What Does Being A “Good" Wife Have To Do With Being President?

The writer Lynne Tillman wonders why being a woman with a past is different from being “a man with a past.” This piece is the second in an ongoing series of essays by women about Hillary Clinton.

At the age of 3, I asked my father, “What baseball team are you for?” He said, "The Dodgers,” and I became a Dodger. Weird, not weird. It is sometimes impossible to recognize when or why we came to think what we do. Children believe before they are really thinking, before the Age of Reason, which is meant to start at age 7. I heard the word “whore” on the school playground when I was 7. I didn't know what it meant, so I asked my moralistic mother to tell me its meaning. “Look it up in the dictionary,” she said. I opened her big Webster's Dictionary and looked for “hore” and have been looking up words ever since.

Politics, the art of the possible, has a lot to do with being reasonable and willing to listen; in a way, and this is weird, it’s like writing. Writing’s about choices, decisions, principles, being aware of what you’re doing, alongside unawareness, unconscious drives. Writing engages the intellect and emotion, both fused actually into a process called style, say, but some feelings seem beyond understanding — unresolved relationships, past and present. In the mind, scenes come and go; they won’t fade to black. Writing also requires listening, to the rhythms of speech, cadences, tone.

Politics thrives, or should, in ideas, and also is driven by attitudes, emotions, wishes, hopes, feelings of identification. About identification, I’ve been wondering why Hillary Clinton is distrusted, trying to understand it, and the vehemence of emotion against her. I often think about trust, anyway, among friends, in family, and how hard it can be to trust. I’ve come to think that it means believing that a friend doesn’t mean to hurt me, even if they have. I trust a friend with whom I can argue and make up, sincerely, a true reconciliation.

I often wonder what people who distrust Clinton imagine she’s going to do. When Obama won the primaries in 2008, and Clinton’s and his popular votes both reached about 18 million, Obama’s supporters feared she’d “do something” at the convention. There was a lot of talk. And she didn’t. About the Goldman Sachs speeches, a scandal du jour: I watched a video — probably shot from the audience — of one of those "suspect" speeches. Clinton talked about empowering women around the world, giving loans to them, helping them get started. Microeconomics. Totally vanilla. Nothing venal. No quid pro quos. People seem to think if Clinton “reveals” these speeches, she will be “believed.” People will know she’s telling “the truth.” I think, no matter what she reveals, it will never be enough “truth” for the same people.

(Lies: Remember how that stupid, ugly Republican congressman yelled “You lie” at President Obama. It was during Obama’s first address to a Joint Session of Congress, in September 2009. That’s how Obama’s administration began, with Republican shit on the Office of the President. Dirt and stink.)

What will Hillary Clinton do as president? The Office of the President makes its own claims on any person who occupies it. Though an enormously powerful position, it’s checked by the Supreme Court and Congress. It’s possible, even probable, for example, that with the Republicans in control of Congress, Obama won’t be able to select a new Supreme Court justice to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat. The Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Republicans, because they control Congress — THE reason to vote in midterm elections — say they won’t even TALK to an Obama nominee. First time since 1875 such unconstitutional nastiness will have gone on.

And the Office also changes people, pushes people, Abraham Lincoln, famously, and John Kennedy.

Some women submit that they can’t identify with Clinton, or want to disidentify with her. Younger and older women, both, since being of a generation doesn’t make you the same as everyone your age. Identification is wilder than that. Age is and isn’t a mindset, since experience remakes people. You lose your mother at 8, it’s a loss that rejigs chronological age. You leave school at 17 and get a job — not every “college age” person gets to go to college — that shapes your attitudes.

A thoughtful essay by Jill Filipovic, “Why Sexism in the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton,” suggests that experience frames attitudes toward Clinton. Younger women not yet in the job market believe sex and gender prejudice won’t stop them. Once in it, they often change their minds. (I just learned that, on eBay, women who sell the same item as men get 20% less for it. Really.)

For a long time I’ve had this theory about trust and Hillary Clinton. When Bill Clinton became president in 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton was respected for a while, except by the Republicans and the right. In 1993, Vince Foster, deputy White House counsel — and close friend and Arkansas colleague — killed himself. Instantly, the right accused her of causing his death, even murdering him. The sad truth: It’s almost impossible to undo a negative, to erase the damage of ugly rumors and fact-less attacks. Stink and dirt cling. And humans, like other animals, are fearful, wary creatures: What if, they ask themselves, what if it’s true? It was just the start of many attacks on her and Bill’s character (if interested, stream the 2004 documentary The Hunting of the President on how the right mounted its attacks).

