What have they done to Hillary?

She was one of the leading lawyers of her generation. But now the First Lady is a Stepford Wife
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The Independent Online
Two dozen "prominent British women" were rustled up overnight. Would we be available for coffee and a discussion with Mrs Clinton at 9.15 yesterday morning? She wanted to talk about problems facing professional women - or so the message said. Well, that is an invitation not to be sneezed at, murmured confidentially late night down the phone from the head of embassy personnel.

The first question was, who were the other 23 selected "prominent women"? Some had no trouble earning the sobriquet - Lady Blackstone, the Labour baroness without whom no conference or committee is ever complete; Gillian Shephard, the most senior woman in the Cabinet; Sue MacGregor of the Today programme; Sue Slipman, erstwhile patron saint of single parents, now head of the Training and Enterprise Councils; Deborah Warner, the distinguished theatre director. There were two of us journalists from the only liberal broadsheets, no Tory press. A clanger of a non-PC note was struck in the list of participants: "Sarah Ebanja - Hailing from south of the Thames where most persons of color live, Ms Ebanja is a local government official with one of the lower-income sections of the London community."

We eyed one another with fascination over orange juice, in the opulence of the ambassador's Regent's Park palace. As we awaited the First Lady's entrance, we tried, unsuccessfully, to guess the rationale for this curiously arbitrary grouping. And wasn't there something oddly uncomfortable about a lot of achievers gathering together to whinge about women's failures?

Mrs Clinton, we were told, conducts one of these meetings in every country she visits. We were, in other words, a necessary photo-opportunity in her itinerary, as the cameras rolled in for her opening remarks. In royal blue polo neck and hair swept into a chignon that said "serious", she entered the room and pressed our flesh, each woman getting the firm handshake and the long, intimately significant look. This woman is a professional. Or at least a professional First Lady. But is she still a professional in her own right?

"There is a special relationship between our countries and I think that is especially true on a personal level," she started out, a pensee straight from the Handbook for First Ladies Visiting Britain. She wanted to "trade thoughts or ideas you might have about common interests, particularly among women ... we have so much more in common than the things that separate us." And there was more from the same little book, handed down no doubt from Tricia, to Betty, to Rosalyn, to Nancy, to Barbara to Hillary. Bone china cups clinked, petit fours went uneaten.

What had they done to her? The men with the mind-machines have captured her at last, sucked the life and guts out of her, fashioned her into the only acceptable model - a fully fledged First Stepford Wife. She sits stiffly, like a mannequin, her head nodding up and down mechanically, her expression glazed, half smiling, hardly changing, her views anodyne, her words as carefully manicured as the lawns outside the window. What have they done to the woman who was once one of the brightest lawyers of her generation, one of the team that impeached Richard Nixon? What have they done to the woman who set out so boldly to bring radical reform to the whole American health-care system? Was it the disastrous defeat of that project, and the catastrophic mid-term elections that finally drove her back to the hearth?

Aficionados of her truly dreadful column - "Hillary Clinton - A View from the White House" - in the London Evening Standard will not be surprised to hear that the Stepford doctors have had their way with her. (Except for those readers who still think, as I did at first, that her column must be a pastiche from the pen of some wicked satirist). One of last month's columns might have made Nancy Reagan blush: "On Wednesday my husband and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. I know it sounds corny, but we love each other more now than when we married." You don't want to know the rest. It gets worse.

Talk was at first desultory. After all, what did we have to say that we had not all said a thousand times before? But dutifully we rambled round the usual buzz words - glass ceilings, child care, paternity leave, the long-hours culture, men's refusal to change, zero-hours contracts and the pitiful pay of most part-timers. What could we say that she had not heard wherever her travels take her? But now and then a little light glimmered in her glassy eyes. She talked of the backlash against women, the rush for traditional family values, the confusion exploited by a small but well-financed group of fundamentalists. Fine.

But when Sue Slipman asked her about single mothers, it triggered a Stepford response: "There really is a reality to that problem," she said. "Whether you like it or not, children of lone parents don't do as well in school, they get in trouble with the law, and more often need assistance with behavioural and emotional problems. I am writing a book about children, on this subject. It's a problem feminists are going to have to confront." She went on to say, "Divorce is a bad deal for women and children. I think divorce should be made harder. It's gotten too easy for women and men." Many women, she said, do not like it when she delivers these home truths.

Herbert Morrison it was, I think, (Peter Mandelson's grandfather, incidentally) who once said: "Don't tell me what's in the motion, just tell me who put it up." Much of politics is like that: to understand the real issue, you need not only the bare words on the page, but also their origin and real intent before you know what's going on. There is nothing so exceptional in what Hillary Clinton says about the economic disaster of divorce for women and children. But it is the fact that she is saying it that sends out alarm signals. Read her lips, this plays straight into the family- values, cookie-baking, home-making lobby in whose image she is now moulded. She may be right - but that is beside the point. Her book sounds as though it will be written by the same hand and brain that pens her column.

Gillian Shephard, interestingly, was not keen to jump in on this theme. Sitting beside the Prozac First Lady, she shone in warmth, humanity and common sense by comparison - despite a routine, but not particularly heart- felt, defence of some of the Government's harsher policies. (Her, alas, off-the-record murmured comments about sexism in the Cabinet warmed the cockles of those few of us who heard them.) But then it is a far easier thing to be a politician in your own right than Caesar's wife.

Hillary Clinton still attracts an encyclopaedia of invective: "Doesn't this exhaustively combative, unbearably confident little blonde know when she's beaten?" wrote Ann Leslie (not an uncombative woman herself) in the Daily Mail; pushy ideologue; protean schemer; Lady Macbeth; and even, according to Newt Gingrich's mother, bitch. How does she feel about the attacks on her? She replied in straight Stepfordese: "I don't take criticism personally. No matter what you do, you never satisfy your critics. You can spend too much time worrying about whether people approve of you, when what matters is whether you approve of yourself."

Can she be de-programmed? Perhaps, but rescue for the author of a nauseating description of a secret husband and wife midnight dip in the moonlit White House pool may come too late.