Monday, July 30, 2007

Portrait of the future president as a young woman?

The Sunday NYT's article about Hillary Clinton's youthful letters to a high school friend who was attending Princeton while she attended Wellesley offer a revealing look at the formative years of the woman who seems likely to become the next president of the United states. In one sense, the existence of the letters is yesterday's news -- Gail Sheey drew on them for her 1999 book, Hillary's Choice. What's new is the letters being so prominently showcased.

The letters provide a revealing look at an earnest young woman during the time she is casting off the Republicanism that she grew up with and casting her lot with the Democrats, first as a volunteer for the Eugene McCarthy campaign. The letters show the self-conscious wrestling of a young person who sometimes feels she likes the idea of helping others more than she actually likes other people. She wonders whether one can be a compassionate misanthrope.
By the summer of 1967, Ms. Rodham — writing from her parents’ vacation home in Lake Winola, Pa. — begins referring to Republicans as “they” rather than “we.”

“That’s no Freudian slip,” she adds. A few months later, she would be volunteering on Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar presidential campaign in New Hampshire. By the time she delivered her commencement address at Wellesley in 1969, she was citing her generation’s “indispensable task of criticizing and constructive protest.”

But in many ways her letters are more revealing about her search for her own sense of self.

“Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some individuals?” Ms. Rodham wrote in an April 1967 letter. “How about a compassionate misanthrope?”
The illustrations the NYT used with the online version of the story did not have the intensity and poignancy of the closing line of this letter in the print edition, so I took a picture (for easy reference after she's elected). "Me (the world's saddest word)" -- the phrase shows Hillary first wrestling with the deeply personal question that confronts every public servant -- and which is only amplified in elective politics. Are you running to serve others, or simply to pursue your own ego gratification?

It takes virtually unlimited presumption and enormous ego to run for president in this huge, contentious, and highly competitive country. How do you justify the necessary ego, when it often seems to violate the very ideals that drove you into public service in the first place? Needless to say, these contradictions are all the more difficult when the candidate is a woman. It's fascinating to see how long ago Hillary Clinton started wrestling with these issues.

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