Hillary Rodham Clinton has always consciously chosen her identities. She’s been a good wife in pink, defending her First Family’s “zone of privacy.” She’s been a grudging bureaucrat in grey, holding off the press with legalese over her tech travails. She’s been a prolific public speaker, earning a pretty penny from everyone from Goldman Sachs to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
“I find that my life consists of different, sometimes paradoxical parts,” she wrote in 1995, and it’s always been true. Even as far back as her college years at Wellesley, she wrote to her high school pen pal, who showed me the letters, “Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three and a half metamorphoses. … So far, I’ve used alienated academic, involved pseudo-hippie, educational and social reformer and one-half of withdrawn simplicity.”
But now, at 67, Clinton finally appears to be beyond carefully constructing her identities or letting her advisers to design the persona she presents. And it’s going to help her win what she wants most.
Mrs. Clinton‘s speech has also been the talk of the trail. The Des Moines Register says she is hearing an “eagerness for talk” of a female presidency; and Gail Sheehy, writing in Politico, said that by embracing her “60s surge,” Mrs. Clinton “finally appears to be beyond carefully constructing her identities or letting her advisers to design the persona she presents.” — New York Times (6/15/15 – Today in Politics)
In 2008, Clinton allowed her husband and her chief strategist, Mark Penn, to run her as an alpha male commander-in-chief. From the start of the presidential campaign, she came across as brittle and overbearing. No wonder voters sensed an authenticity problem. This time, though, Clinton is not running as a made-over man.
She is in a new stage of life, having become the kickass grandma with a cackle and a fierce new brand of feminism. Sure, as an older woman she is vulnerable to, well, age—but she’s also more genuinely nurturing than ever, and personally committed to protecting the young from erosion of the American dream. She’s gentler; she’s bolder. The hell with losing weight. Let her new image consultant worry about her hair, which is shorter, blonder, simpler. “When you’re in the spotlight as a woman,” she told Diane Sawyer last year, “you get a little worried about, ‘Okay, you know, people over on this side are loving what I’m wearing, looking like, saying. And people over on this side aren’t.’ … I’m done with that. I mean, I’m just done.”
For the first time Hillary seems comfortable in her own skin—not just with her age but also with her gender.
Her newfound confidence was on full display at her campaign kickoff on Roosevelt Island on Saturday, where she turned the age issue on its head, quipping, “I may not be the youngest person running for president. But I will be the youngest woman president.” The crowd erupted.
“And the first grandmother as well.”
She rooted her own life story in lessons she learned from a mother who was abandoned by her parents and forced as a child to work as a housemaid. Years later, Clinton asked her mother how she kept going: A simple answer—the kindness of some people who believed she mattered.
And, thus, after 40 years in public life, fighting introspection and hiding her personal feelings behind a zone of privacy, Hillary has finally found the throughline that answers the crucial question: Why run for president?
She wants to be America’s grandmother-in-chief.
“I believe success isn’t measured by how many millions the wealthiest have, but how many children climb out of poverty, and how many families get ahead and stay ahead,” she told a cheering crowd of thousands, mostly white and Latino with roughly equal numbers of men and women. She wants to be the champion for a rising middle class, universal pre-school, affordable college and child care, equal pay for women, tax relief for small businesses, the end of discrimination toward the LGBT community and a path to citizenship for hardworking immigrants.
And here’s another thing: She’s passionate about equal rights for women, but at her stage of post-menopausal feminism, she does not threaten or alienate men. Rather, she co-opts them, turning them into allies. This is old-fashioned feminine wiles at its most mature. It is also why two of the most powerful men in America—Bill and Barack—will be among Clinton’s most avid supporters in her second run for president.
This phenomenon is bigger than Clinton, who is hardly alone as an older woman on the world platform. She is cued into the zeitgeist of women who are coming into their full power in a life stage I call the “Sixties Surge.” Of 22 recently elected female world leaders, roughly one-third took the office in their sixties—among them the presidents of Chile, South Korea and Brazil. Janet Yellen was 67 when she made history last year as the first woman chair of the Federal Reserve. Six of the most outspoken women senators are in their sixties: Elizabeth Warren (65), Debbie Stabenow (65), Patty Murray (64), Susan Collins (62), Claire McCaskill (61) and Jeanne Shaheen (68).
