First Ladies face the bear pit
Two politician's wives - but not the mirror image they might seem
Friday 30 May 1997
Hours waiting outside the new Globe theatre in Southwark offered just a couple more waves as the two ladies stepped inside. A long wait among the groundlings in the pit finally gave us a good long look at them up there in their box by the stage, the Gentlemen's Room, where in days of yore Elizabethan beaux sat to be looked at. And look we did while the Prologue was granted "monarchs to behold the swelling scene". The monarchs, however, only stayed for the first two acts of Mark Rylance's brilliant Henry V.
They spent some six hours of the day together, so what did they talk about? In their box where we could watch them, poor Cherie seemed forced to make all the conversational running, while Hillary wore her Prozac look, as if she'd been knocked down, drugged and stuffed in the process of transforming a clever independent woman into an obedient royal mannequin. Will the embalmers get to Cherie too? No. She has Hillary's example as a lighthouse warning of all the fatal rocks upon which poor Hillary's ship has crashed.
But yes, there was one flash of animation between them when Cherie caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd and pointed down at we hacks in the pit. Her eye had fallen upon that veteran warrior of the Daily Mail, Ann Leslie, who was gazing up alarmingly, inspecting their every pore and blemish through a miniature pair of KGB surplus binoculars. Now here was something the two women do have in common.
Did Cherie tell Hillary of the stream of poison from the Leslie pen? On the subject of Hillary, Leslie has written: "Doesn't this exhaustingly combative, unbearably confident little blonde know when she's beaten?" She has mocked her "chunky legs", her "psyche of a Sherman tank", "the Superwife from Hell", "the White House Jezebel" and concluded "Slick Willie's Lady Macbeth has at last got her comeuppance!"
Cherie no doubt has worse to come, but so far from Leslie she has drawn "gob-stopper eyes and frightened little chihuahua smiles" and quotes from unnamed sources calling her "a bit charmless, lacking in charisma, rather doggedly serious".
Yes, they do have in common the abuse and ribaldry due to most politicians wives. But otherwise the superficial similarities between the two first ladies are deceptive, shot through with the same fatal mistake the British always make about Americans, assuming a common language means we are not foreigners to one another. To be sure, both women are successful lawyers married to top politicians - but otherwise the Atlantic, and what seems in effect like a generation, yawns between them.
The Christian clean-living Blairs of the Labour Party are a world apart from the Clintons of the Arkansas Democrats. All those who sneered during our election that Blair would be "just another Clinton" have been proved wrong.
Inside Number 11, Hillary met the Blair children. The ladies lunched together with Lyndsay, Cherie's sister, on the sort of meal ladies who lunch tend to eat: sea bass with salad, followed by lemon tart with berries. Said an aide, "It was warm, they got on well, there was a lot of laughter and they discussed a wide range of subjects."
Now what lessons might Cherie have learned from her guest? Don't give up your day job. Never give an interview. Gaze adoringly at your husband on all occasions, but zip your lip. Don't parade your children - what a spectacle poor Chelsea's growing up has been. Don't write a soppy book about children with chapter headings like "Kids Don't Come With Instructions". And don't try your hand at reorganising the NHS on your own. All these lessons Cherie no doubt long ago divined, so perhaps she will survive Hillary's terrible fate and manage to remain human and tolerated, if not loved.
The two couples dined together at Pont de la Tour, a Conran restaurant near Tower Bridge. No doubt the warmth between them is sincere, but these couples are not the mirror-images they seem, nor are their politics as alike as their rhetoric appears, operating in two such alien political and social cultures.
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