Profile: If you vote for him, you get her: Hilary Clinton, would-be first lady

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Standing among victims of Hurricane Andrew this week, appropriately dressed in sneakers and T-shirt Hillary Clinton nodded her head as she listened to the grim tales. She did not look like an emotional woman; she looked like one who was thinking about how to get things fixed, whereas her husband was visibly moved. Naturally, the television cameras were there, so the millions could have a good look at the would-be First Couple confronting their first natural disaster.

Hillary Clinton is never warm and fuzzy, even with the head tilted adoringly up at Bill for the cameras; with her high forehead and glittery blue gaze, she still seems a bright woman rather than a soft one. Throughout their political lives (and before), she has been an active public campaigner, but she has always been private about her emotions. And the experiences of the last few months - when she has been targeted and shot at, and accused of all manner of badness - has made her more private still. These days, she is even more guarded with the press, less willing to show herself.

'If you vote for him,' Hillary once said, 'you get me.' And it looks as if that is how it may end up. But for the most part this year, it has been a story of those who will not vote for him wanting to get her. She has been called the Winnie Mandela of American politics, the Lady Macbeth of Little Rock; she has been labelled a radical feminist, at a time when in the Republican demonology it rates as bad as being a Commie used to be. Richard Nixon, the rehabilitated elder statesmen of the Republican Party, has said, 'Hillary pounds the piano so hard that Bill can't be heard. You want a wife who's intelligent, but not too intelligent.'

After this Labor Day weekend, and running for eight weeks, comes the presidential campaign in earnest, the end game. One might think that Hillary, who all year has been one of the Republicans' favourite ways of attacking Bill, was about to experience Hurricane George (the worst yet), but that is looking less likely. For the time being, the enemy has backed off, fearful that they might have overdone it already and that they may antagonise America's working women. Perhaps the Republicans have done as much as they can, though there are those who think they may feel driven to do worse.

It was assumed long ago, when this whole business began, that her credentials as lawyer, scholar, mother and wife would be an asset to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. Instead, she fuelled America's ambivalent uneasiness about a working woman as First Lady. Hillary Clinton has big problems with The Wife Thing. She is a new phenomenon in American politics: a candidate's wife who is a feminist, a passionate career woman who is a real player in her husband's political life. As a partner at the Rose law firm in Little Rock, she also provides the family's main income and makes around dollars 160,000 (pounds 80,000) a year to Bill's dollars 35,000 as Governor of Arkansas. The irony is that this is the year of the political woman. Cynicism about politics means that female politicians, seen as outsiders, are in favour, and women in both parties are running for office. But Hillary Clinton would have an easier time running for office than running for wife.

The ability and will to succeed is something she has always possessed. She was born in 1948 in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Her parents owned a textile business; they were Republicans. Hillary changed her politics after working as a teenager with poor inner-city kids and Mexican itinerant workers in rural Illinois. She was an outstanding student at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts. She met Bill Clinton at Yale Law School in 1970; we are told that he kept staring at her so attentively in the library that finally she strode across and said, 'I think if you're going to stare at me, we should at least know each other.' She said later, 'I fell in love with him because he wasn't afraid of me.'

She went to Washington to work for the House Judiciary Committee, which was preparing for the impeachment of President Nixon. On a Rhodes scholarship, Bill went to Oxford - where he famously smoked marijuana but did not inhale - then home to Arkansas to begin his political career.

In 1975, having moved to Arkansas, Hillary married Bill and turned her back on the sort of high-profile, massive-money legal career that New York and Washington can offer. And she underwent that first makeover: she lightened up and, eventually, lightened her hair. (It is said that Hillary Clinton went ultimately blonde after reading Margaret Thatcher's comment that at a certain age, women should lighten their hair.)

Of her powers as a professional there is no doubt; her detractors have, of course, taken shots at her as a mother. These seem out of order. Hillary is obsessed with her daughter, Chelsea (named out of love for Judy Collins's version of 'Chelsea Morning'); running for a camera whenever the child performs, refusing to let her give interviews or appear on television.