Today we are seeing women peak in many professions during their Sixties Surge. Harvard’s first woman president, Drew Gilpin Faust, was appointed at 60. At ages when actresses used to be washed up, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren are as popular as ever. But it’s in the highest posts in public life where seasoned women are proving they can handle power and be credible partners with male leaders. Angela Merkel jumped the gun and became Germany’s first woman chancellor of Germany at 50. But today, at age 60, she is Obama’s most powerful ally in the world’s most exclusive political club, the G-7, the de facto leader of the European Union, and has been ranked by Forbes as the second most powerful person in the world.
This is thanks to the fact that we are living during the peak of women’s empowerment in much of the developed world, where power today is less defined in terms of brute military force and more as the capacity for social influence. We now acknowledge that emotional intelligence is correlated with successful leadership, possibly even more so than IQ. Women, of course, have more than enough of both. But the gender gap is pronounced when it comes to the crucial “look before you leap” factor. Women leaders, on average, score higher in studies on the ability to pause and evaluate both tactical information and the human emotional impact before they make a decision.
Christine Lagarde, the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund, turns 60 next year. She is chummy with Clinton. When they sat together for an interview at the Women in the World Summit this spring, Tom Friedman asked, “Is there still a double standard in the media about how we talk about women in public life?” Both women threw back their heads and guffawed. “There is a deep set of cultural and psychological views that are manifested in the double standard,” Clinton said, “and the media is the principle propagator of that double standard.” Lagarde heartily agreed. “I honestly believe that women are better-equipped than men to deal with all sorts of situations,” Lagarde declared, “and better able to adjust, which is a sign of intelligence.” The two women laughed hard and reached out to clasp hands.
Imagine how differently the world’s business might be done if Lagarde becomes president of the European Union while Clinton is president of the United States and the two of them work with Merkel to shape the future of Europe and the United States, which together represent 50 percent of the world economy?
Women in public life have always taken longer to peak than men, who seldom have any interruptions in their ambitious career ascent. (Theodore Roosevelt was 42 when he became president. John Kennedy was 43, Bill Clinton was 46, and Barack Obama 47.) Most women who enter public life, on the other hand, do so starting in their late 30s or 40s, once children are in school. To rise from school board to statehouse to Congress or governor might take 20 years.
But, while she embraced her ambition, she appeared to eschew her gender. Like many women of her generation did in their professions, when Clinton first dared to compete for the loftiest job in a male-dominated political world, she might have thought the best way was to come on as tougher than her peers … like a man. She certainly proved she can eat scandal for breakfast and dinner, but the confident alpha-male strategy did her few favors in the end. Clinton’s stiff demeanor and smug assumption that she was the inevitable Democratic candidate offended Iowa caucus activists, and the first-in-the-nation primary dumped her in third place. She flew to New Hampshire widely predicted to lose again. But that’s when she choked up in a Portsmouth café, where fatigue and fear that her lifelong dream was slipping from her grasp overwhelmed the dictate of her rigid Republican father, who had taught her that any show of emotion was a sign of weakness. Women could relate to her vulnerability, and they gave her a prophetic victory.
It’s a lesson that, eight years later, she’s finally learned. The maternal dimension—the “she understands people like me” empathy—might not have come across in 2008, but it does now when she talks about her mother’s emotional tale, or when she talks about being a grandmother. It does now when she speaks up for blacks and Latinos and hammers Republican governors Rick Perry, Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush for “systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting.” She thunders, “What part of democracy are they afraid of?”
So Hillary will play the age and gender cards for all they’re worth, and today they’re worth a lot. Sixty is the new fifty, which helps to make the Sixties Surge appealing to all ages. The younger, increasingly socially liberal millennial crowd likes her kickass attitude; it makes her seem more invigorated than her age might otherwise represent. (In fact, according to a Pew survey, 69 percent of millennials between 18 and 29 actually think Clinton is in her 40s or 50s.)
Most important, Clinton’s Sixties Surge attitude also helps her appeal to older women who can redeem their lost chance to change the country. Many of Clinton’s female peers with children were similarly delayed in seeking independent accomplishment. Eventually, most reentered the job market, but not many made it beyond middle management or v.p. Tired of concussions from hitting glass ceilings, many have gone on to start small businesses or to become hard-driving entrepreneurs, or they start or join non-profits. Clinton has a huge demographic advantage in these Boomer women’s pent-up desire for a powerful female champion.
In 2016, some 38 million Boomers will be women in their 50s and 60s—roughly one in five of all Americans of voting age. Many share a deeply ingrained political sensibility with Hillary. These are the women that gave birth to the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s and then rallied for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted full economic, social and political equality to women by federal law.
