Watching Hillary Clinton testify before Congress yesterday, in what will probably be her last big act as secretary of State, all I could think was, The woman is bulletproof. After more than two decades in the public eye, she comes across — at long last — as a powerful, authentic, and authoritative leader, not some geeky girl striving to find her place at the cool kids’ table. Plainspoken and emotional, but not defensive, Secretary of State Clinton talked about what she knew about the terrorist attacks on Benghazi, and when she knew it. And when Republican Senator Ron Johnson endeavored to pin the blame for insufficient or misleading public information about the attacks on her, she took him to school, clearly exasperated but never losing her cool. “Honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this,” she said, “but the fact is people were trying their best in real time to get the best information.” (The message between the lines: “When you are dealing with murderous terrorists in Libya, senator, then you can criticize.”)
What Hillary thinks and says finally matters more than how she looks — which is a good thing, because in that regard, she no longer gives much of a damn. From muumuus to ponytails, her body language and her public persona over the past year or so have reminded me of what a friend once said to me about menopause: “It gives me permission to be the bitch I always was.”
The aging process is, for most of us, a cause for dread. But in Hillary’s case it is liberating: As a post-menopausal woman, she no longer needs to concern herself with the armies of attackers who for years have ceaselessly found her insufficiently girlish, womanly, or sexually desirable. (“When she comes on television,” said Tucker Carlson, “I involuntarily cross my legs.”) She tried to please on the femininity front, she failed, and now, what the hell, she can be the ballbuster and the battle axe that her critics always said she was: smarter, tougher, and wilier than everyone else. Come 2016, Joe Biden and any other Democrat with presidential dreams should be worried.
In the early days, some of her critics called her an arriviste, a wifey hanging on to her billion-watt husband’s coattails, but that critique doesn’t work anymore either. Clinton was a senator from New York for eight years and secretary of State — traveling to 112 different countries — for four. People continue to criticize her marriage for being sick and twisted on the one hand — a story of an ugly duckling smitten with a cad — or a contractual convenience on the other. In the end, neither case is borne out by evidence. The Clintons have been through it all: infidelity, humiliation, health crises, career conflicts. They’ve lived it in public, and still, when the secretary of State was discharged from the hospital, as she was earlier this month after treatment for a blood clot in her brain, she was flanked by her husband and daughter. What was striking about the tableau was how ordinary it seemed: The Clintons looked like nothing more or less than what they are, a family. Even gossipy tell-alls like Primary Colors and Game Change now work in her favor, for they unveil her worst characteristics before they could become damaging revelations in an election year. What can critics and opponents say about her now? That she’s extremely ambitious? Well, yes. That she’s a feminist? Obviously. That she’s fat, jowly, wrinkled? Okay, but has anyone taken a look at the Senate lately?
Her detractors said she wasn’t pretty enough. She wasn’t girlish enough. Compared to her husband, she was dorky, nerdy, a lesser light, a wide-hipped valedictorian in Coke-bottle glasses. She came off as superior, and for that some people will never forgive her. The teasing started before her husband’s first inauguration (to which she wore a spherical, royal-blue hat that some fashion writers compared to a UFO, and her face to a chipmunk’s) and never stopped. But look at her now. The images of Hillary being passed around in the past several months are a testament to what may be the most dramatic political turnaround in memory. Whether she’s scowling furiously at her BlackBerry, or taking a gleeful iPhone snap with Meryl Streep, or drinking beer from a bottle in Cartagena, Hillary Clinton comes across as comfortable in her skin, finally, and much more than smart. At last, she seems lovable.