Since I’d already vetted all the judges up for retention during slower moments of the baseball playoffs, I brought my copy of All the King’s Men to the polls this morning to entertain me in case there was a long wait. There wasn’t, but I dipped into it during lunch anyway, because it’s been echoing in my head all election season, especially when I hear someone describing Hillary Clinton as corrupt or a liar.
If you’re unfamiliar, All the King’s Men is Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel about Willie Stark, an idealistic young county treasurer in an unnamed southern state who realizes that good intentions alone can’t make civic improvements and subsequently rises to become a spectacularly corrupt governor beloved by his constituents because he fixed the roads. Warren based him on Huey “Kingfish” Long, governor and later senator from Louisiana in the late 20s and early 30s. Joe Klein used the book as the inspiration for his own 1992 novel Primary Colors, about the election of Hillary’s husband.
But this election season, I’ve been thinking there’s a great All the King’s Men-style book to be written about a woman, specifically the woman whose name is on the presidential ballot today.
Our story would start with the 1965 yearbook picture of the Maine South High School It’s Academic team. Hillary Rodham is one of three girls on the eight-member team, standing in the back row. Her arms are clasped in front of her. She looks intelligent and poised. But already she has been told she can’t be an astronaut because she’s a girl, and that she can’t be class president, only class secretary, for the same reason. It’s likely she contributes more to the household chores than her two brothers.
In the fall she’ll be going to Wellesley College because women aren’t yet admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al. She’ll get a good education there, equal to that of her male counterparts. She’ll be in an environment where women are expected and encouraged to lead, where even the college president has always been a woman. Does she feel any regret, though, about missing out on the famous professors, the patina of famous alumni, the knowledge that she and her classmates will be the future leaders of America, not just the wives and helpmates? Has anyone told her yet to lower her voice when she gets angry, or told her that she should be less intense or less brilliant so the boys in her class don’t feel threatened? So they might even ask her to homecoming? Does it bother her that the school paper has predicted that she’ll grow up to be a nun named “Sister Frigidaire”?
Still, she’s a regular at her Methodist youth group. She believes that not only is she capable of helping to build a better world, but that it’s also her duty. The year before, she’d campaigned for Barry Goldwater, who carried both the high school in the mock election and Park Ridge in the real one. She helped write the student constitution when Maine South opened and was cochair of the anti-vandalism committee. She went on the church group trip to the city to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the Chicago Sunday Club.
She’s already learned that compromises are necessary in politics, even politics as local as the Maine South High School student constitution committee: the students had wanted the team name to be the Rebels, a suggestion the administration vetoed. (They settled on the Hawks.) In the next half century, she’ll make the sort of compromises between ideals and expedience that many politicians make. She’ll make questionable friends, and questionable financial decisions. She’ll switch alliances and change her mind in order to keep constituents happy. She’ll be accused of being a carpetbagger for running for senator from New York, a far more powerful state than Arkansas, where she spent most of her adult life.
And she’ll have to make compromises that are particular to being female, particularly to a female who wants, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, to be in the arena herself instead of watching the men from the grandstand. She’ll abandon her own promising law career to follow her then-boyfriend to Arkansas. She’ll see her achievements fade as she’s forced to take up the mantle of a political wife, standing quietly at his side, smiling during his speeches. Her decision to continue her career as a lawyer will be questioned, and when she defends herself and her work, she’ll be called unsisterly and unsupportive of other women’s choices. She’ll be forced to give up her name and proffer an oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie recipe to a women’s magazine in order to “soften” her image. She’ll endure the humiliation of seeing her husband’s affairs reported in the national media, and of having to stand at his side, silently, again and again, even after he’s impeached for lying about having oral sex with an intern.
She’ll see Rush Limbaugh compare her teenage daughter to a dog on national television. Her attempts to play a role in her husband’s administration will be derided and, eventually, thwarted, and she’ll spend six years standing in the background and having her picture taken in evening gowns for Vogue, just like every other first lady before her. When she runs for president herself, she’ll be told that she has to wait her turn, behind a man who’s more charismatic and likable. Her hair will be the subject of intense scrutiny, as will her clothes, and her laugh, and even her speaking voice. She’ll endure endless inquiries into her e-mail habits, which are no different from those of her predecessor as secretary of state (but then again, he’s a man and not running for president). She’ll absorb the vitriol of men—and other women—who can’t stand to see a woman in power. She’ll do this over and over again.
What does all this do to a woman’s soul? All that Willie Stark had to do, by contrast, was withstand the mockery of some city slicker types who underestimated him because of his country clothes and manners (and also, in the best chapter in the book, a tongue-lashing from his female secretary and an epic hangover). He had the luxury of drowning his doubts and his anger in women and booze. “It might have all been different, Jack,” he tells our narrator as he lays dying from an assassin’s bullet. “You got to believe that.”
I hope that no other woman—no other person—has to withstand what the girl in the picture has gone through over the past 50 years. I hope it hasn’t completely destroyed her, that she’s still there somewhere inside the woman whose name is on the ballot today. And I hope that woman won’t pass away wishing it all could have been different.