Friday, February 23, 2007

Thoughts on Hillary and other female heads of state

The Clinton-Obama Democratic matchup is study in contrasts, so far.

We know Hillary only too well; one of her problems is that of too much exposure. Obama is the proverbial blank slate. They're both trailblazers, demographically speaking, but of different types: she, a woman and ex-First Lady; he, an African-American with a multicultural past. Hillary possesses many interesting and useful traits, but charisma seems not to be one of them. Obama has almost nothing but charisma.

Commonalities are that they are both smart, and they both lean to the Left, as does the party itself these days. Who leans more heavily to the Left is anybody's guess.

If I were forced to choose between the two--and "forced" it would have to be, because I have no interest in voting for either--I think I'd go (albeit very reluctantly) for Hillary's toughness over the sketchy touchy-feely (but so far, empty) "inspiration" of Obama. This, of course, could change, if he fills in the blankness with something of substance.

I've never hated Hillary, and still don't. And yes, I know, that's not a very strong endorsement, nor is it meant to be. But I well understand the hatred for her. She emanates the same vibes that made people hate Leona Helmsley (remember her?), Martha Stewart, and any other woman who is perceived as both coldly ruthless and powerful.

We've had so few female heads of state that comparisons are hard to find. Actually, I amend that thought: there have been many female heads of state, but most of them aren't widely known, and most ascended to power through a sort of inheritance--the death of a husband or father.

Even the very-well-known Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir were somewhat in this mold: Gandhi filled a power vacuum her father Nehru's sudden death left open, and Meir ascended to the office of Prime Minister when chosen by her party after the sudden death of former PM Levi Eshkol. Both were political beings prior to those events, particularly Meir, but there's little question that the openings left by the deaths of prominent men facilitated their rise in an atmosphere in which women leaders were by far the exception rather than the rule.

Interestingly enough, Hillary fits very well into that mold. Her career has been closely linked to that of her more conventionally electable husband. And now, although Bill is still very much alive, he's "dead" in the political sense. Since he can no longer run for President, Hillary has taken on the mantle.

Margaret Thatcher is the one woman leader who seems to have climbed to the pinnacle without the help of a father or husband who was a political predecessor, or the sudden death of a political colleague creating an opportunity that otherwise would not have existed. Of course, she was elected not through a direct process of people voting for her, but voting instead for her party, (as is always the case in Parliamentary systems). But still, she was elected under her own steam.

Thatcher was certainly in the mold of a woman perceived as exceptionally strong and rather cold, and was hated by many in her time. But (at least to the best of my knowledge; and I don't pretend to be an expert on Thatcher) she was not perceived as corrupt or amorally opportunistic, as is Hillary. Instead, Thatcher was hated for her policies, and for her no-nonsense firmness in implementing them. Thatcher was devoted to conservative ideas, and was unusually and rather firmly consistent about them for her entire life. Her iron qualities seemed to be less in service of self-aggrandizement than in service of her political cause. But iron she was.

Hillary's iron has been shown more in the cause of getting first her husband and then herself elected, at least so far. And she's tainted by the brush of her own possible corruption as well as Bill Clinton's moral failings, and her own compromises in service of his career and the preservation of their marriage.

As far as the latter goes, I have some sympathy for the position in which Bill's philandering placed her. Despite his lengthy history of infidelity--of which she no doubt knew--the Lewinsky affair during his Presidency must have violated some important pact between them. I'm not sure of the nature of that agreement (no, they haven't taken me into their confidence), but it certainly must have included refraining from misbehaving in such a way as to get caught and jeopardize both of their political careers. And if she'd left him at the time, her calculation was probably that it would have jeopardized them still further. Call me naive, but I also believe she was wounded in the personal sense, as well.

The idea of Bill in the White House again, if only as a spouse, must fill many with dread--just as it fills many with glee. He's a polarizing figure of great intensity. Perhaps that's why many Democrats prefer the blank slate of Obama. He may seem to be a lightweight, but at least he carries no real baggage.

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