In 1972, the widely popular ERA was passed by both houses of Congress and swiftly ratified by 30 states in the next year. But then anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly hijacked the movement by turning it into a referendum on traditional gender roles, claiming that it would threaten protections like alimony and put the security of middle-aged wives without job skills at risk of divorce and penury. She was helped to roll back support by Catholics and religious conservatives who warned that equal rights could lead to women in military combat, legal abortions and same sex marriage. As the 1979 ratification deadline loomed, the amendment stalled three states shy of passage—and died.
Fifty years later, access to abortion is being steadily eroded. Equal pay for equal work has never been guaranteed. Workplace flexibility and childcare support are still scarce for working women who also bear the unique responsibility for childbirth and breast-feeding. There are a whole lot of angry grannies out there who harbor anger and guilt over letting that key piece of social justice escape. To them, Hillary is the closest thing to a “modern-day Suffragette,” as Intel president Renée James called her.
When Clinton made a soft entry to official candidacy in April, critics were dubious that she’d move leftward enough to confront the truth most Americans know—that the middle class has been rolled by corporate oligarchs and their conservative patrons in Congress and the White House and that women’s and minority rights are constantly in danger of being rolled back by those who prefer a pre-World War II social order. Could the oldest candidate really turn out to be the most forward thinking?
How easily they forget that as first lady, Hillary was attacked as the liberal, even socialist, coat-tugger on her middle-of-the-road Democrat husband. Her first ideas presented on the campaign trail, like student loan reform and automatic voter registration, have been more progressive than many imagined she would be. But they shouldn’t be so surprised.
A dedicated advocate for children and mothers since she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund right out of law school, she can hardly be challenged on her lifelong mission to even the playing field—and the pay field—for females, white, black and brown. Over the course of her six years in the U.S. Senate, Clinton co-sponsored five bills to raise the minimum wage.
The secretary has taken her last fat speaking fee from Wall Street for life (unless she loses). She is free now to “topple” the one percent, as she has said is fair, since it is they who have reaped 95 percent of the gains in our post-recession recovery. “My latest least favorite statistic is the 25 biggest hedge fund managers earn more than all the kindergarten teachers in America combined,” she told a packed room in Columbia, South Carolina. “What does that say about our values?”
Here’s the delicious irony. Hillary can finally afford to show her kickass side to Wall Street, since she and her husband are now rich enough to belong to the 1 percent. With a net worth estimated to be between $100 and $200 million, the couple begins to approach Mitt Romney’s memorable net worth of $250 million. It is almost comical to see rich Republicans turn the old Obama attack meme on Hillary as “out of touch with most Americans.”
If they want a woman to do their bidding, let them have Carly Fiorina.
Having followed Hillary Rodham Clinton since 1991, I have seen her parlay another aspect of her gender into a unique advantage. Hillary knows how to play the game with powerful men: Don’t burn bridges. Build partnerships.
Despite all the years of disdain she drew from women for “standin’ by her (faithless) man,” she has played the long game. She was never an anti-men feminist. It took a Hillary to raise a president. It took a Hillary to swallow the most public worldwide humiliation and save a president. It was she who rallied the Democratic Senate caucus to deny ratifying the Republican House-led impeachment. She has enabled the Clintons to dominate the Democratic Party for more than a quarter of a century.
How influential would she have been as an embittered divorcée?
When Clinton entered the Senate to “seek redemption,” she was expected to swan around as entitled royalty. Instead, she quietly mollified Republicans who had bayed for her husband’s impeachment by sharing the bright lights of her celebrity as a co-sponsor of their bills. She soon had adoring fans among hawks like John McCain and the moralizing Mormon Orrin Hatch. “Let me tell you,” Hatch purred to reporters, “it’s been a wonderful thing to work with her.”
In 2008, after suffering through more than a year of a losing battle for the presidency up against a much younger and less experienced man, Clinton silently licked her wounds and gave up her Senate seat to become a loyal partner of her fiercest adversary. She has described being asked by a talk show audience in Jakarta, Indonesia, how could she suddenly end up as Obama’s secretary of state “after you were saying bad things about him and he was saying bad things about you?”
In many countries, Clinton pointed out, adversaries who lose an election are exiled, jailed or killed—not asked to be secretary of state. But she wanted to come up with an answer that would reach young people in Indonesia’s young democracy. “I went to work for him because I shared many of the same values about what should be done in the next presidency. And because we both love our country.”
Clinton not only showed the rest of world how one can collaborate with a former political enemy, but also how to win his enthusiastic backing as the successor. And as a result, not one but two U.S. presidents will now be among this kickass grandma’s most ardent supporters in the surge of her generation to elect America’s first woman president.