Among those who are not her ideological enemies, feelings about Hillary often divide along gender lines. A male intimate of Bill Clinton's does not much like her; he finds her cold and strident. His wife, though, a professionally qualified woman who has chosen to stay home with the kids, is impressed. 'I met her at a huge fund-raiser - she worked the crowd brilliantly, she seemed gracious and, well, nice.' When the woman met Hillary again, she remembered her name. What she loved most, though, was when, at the Democratic Convention, Hillary and Tipper Gore (the wife of Al Gore, Bill Clinton's running mate) danced to Fleetwood Mac. Was it spontaneous? 'I don't know, but it felt like a great feminist thing from the early days of sisterhood.'

And this, in a way, is the nub of it. Hillary Clinton's development has been very much of her type and of her time; in the Sixties, she was a right-on activist; in the Seventies, a feminist; in the Eighties, superwoman. What we now see is the aggregation of those experiences, unapologetically combined in an ambitious and pragmatic political wife.

It has led her into routines that did not play well all across America. Last winter, when Gennifer Flowers alleged she had slept with Bill Clinton, the Clintons went on national television. In spite of accusations that Bill suffered from 'bimbomania', Hillary was by his side, a real steel magnolia, but she noted that she was not a vacuous 'stand by your man' woman from a Tammy Wynette song. It probably cost him the Country & Western vote; and Republicans said she was 'a woman scorned', who wanted power so badly she was willing to 'overlook his infidelities'.

Soon after, in a Chicago bakery, she blew it again. 'I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,' she said. For her lack of tact, Republican strategists cast her as a hate object for the homemakers of America. It also made her look hard and brassy, a self-involved career woman, contemptuous of housewives.

She dumped the headband, went for the full blonde look, baked cookies and went misty-eyed over a cornball celebration of the Fourth of July. Confronted with a 'softer, gentler' Hillary (and yet not really soft), some feminist admirers said she had become a political Stepford wife, a robot, a burnt-out case.

In America's First Lady culture, the wife must be A Good Spouse - complacent, helpful; a Norma Major, say - but she must also be Queen, an imperial consort who sets a national style. There is no rule book. What is required is perfect political pitch. 'I thought we women were beginning to develop a framework for that kind of life we could lead, still married, still committed to family, still engaged in the outside world,' said Hillary Clinton. 'And I've just been surprised . . . by the assumptions that bear little resemblance to how all of us - not just me - make our way through this uncharted terrain.'

In the First Lady race, Marilyn Quayle, 41, an ambitious lawyer but in tandem with a much less promising spouse, is more like Hillary Clinton than anyone else. Because she is another powerful woman, she also takes her share of flak, although the two women's politics could not be more different.

During the Republican Convention last month, she and Barbara Bush indulged in Hillary bashing. Hillary was portrayed as a woman who thinks 'marriage is slavery' and that kids should have 'the right' to sue their parents. (All this casually based on serious studies of 'dependency relationships' and child abuse done by Hillary nearly 20 years ago.) When Hillary Clinton plunged into the slippery pond of First Lady culture, the water was freezing. It was assumed that if Bill Clinton were elected, she would play an official professional role as she always had.

In fact, this is not some mania of the New Woman. First Ladies were originally seen as 'co-presidents'. When Martha Washington worked for her husband, George insisted that the Continental Congress pay her. Dolley Madison, who apparently insisted women should be allowed in a Washington oyster bar, was known as 'Lady Presidentress', and Edith Wilson pretty much ran the government when Woodrow was ailing.

Everyone knows that when you elect a president you elect a couple, but gradually the image became radically different from the reality. Eleanor Roosevelt was immensely influential, but only after she got to the White House. So was Jackie Kennedy, admired and criticised for her style; Nancy Reagan was mostly attacked for hers, but everyone knew she pulled Ronnie's strings.

No First Lady has appeared more reluctant than Barbara Bush - and few have been as shrewd politically. She is the biggest weapon the Bush campaign has. Much as the 'Silver Fox' is admired by some, there are those who think this American 'Queen Mum' is sarcastic, mean-spirited, a tough cookie with a weak husband who can make Hillary Clinton look like Mary Poppins. In the race for First Lady, we are not watching the weaker sex.

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