When President Clinton was accused of infidelity, Hillary Clinton went on TV, sat beside him, said she believed his protestations, and claimed she wasn’t “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Then she was humiliated publicly when it was revealed he was getting BJs from a White House intern. But Hillary Clinton didn’t book.

I felt a tsunami coming. Tsunamis travel under the ocean, and you don’t see one until it lands. It acts like the unconscious’s effect on judgments. There was an affect shift, or as the English elegantly put it, Clinton was in bad odor. Her standing by her man produced disdain and disappointment, often unspoken. She should have split. Hillary Clinton wore a kind of reverse scarlet letter. She had stayed with him, an adulterer. She wasn’t an independent woman, not a feminist. She was only political. Americans hate politicians. Maybe she had ambitions of her own. Viral vituperation. Who are we to judge someone’s marriage? Americans, with family values. The guys I knew were cooler about it, because it’s part of the deal: Sexual favors come with power, which is part of why men want it.

Add to that, Americans, generally, are moralistic, like my mother, way more than Europeans, except about disgraced celebrities who cry on TV. They’re forgiven. Hillary Clinton wasn’t, hasn’t been, so I’m thinking the distrust started there. It’s not just about her Iraq vote or NAFTA: Her “lie” or “defense of her husband” underlies the ferocity of negativity, even hatred, toward her.

People buzzed: The Clintons had a marriage of convenience, no love, and for that, she couldn’t be trusted. Oh man, the double standard. I thought it was funny, ironic, because relationships, marriages, become convenient — you don’t have to date for sex; you share rent; one gets sick, the other buys soup; one has a job, supports the other. It’s one reason single people are more resilient. Marriage is strange. I have one, for a long time, with David, a great bass player. Solid, in the pocket, and a solid partner. It works between us, but it’s hard to believe we’ve been together so long. I mean, it’s crazy. Years ago, a physicist explained to me, in physics, a stable relationship is considered just an accident. I had been opining to him about my sorry so-called love life, that I always chose the wrong guy. Then I met David by accident in a bar, before dating apps.

Being in love starts, there's passion, there's hope that it's the real deal, and why not have hope, at least some. That unnerving, heart-stopping falling-in-love time; when it happens, the heart almost hurts with pleasure, your breath catches, you feel crazy. After five years, say, love is still there, maybe more love — sex, too — and you’re both breathing normally. There’s convenience, but not only. Love changes, just as people do.

Hillary Clinton is a woman with a past, which is different from being “a man with a past.” “A woman with a reputation” is also different from “a man with a reputation.” Swill those sentences, and hear the different connotations. I’m giving her a chance, because she’s brilliant, she’s savvy, and she’s a woman with a past and a reputation, glorious, imperfect, a complex one, a seriously formidable one. I trust Secretary Clinton to do the right thing as president. I’ve heard her ideas. I’ve seen her think on her feet. I don’t always agree with her, but I know she has studied and thought hard about her positions. She’s also changed some of them. I do trust people who change, though not everyone — not comb-over Trump. Because I wouldn’t want to be hung for ideas I once held. Life is uncertain, every moment really. I don’t know more than I know, if I know anything, so I try to see the other side, but sometimes I don’t. Not a virtue, but it’s true.

I fully expect, and hope, that a President Clinton will be a good president, maybe a great one, and she will work for a more just America. And I want to see that happen, I want her to have that chance.

Recently I went to a wedding — weddings always entail hope. Two female friends had an unusually charming and beautiful ceremony in an Episcopal church in my nabe, the East Village. God and Love were pulsing, and kind of took me over. It wasn’t a religious god, because I’m not a God-fearing person, I’m a Republican-fearing person. I am for love and reconciliation. Sitting there, I thought about the third Democratic debate, when Hillary Clinton was asked who the most important historical figure was to her, and she named Nelson Mandela. She mentioned his insistence on reconciliation, which he called for right out of jail. Then, as president of a very divided South Africa, Mandela established the historic Truth and Reconciliation trials.

I was feeling it at my friends’ wedding.

In the spirit of reconciliation: If Bernie Sanders gets the nomination, I will vote for him and wear a button, though I dislike wearing buttons. I will hope that, if you’re a Sanders supporter, and he doesn’t get the nomination, you will vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s about the big picture, against the siege from the right, the moralistic, anti-choice, pro-punitive, anti-minority, anti-immigration, anti-compassionate, ungenerous right.

An Episcopal priest officiated at the wedding, and toward the end of it, she read aloud: “Where there is hatred, let us sow love.” If you can’t do Love, try Reason.


"You lie" was yelled during Obama's first address to a joint session of Congress in 2009. An earlier version of this post misstated it was during Obama's first State of the Union address to the Congress.

This piece is the second in an ongoing series of essays by women about Hillary Clinton.

Skip to footer