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Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary

Why she stokes our deepest fears and darkest hatreds

The Eleanor Roosevelt Hillary: This Hillary first emerged at her 1969 college graduation, when her commencement speech was considered so controversially feminist that it landed her in the pages of Life magazine. The speech sent Wellesley's president, Ruth Adams, into such a tizzy that, after spotting Hillary swimming, she had a campus security guard run off with her clothes to humiliate her. This is the Hillary who figured out, after the health care train wreck, how to be a good first lady, and quickly became the "Most Admired Woman in America" several years in a row. This Hillary had an office in the East Wing that handled the protocols of napkin folding, and an office in the West Wing that adroitly kept up her silent participation in the crucial political issues of the day.

The Dianne Feinstein Hillary: You see her as a phony centrist always triangulating toward the ideological middle, willing to betray her true liberal self for power.

The Barbara Boxer Hillary: You see her as a phony liberal, always playing to the amen chorus of the far left, willing to betray her true centrist self for power.

The Lisa Simpson Hillary: We're seeing of lot of this conscientious Hillary lately. When she ran for Senate, her critics said she was just running on name recognition. "But she was able to give milk prices to upstate New Yorkers," says Helen Thomas, the former UPI reporter who has covered the White House since John Kennedy. "Then, in the Senate, she acted like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, asking experienced Republican senators to 'teach me' how it all works." This is the Hillary who got straight A's; the law school graduate who in 1974 wowed the old D.C. pols on the Watergate Committee; the one who attempted to master health care in 1993; and who in 2000 visited Buffalo 26 times and earned its citizens' votes. This Hillary first appeared at age four when, according to her mom, the future senator confronted the neighborhood's meanest girl bully, knocked her down, and then exclaimed, "I can play with the boys now!"

The Diana Prince Hillary: Bill's wife is the secret identity of Wonder Woman. Is there anything she can't do? Even if you hate her, you admire her fundraising ability and her $8 million book advance. You hear that joke about Bill seeing Hillary chatting with an old boyfriend pumping gas at a filling station and Bill says, "Just think, if you'd married him, you could have been the wife of a gas station attendant," to which Hillary replies, "Bill, if I'd married him, he would have become the president"—and you think it's just good reporting.

The Lady Macbeth Hillary: You fixate on pictures of Hillary wearing big dark sunglasses, behind which she conspires to take over the world. Ruthless, conniving, calculating, icy, and manipulating, this Hillary crafted that phony post-Monica talking point—"I could hardly breathe"—as evidence of her "emotional side." This Hillary spooked her potential senatorial opponent K.T. McFarland, a former Pentagon official, into charging that she "had helicopters flying over my house in Southampton today taking pictures." This Hillary will abandon her principles for short-term political gain and will coldly undercut her oldest friends if need be—remember Peter and Marian Wright Edelman? This is the Hillary who, hours after hearing the truth about Monica, was in the solarium considering whether to help Bill's speechwriters draft his dodgy confession. This version of the senator is known by the name that elevates her into the pantheon of scheming one-named women such as Medea and Evita. She is, simply, Hillary.

It's not just that Hillary herself is seen in half a dozen ways, but that each variety of Hillary is embraced across the political spectrum. The word-association part of the Hillary Rorschach test fails as political litmus because everyone uses the same essential vocabulary. The language that one expects to hear from her right-wing critics—that she's untrustworthy, two-faced, opportunistic, and scheming with a hidden agenda—you are just as likely to hear from other women in power, feminists, and people on the left. You expect to read Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan calling her a "cynical leftist political operative" who sees "our country as a platform for her core ambitions." But you also get Cindy Sheehan comparing her to Rush Limbaugh; Susan Sarandon complaining, "What America is looking for is authentic people who want to go into public service because they believe strongly in something, not people who are trying to get elected"; and the late Wendy Wasserstein saying Hillary "has flip-flopped on so many issues of image that her behavior can justifiably be called erratic."

Some of the more common adjectives hurled at Hillary are familiar to any high-achieving female. And, sure, the woman known in high school as "Sister Frigidaire" faces all the glass-ceiling, woman-in-a-man's-job, underestimated, underpaid, overworked gender guff that also frustrates senators Olympia Snowe and Mary Landrieu. But what makes our reaction to her far more extreme?

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