The power and the glory without a face-job

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DID YOU see that photograph of Hillary Clinton last week, speaking to the US House Ways and Means Committee? Head thrown back, profile fearlessly exposed, hair perfectly coiffed, fingers confidently steepled, she was the very model of a modern semi-president.

Isn't it extraordinary how power transforms people? It may corrupt, but it also glamorises. No wonder even the pudgiest, ploddingest MP is a target for political groupies as he weaves his late-night way along the corridors of the Commons.

Hillary Clinton in her twenties was a blue-stocking who seemed to have married a rather more attractive man than her outward appearance warranted. She had glasses, a shapeless sort of face, muddy complexion and an expression of earnest striving. In her thirties she discarded the specs and pulled her hair off her forehead into an Alice band. In her early forties she looked like a successful lawyer who concentrated on her career rather than her looks.

During last year's presidential campaign she copied the Nancy Reagan Look. I don't mean her anorexic granny style of dressing - itself copied from the Duchess of Windsor, who also knew a thing or two about male manipulation; I mean the adoring gaze that never left her husband's face, as she sat worshipfully through her 93rd hearing of his vote-for- me speech.

Once Bill Clinton had been sworn in, she was free to take up her own role again. After experimenting with hair and make-up, she has settled for a transatlantic version of the Princess of Wales Look; well-tailored suits, short, highlighted hair and neat, expensive accessories. But that doesn't explain the skin]

The First Lady's skin has suddenly become flawlessly smooth, as though 20 years had been peeled away. I am not suggesting she has undergone that painful process called dermabrasion. She has too much sense, and hasn't had the chance to hide for weeks while the nasty red scars heal. I believe Hillary Clinton's transformation comes from within. Her face is burnished by the patina of power.

Here is a famously intelligent and energetic woman who, after years of frustration while her husband climbed the political ladder making all the obvious mistakes, has suddenly come into her own. She has the power. She has the limelight. She has the acclaim. And she thrives on it.

At last, Hillary Clinton is in a position to do what she wants to do: reform the chaotic American health system. Not for her the simpering do- goodness of deserving causes or the vulgar display of swanky frocks at fund-raising events. This woman wants real change: change in the laws.

She has done nothing less than take on the vast and rich American medical establishment, in the teeth of a witches' brew of high- powered lobbies all doing very nicely out of leaving things the way they are and letting the lowest third of the nation get sick and die. What matter Medicaid, so long as the pharmaceutical companies', the insurance companies' and the private hospitals' profits continue to soar?

The exhilaration that comes from actually being able to do something in her own right about this pustulant sore at the heart of the American way of life shows in her face and her stance. Like anyone who has had to wait patiently upon events before getting the chance to achieve what she - or he - has always known they could do, Hillary Clinton blazes with energy, confidence and a kind of glee. Here I am] she seems to be saying; it took me long enough, but just try and stop me now.

You see quite a lot of women looking like her nowadays: often women in middle-age, who are beginning to be free of the insistent needs of their families (be it at the young end - children - or the older end - parents) and who have patiently made their way through the minefield of male-dominated professions, biding their time, seeming docile, doing the unpopular jobs, sitting on the tedious but vital committees, until they finally get their hands on the only thing that matters: the chance to wield power in their own right. Not as secretaries, personal assistants, or as wives, mothers or mistresses, but as prime movers.

Many of them look like Hillary Clinton. They may not dress as well; they may not have the money (though I shall never forget the first time I paid more than pounds 100 for a dress, able at last to think, stuff the school uniform]). But they have her Look: blazing, exultant, breasting-the-tape gusto. Better than a face-lift, any day.