched her at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, fascinated as she dealt with the scorn that swirled about her, derided as a pawn in her president's foreign policy. Once she spoke, equating women's rights with human rights, she offered a powerful description of what women everywhere suffer. Later, when Monica Lewinsky emerged as her nemesis, she shifted the focus to the perfidy of one woman, and soon she was back as the polarizer, attacking the "vast right-wing conspiracy" for her humiliation.
She managed to neutralize all that as secretary of state, speaking up for the rights of all women, reprising the spirit she rallied in Beijing. These past two weeks were intended to commemorate her championing of women's rights as an introduction of a second run for president. But the focus on her philanthropy, through the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Foundation, went awry, and the story became how the Clintons took millions from Middle East potentates with dreadful records of mistreating women.
Her report on women, called "No Ceilings" and released on the eve of her press conference, finds that "there has never been a better time to be born female," with the caveat that many obstacles remain, legally, economically and politically. The obstacles for Hillary loom large, too, and they're all of her own making.