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Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary

Why she stokes our deepest fears and darkest hatreds

Illustration by Tim O'Brien

Daniel Edwards is that sculptor whose work includes a shiny dollop said to be the bronzed poop of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' baby, the severed head of baseball legend Ted Williams, and a nude Britney Spears in a primal birth position. A few months ago, the Museum of Sex in Manhattan unveiled his latest work: a bust of Hillary Clinton. Cast in the heroic style of the 19th-century statesman found in any City Hall park, it showed the New York senator with a long, elegant neck and solemn expression above two perfectly round, youthful, barely covered breasts. I'd guess a 36B.

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"It was a quote by Sharon Stone that triggered it," Edwards explained to me. Stone, an actress famous for exposing a different part of her anatomy, had recently expressed doubt that Hillary could become president because "a woman should be past her sexuality when she runs. Hillary still has sexual power, and I don't think people will accept that. It's too threatening."

Edwards says he wanted to imagine Hillary Clinton as president of the United States and created, therefore, a monumental image. "But that wasn't enough," he explains. "I had to make sure she was depicted as a woman, unmistakably a woman. The way I did that was to be more revealing with her breasts than is normally seen."

Edwards' version of Hillary's breasts is where it all gets interesting. He chose not to depict Hillary with bared breasts, in the classical style of Greek sculpture; his Hillary's bust is upheld by a bustier worthy of Victoria's Secret. "I didn't want the sculpture to be titillating or a piece of graphic realism," he explains. "It's more symbolic of womanhood and to reveal her as a woman."

Hillary's "womanhood" is in need of public revelation? What does that say about her? But, more curiously, what does it say about us that Hillary inspires this casual intimacy? Her life, her looks, her politics, her marriage—and now her breasts—are all daily grist at the nation's coffee shops, still, 15 years after she was introduced to America. According to one accounting, there are 17,000 websites devoted to Hillary Clinton. And there is really no aspect of our collective fears or furies that cannot be grafted onto her character. Did she refuse to meet with mothers of dead soldiers? Did she kill Vince Foster? Did she get two Black Panthers off on murder charges? Did she cause the Enron scandal? Despite their proven falseness, such accusations are routinely made because it's easy to mold the facts and fictions of Hillary's life into any kind of argument you like. Even her body has become a public landscape that most Americans feel quite comfortable trekking across in search of cultural clues about ourselves and our politics. Edwards' sculpture merely makes literal this national impulse.

It all began when the nation had regular debates about her hair, but now we're comfortable in our kitchens and on our talk shows presuming any damned thing we want to about her. Is she gay or straight, closet conservative or secret liberal, snarling she-wolf or one smart cookie baker? It isn't only her career as a public figure that's clay in our hands. No part of her life, however sacred, is off-limits. John McCain once got a lot of laughs cracking this joke: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because her father is Janet Reno." Chelsea was still in high school at the time. In 2003 Americans happily participated in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll to determine whether Hillary should get a divorce. In the spring of 2006, the New York Times ran a front-page story that employed investigative journalism tactics to extrapolate the potential number of conjugal visits the Clintons' marital bed hosted each month. Using "interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities," the author concluded: "Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple's schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night.... Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons' private schedule."

Damn aides.

When Edwards fashioned Hillary into the image that he thought most telling, he was on to something. Hillary is way beyond something so banal as a politician. The details of her life are familiar enough; perhaps that's why all the profiles of her over the last 10 years have always seemed tedious and repetitive. It's how we shape those facts that's interesting. Hillary herself once said she had become some kind of Rorschach blot in which Americans see many things.

Almost every American has an opinion about Hillary. Consider her poll numbers. Hillary Clinton has favorables in the high 40s right now and unfavorables running about even. Her "no opinion" numbers are in the low single digits, approaching zero. Most politicians start with a huge swath of "no opinion" voters whom they can then try to convert. If Hillary runs, she will need to invent a whole new form of campaign strategy: She will need to flip voters who pretty much hate her.

Hillary-hating is such a national pastime, for both Democrats and Republicans, that it should be its own verb: "Hillarating." Typically, even her supporters make the case for her only after plowing through a lot of caveats, lessons learned, and after muttered contempt for some aspect of her person. Hillarating is not like normal political hating—opposing someone's ideology, for example. Loathing Hillary happens on multiple levels, ranging from her marital choices and fashion sense to her ambivalence on torture or support for a flag-burning amendment. And liberal feminists are as comfortable Hillarating as anyone else, perhaps more so.

"The source of the strong feelings goes all the way back to when we were introduced to her as Bill Clinton's copresident," says Nora Bredes, director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership in Rochester, New York. After the health care defeat in 1993, Hillary retreated into being a wife and then a proper first lady before emerging again "as an international leader and then in the late '90s re-creating herself as a victim of his infidelity and then again stepping out as a candidate for the Senate," says Bredes. "People get uncomfortable when it's not a neat story. Is she a progressive feminist or a cautious moderate? People don't know exactly who she is, and so different reactions are almost invited."

Not since Richard Nixon has the body politic been treated to so many variations on the same person. "The New New Nixon" was introduced with such frequency once upon a time that it became shorthand for a kind of political marketing joke. Hillary has assumed that cultural niche, always inventing a new look and more "humanized" self for each situation. And in turn, we've seized upon various elements of her changeling character to shape, à la Daniel Edwards, our own private Hillarys. She is a Cosmo quiz of an enigma, so let's cut right to the answer key in the back pages and find out what kind of Hillary you see.

The Martha Stewart Hillary: For you, the New York senator is, as Newt Gingrich's mother once observed, "a bitch," or, as William Safire phrased it, "a congenital liar." You tend to relish the catty details that reveal her as a petty-minded overachiever, like when she peevishly denied her ghostwriters writing credit. You believed the 2003 rumor that Wesley Clark had been ordered into the campaign by some Clinton consigliere to serve as her stalking-horse. In the mid-1990s, you wanted to buy that Jerry Falwell tape alleging that she bedded and then killed Vince Foster, had him rolled up in a rug and dumped along the Potomac. You snarkily refer to her by the name that grates most on those who despise her, Hillary Rodham.

The Tammy Wynette Hillary: The famous invocation of the country-western singer happened during a 60 Minutes interview in 1992. Hillary defended her husband's philandering by saying, "I'm not sitting here some little woman, standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." And this is where it can get tricky. Most people forget Hillary's next line: "I'm sitting here because I love him." The cognitive dissonance is confusing, because, of course, that is the Tammy Wynette position ("And tell the world you love him / Keep giving all the love you can"). When she dissed Tammy, she left the impression that the real reason she was standing by Bill was ruthless desire for power. Then after getting into hot water over health care reform, she assumed the Tammy position, that of doggedly loyal wife. This was the Hillary who beamed at Bill's side and cut her hair in a prim, wifely fashion. Amid a flurry of sex scandals that would culminate in Monicagate, this Hillary allowed herself to be photographed in her one-piece bathing suit snogging with Bill on the beach—causing an entire nation to wince.

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