National Commentary

Maureen Dowd: Hillary La Francaise, Cherchez La Femme?

WASHINGTON — It’s an odd cultural inversion.

The French first lady, the one who has traditionally ignored and overlooked her husband’s peccadilloes for the greater gain of keeping her marriage intact and running the Elysee Palace, has fled her gilded perch, acting all-American and brimming over with feelings and feminist impulses.

The former American first lady, the one who’s supposed to be brimming over with feminist impulses, has ignored and overlooked her husband’s peccadilloes for the greater gain of keeping her marriage intact, as she tries to return to the gilded perch and run the White House.

Cecilia Sarkozy acts so American, while Hillary Clinton acts so French.

Cecilia at one point left her marriage to go to New York and seek love American-style, while Hillary lost the public love in the ‘90s when she tried French-style health care reform.

In an interview with Essence magazine, Hillary sounded tres French, tres laissez-faire, talking about her marriage.

“Now obviously we’ve had challenges as everybody in the world knows,” she said. “But I never doubted that it was a marriage worth investing in even in the midst of those challenges. And I’m really happy that I made that decision.

“Again, not a decision for everybody. And I think it’s so important for women to stand up for the right of women to make a decision that is best for them.”

In addition to the warrior strategy, the one that led Hillary to back President Bush on the Iraq war and the Iran drumbeat, the senator has a girlfriend strategy.

Hillary recently told an interviewer that they should talk like “two girlfriends,” and last week her campaign theme was: “Women Changing America.” She returns to Wellesley on Thursday to launch Hillblazers, a bid to attract young Hillarys to the campaign. She will be back in the setting of her 1969 feminist triumph as the commencement speaker who described her class’ desire for a “more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living” and who spoke truth to power, chastising Edward Brooke for being out of touch.

Hillary doesn’t speak truth to power any more. Now that Mark Penn believes women can carry her to victory, Hillary speaks girlfriend to girlfriend.

That tack, Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic, would only work if she were “willing to let us women in on the big, underlying struggle of her life that is front and center in our understanding of who she is as a woman. Her husband’s sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest — and most womanly — ideals and convictions, for the Clintons’ political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible. To call her husband a philanderer is almost to whitewash him, for he’s used women far less sophisticated, educated and powerful than he — women particularly susceptible to the rake’s characteristic blend of cajolery and deceit — for his sexual gratification.

“In glossing over her husband’s actions and abetting his efforts to squirm away from the scrutiny and judgment they provoke, Hillary has too often lapsed into her customary hauteur and self-righteousness and added to the pain delivered upon these women.”
That’s French hauteur, of course, the kind Nicolas Sarkozy showed when he called his press secretary an “imbecile” and refused to answer Lesley Stahl’s question on “60 Minutes” about his marriage and ripped off his microphone. He may have failed to realize that, unlike in France, he can’t call his powerful buddies and simply get the story killed.

Hillary surely hopes there is a harbinger in Argentina, where voters just rewarded their former president for his economic policies by electing his wife to succeed him.

“And why not?” former first lady Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said about Hillary on Wednesday. “Another woman wouldn’t be bad.”
Flanagan is not so sure. She was particularly bothered by Hillary’s callousness in dumping Socks, the beloved White House cat and best-selling author, on Bill’s former secretary Betty Currie.

But maybe the qualities that many find off-putting in Hillary — her opportunism, her triangulation, her ethical corner-cutting, her shifting convictions from pro-war to anti-war, her secrecy, her ruthlessness — are the same ones that make people willing to vote for a woman.

Few are concerned that Hillary is strong enough for the job. She is cold-eyed about wanting power and raising money and turning everything about her life into a commodity. Yet, the characteristics that are somewhat troubling are the same ones that convincingly show she will do what it takes to beat Obama and Rudy. She will not be soft or vulnerable. She will not melt in a crisis.

And, unlike Obama, she doesn’t need to talk herself into manning up. Obama whiffed Tuesday night when debate moderators teed up the first question for him to take on Hillary — something the debate dominatrix never would have done.