Thursday, July 1, 2004
I filed down to my seat at the Embassy Suites in Seaside Monday night with my mother. We were there to hear Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton chat with Leon Panetta in the third installment of this season’s Panetta Institute lecture series.
Hillary was there to talk about Women in Leadership. That I was there with my mother, Rachel, was by design. Of all the prominent figures in my life—my six siblings, my father, grandparents—my mother is the most significant. She taught me volumes, particularly when she upped and left her life with my father, single-parentedly, to pursue her life-long desire to go to law school. At 40, with little education under her belt. It took her ten years.
At 50, she graduated, passed the bar, and began her new life, doing pro bono stuff, defense work, bankruptcy, little-guy work. When she retired she was an administrative law judge for the State of California. Tax law, of all things.
Whip smart, an achiever, a dreamer—still is. I knew she’d bask in the bright light of a woman like Clinton, a woman so much like herself.
Panetta, in his conservative dark suit and red Fourth-of-July power tie, took the stage at eight sharp. His introduction was a brief, stat-filled speech about women’s equality, or the lack thereof, and included tidbits such as: women earn $100 billion less than men nationwide.
He then launched into a brief bio of Hillary: Wellesley and Yale grad, first lady, senator, wife, mother. “History will record her as one of the leading women of our time,” he said. A standing ovation followed as Clinton entered the room, smiling a huge smile and exuding absolute confidence and comfort.
Her presence alone was inspiring. Before she even spoke, I noted that she dressed like a woman. Unlike some women in power, she wasn’t dressed like a man. She apparently felt comfortable enough to wear a bright pink cardigan draped over her shoulders, bare ankles, and big, flashy jewelry, and not fret that she wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Clinton had barely settled into her chair by the time Panetta launched into a question about her book and the recent release of her husband’s. Clinton, apparently taken aback, jumped out of the question and took a moment to greet the audience.
And then she was on, and on hard and fast, with a surprisingly quick wit and a sense of humor that sent the crowd into fits of laughter from the get-go, referring to her husband’s rather lengthy book as “the abridged version.”
Panetta took her back to her upbringing, where a far more serious Clinton recalled that her childhood was “normal” and her mother “strong,” teaching her—rather unconventionally for the time—that girls should get the most out of their youth so they could be as ready as boys to chart their future.
I thought of my mother, and a song she pushed my sister and me to perform in a school talent show in the early ‘70s, William Wants a Doll, from the album Free to be You and Me. At that time, that record was a liberal expression of freedom of choice, that boys and girls can be anything they want to be. The woman next to me and the woman on stage seemed to get that.
I wanted more, to know what drove Clinton away from an Ivy League professor who contended there were far too many girls in college and that she should get out, and toward a rebellion for women in the ‘60s, the one that led her to college, to law school, to the White House, to the Senate, to the Armed Services Committee. Surely she faced men who would stand in her way because she was a woman.
But there wasn’t more to come. Whatever struggles she faced because of her gender didn’t materialize. Panetta never took her there.
Instead, the questions Leon posed were those that any local, state, or national politician, male or female, of either party, on either coast, could have addressed. And Hillary was mesmerizing, talking with her hands and biting hard on the issues.
Clinton described Bush supporters as “impervious to evidence or reason,” drawing a roar from the crowd. She said she didn’t regret voting to give the president war power in Iraq, but regretted how he used it.
She half-joked that perhaps Vice Pres. Dick Cheney should “enroll in a course in anger management” (over his recent “Go fuck yourself” on the Senate floor to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy).
She coyly touched on whether she’d run for president with a laugh, and an “oh, puhleeze,” but no answer. She recounted Sept. 11, the Senate’s defiant move to stay in session and take to the steps of the Capitol in impromptu song, and spoke more quietly as she remembered, her usually waving hands drawn close in toward her chest.
She quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalyn Carter, Winston Churchill, and was brilliantly eloquent without a trace of rehearsal. She freely admitted to mistakes and owned up to responsibility over missed opportunities (how, straight out of the gate as a first lady, she attempted to revamp the nation’s health care system).
She revisited her Republican upbringing, saying she missed the old-fashioned Republicans, like her father, who believed in fiscal responsibility.
And still I had questions, questions about Clinton’s role as a woman in politics, questions about her opinion on the facts in Panetta’s intro. She was a woman living it, rising out of it, and I wanted to know.
As the night wrapped, mikes turned off, cameras shut down, I got my answer, only it wasn’t from Hillary. Instead, it was from Leon. He closed by saying the night had been intense, the questions tough—so tough, “there were very few women” who could have answered them.
As the crowd stood to applaud, my mother leaned into my ear to ask, “Did he really just say that?”
The barriers for women won’t be down, not in this generation, maybe not even in the next. Because there are people, good people, men and women alike, who even unknowingly believe that the ability of a woman to answer tough questions, to make tough decisions, is remarkable—even for women in leadership.