When Russian President Vladimir Putin, who obviously wants to be known as the 21st century’s Totally Toughest Guy (Shirted and Shirtless categories), recently called Possible Future U.S. President Hillary Clinton “weak” and “not always graceful in her speech,” lots of people thought his comments were as off the mark as when Karl Rove said she might have brain damage as a result of the concussion she suffered in early 2013.
Clinton, who this week launches “Hard Choices,” her autobiography regarding her secretary of state years as well as her musings about what she may or may not choose to announce within the coming months, has been called many, many things over the course of more than 35 years in public life. Some are printable in PG-rated publications. Many are not. But “weak” and most of its synonyms are usually not among those things.
For example, notice that she called her book HARD Choices. Not Anguished Choices Made After Lots of Consultation with Smarter and Stronger People. When she told a Pakistani audience in November 2009 that if Pakistan didn’t want U.S. aid, it didn’t have to take it, “lacking grace” was indeed among the comments some of the press cited in their coverage of her speech. But “weak” was nowhere to be found.
Her constant maneuvering
All the same, no one should be surprised that a man who doesn’t seem to mind being called a bully, a despot and worse by people representing all manner of political persuasions should hurl the W word at a woman who stands a chance of becoming the free world’s next leader. A woman who would have been classed as a member of the cookie-baking, tea-serving “weaker sex” in decades not so very far past. And no one should be surprised when her possible Republican and Democratic opponents say all sorts of old and new nasty things about her and her husband. But what also isn’t surprising is how Clinton finds herself needing to maneuver constantly between being tough enough to withstand being called weak and worse while talking tough on tough 3 a.m. calls, all the while signing State Department memos as MOTB (Mother of the Bride) with scrunchy-free, professionally styled hair.
Walking the spindly, landmine-strewn line between being a strong, forceful leader who won’t visibly flinch while declaring war and being a delighted expectant grandmother and someone who “like most women, takes a close interest in clothes” (as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wrote about herself in her own autobiography), is something Clinton was required to do during the 2008 presidential campaign. And it is a line she will be required to negotiate every single day between now and the day she decides not to run. Or the day she concedes the 2016 general election. Or the day she leaves a note of good wishes on her Oval Office desk for her successor.
It is a line no male president or presidential candidate has ever really needed to walk. It’s true that Lyndon Johnson was seen toting his baby grandson about quite a bit during the last 18 months of his presidency. But it was the Vietnam War, and not proud grandfatherhood (or even drinking Secret Service agent-poured Cutty Sark scotch and soda while careening around his Texas ranch), that ended Johnson’s White House residency. Though upon reflection, I do believe many Americans might have wished some of our past presidents would have taken a closer interest in clothes. Some of Jerry Ford’s vividly checked blazers and trousers come to mind.
Watching her every stride
So while Clinton gives interviews and speeches to launch her book (and probably her presidential candidacy), taking great care to wear properly feminine and colorful pantsuits with appropriate jewelry and makeup, ordinary voters and pundits alike will be watching her every stride and falter. If she appears excited about her new grandchild and talks a good deal about babysitting and bibs, will someone else infer she’s perhaps not ready to have the nuclear code football follow her everywhere? If she lashes out at someone or something in language some might deem ungraceful or even unseemly for a lady, will people say she’s got too many cojones to be the first woman president? The answer to both questions is a definite “yes.”
Far be it from me to offer Clinton any meaningful counsel, but I might suggest she take a look these words written by the author Zane Grey:
“I am tired. My arm aches. My head boils. My feet are cold. But I am not aware of any weakness.”
And as for Putin, maybe he ought to put his shirt back on. He’s got much bigger things to worry about than fretting over any possible Hillary Clinton weakness or lack of grace.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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