WALKING IT BACK. I want to retract my instapunditry of Tuesday morning about the New York Times article on Hillary Clinton's marriage. I momentarily forgot to put on my political journalist hat and reacted to it as a woman. As a woman, I find it impressive and admirable that she's been able to preserve her marriage and turn it into something that, by all accounts, works for her. She has a friend, advisor, and peer in Bill Clinton, and the article's unprecedentedly detailed accounting of their days showed that they somehow manage to find a way to spend a substantial amount of time together for a congressional couple, while still being mindful of not getting in each other's way. It may not be perfect, but whose marriage is, marriage being the union of two imperfect beings after all? She has a real marriage, and if you consider only her role in it -- which is the only thing that ought to matter at this point, since she is the political candidate, not her husband -- it's hard not to be impressed by her achievement in building something workable on top of a foundation we all watched cracking.
But that view is one that, I suspect, will be infrequently heard. The political media world will always look at her marriage from the perspective of him, forever placing her in the role of victim or deficient wife. The focal point of discussion will never be her happiness, but his, and whether or not she is living up to her responsibility to provide for it. And that is a disaster for her. The moment she once again becomes, in the public discussion, little more than the wife in his marriage, all her efforts to define herself on the public stage begin to crumble, too. Rather than being an actor, she is the subject of actions. Her capacity to make choices and decisions is negated, and her control over her life and fate and career rendered secondary to her capacity to control him. Instead of being the first female senator from New York, and the first serious female presidential candidate (requisite caveat here) in American history, the conversation becomes: Hillary Clinton, doormat or shrew?
That can't be good for her. Nor can the present media environment, which I expect will be even more brutal, if it is imaginable, than the one she faced in the 1990s. The blogs will hurt her more than they help, and not just by disagreeing with her on political matters. Even here, on this very blog, I see it happening. My colleague Ezra engaged in a kind of intellectual exercise on Tuesday that the MSM would never publish, and which is the kind of thing that can only add to her public humiliation. The moment people start discussing Sen. Clinton as a sexual being rather than an intellectual one, they take her down a notch. That's how it's always worked for women in public life.
Clinton's best defense against this kind of too explicit, too personal talk, whether couched in the elliptical terms of the MSM or in the in-you-face style of the blogs, resides in the fact that we still have gendered ideas about how it is appropriate to treat men and women in public. It is one thing to reveal the sexual misdeeds of a man -- that's part of public boundary maintaining. It's quite another thing to try to strip his wife in the public square. There is something so undignified, so socially shameful about the attempted public sexual humiliation of a woman that I have to believe there will be a negative backlash against it.
Or perhaps, again, I am just thinking like a woman.