WASHINGTON -- There is something about Hillary that raises the blood pressure of otherwise easy-going Americans - and they don't need to be Republicans. At a 4th of July barbecue, with the band working its way through the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", I made the mistake of asking a pleasant young woman what she thought of Hillary's chances. Red white and blue fireworks were going off over Capitol Hill, as she morphed into the sort of person who goes on the Jerry Springer Show. She would "never, ever" vote for America's most famous politician, she said. More than 50 per cent of Americans agree with her.
With everyone on tenterhooks over terrorism and the looming defeat in Iraq, there is a febrile atmosphere in the US. Many are taking their anger out on Hillary as she attempts to break through the last remaining glass ceiling. Something called the "Hillary Conundrum" has emerged to cause deep unease inside her party while giving comfort to the Republican party, which by now should be in disarray.
The most seasoned political honchos are uneasy about the candidate who looks like a shoo-in as next year's Democratic nominee for the presidential elections. Hillary has the war chest, a formidable political machine and she is riding highest in the opinion polls.
She is probably the most competent in the field. Virtually everyone agrees that she should have the best chance of wresting the presidency from the Republicans in 2008 and repairing the damage from the wrecking ball (omega) of the Bush presidency. She also has Bill Clinton by her side, a formidable campaigner who took to the road for the first time in Iowa this month.
But behind the scenes, Americans are deeply worried at the prospect of having Hillary (and Bill) back in the White House. While she inspires ordinary women voters, men are not so moved and she has the highest voter-disapproval ratings of any top-tier candidate in the race. She also has a big problem with left-wing feminists.
The writer and director Nora Ephron (You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) who describes herself as a fully signed up "Hillary resister" seems to be one of them. The resisters are people "who can't stand her position on the war. Who don't trust her as far as you can spit."
They believe, says Ephron, that Hillary "will do anything to win, who believe she doesn't really take a position unless it's completely safe". This is the same Nora Ephron who some years back exclaimed: "I love [Hillary] so completely that, honestly, she would have to burn down the White House before I would say anything bad about her." That was in 1993, when America was another country and Bill Clinton was just settling into his first term in the White House.
A couple of years later, with the Republican attacks on the Clintons in full spate, Ephron spoke to the Wellesley class of 1996 (a girls-only college that she and Hillary graduated from: "Understand," she said then, "every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you."
So how did it all go so wrong for Hillary? How did right- wing America's favorite "femi-Nazi" end up being disliked as much by "progressives" as by conservatives? It's a subject being endlessly debated
"The truth is that Senator Clinton has a woman problem," said Anna Quindlen, a Newsweek columnist. "The fantasy was that the first woman President would be someone who would turn the whole lousy system inside out and upside down. Instead the first significant woman contender is someone who seems to have the system down to a fine art."
Jane Fonda says that Hillary is a "ventriloquist for the patriarchy with a skirt and a vagina. It may be that a feminist, progressive man would do better in the White House."
For Fonda, the big disappointment was Hillary's 2002 Congressional vote giving George Bush the green light to go to war on Iraq. It turns out that Hillary didn't bother to read the top-secret intelligence report, that she as a senator was given access to before the vote. The six senators who did read it all voted against, because the still-secret report seems to have persuaded them that the case for war was flimsy.
"Women sometimes bend the wrong way just to prove themselves to men," remarked Fonda. "But when we learn to listen to ourselves, that will be revolutionary."
Americans might well ask who is the real Hillary Clinton? Her potential supporters are certainly having trouble working it out. Is Hillary a liberal who has been victimized by a "vast right-wing conspiracy", or a scheming political control-freak who will stop at nothing in her bid to become the first Mrs President?
Hillary's tightly disciplined campaign team point out that for every Fonda or Ephron, there are thousands of women, neither feminist nor left wing who really admire her. She was the top choice of 42 per cent of Democrat women voters in a recent poll and is far ahead among independent voters.
The pollsters, hot-dog turners, political strategists and armchair pundits all agree that Hillary has a more than 80 per cent chance of winning the Democratic nomination. But can she win the election they ask, or is she going to bring more heartache to the party, just like John Kerry last time around?
Everyone has a different reason for predicting failure. There's the "political baggage" theory, which holds that she is fatally tainted by the scandals of her first stint in the White House. The "revolving door" theory says Americans are sick of alternating Bush-Clinton dynasties. The "woman as commander-in-chief" theory predicts that Americans obsessed with terrorism want a man to do their bombing. And there is the issue of Hillary's frighteningly high "negatives" which Gallup recently put at 50 per cent.
Many of those who are worried about global warming and America's imperial overstretch hope that Al Gore, who continues to maintain he will not run, will enter the race at the last minute. Bob Borosage is one of those. A veteran of many elections, he ran Jessie Jackson's presidential campaigns in the past, he is an organizer for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. At a reception for high-rolling donors to the liberal cause, he said he would prefer it if Al Gore won the nomination.
"Gore has every chance of becoming president," he told me, "but if he dares to enter the race, Hillary will pluck his eyes out with her talons."
This is the other part of the "Hillary conundrum". She is widely perceived as a ruthless campaigner. Her campaign team, which calls itself "Hillaryland", is notoriously secretive and disciplined.
Borosage was waiting for Hillary to arrive at his annual Take Back America conference, a kind of global gathering for left-wing Americans. It was being held in the Washington Hilton hotel, known locally as the Hinkley Hilton, after John Hinkley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1993 - but more of that later. The hotel has just been bought by the basketball player "Magic" Johnson and is where some of the biggest political gatherings take place in the capital.
Soon Hillary would arrive and sweep down The President's Walk, a corridor in the Hilton that leads to the main conference room where 3,000 people were waiting. The corridor is lined with daguerreotypes and photographs of every US president and their wives, from a 1789 image of George and Martha Washington to the latest incumbents, George and Laura Bush.
Among the images is a photograph of Hillary from 1993 when she and Bill first entered the White House and she was determined to make her mark as an independent woman. She wore her hair long and un-styled and was much criticized for it. She called herself Hillary Rodham Clinton. Everything she did got America's back up. Before she even opened the door to the White House, she outraged millions of ordinary moms with a catty remark that instead of having a career as a lawyer she "could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas".
Her name was always a troubling issue. Hillary stunned her friends when she announced on her wedding day in 1976 that she would not be taking her husband's name but would remain Hillary Rodham. Bill's mother wept at the news and a campaign adviser warned presciently "Hillary Rodham will be your Waterloo."
Later on when Bill lost the election to be Arkansas governor she decided she was Hillary Clinton after all. Then within days of his inauguration as president she became Hillary Rodham Clinton and set about installing herself as "co-president". She quickly established herself as the president's most trusted adviser, and plonked herself and her "Hillaryland" entourage in the West Wing, steps from the Oval Office.
With well-chronicled and calamitous effect, Hillary then set about trying and failing to reform America's broken health care system. Meanwhile she bulldozed her way through Washington, making needless enemies for the Clinton presidency in the media and among the capital's power elite.
She created a public-relations disaster on Day One when she gave secret orders to the Clintons' press man, George Stephanopoulos, to have a corridor that gave the White House press corps access to the West Wing blocked off. Unsurprisingly the first 100 days of the presidency were marked by unprecedented hostility from the media.
Bill and Hillary Clinton had come to Washington with the ambition and determination to change the country for the better. But equipped only with a tin ear, when it came to working with people on her own side, Hillary managed to alienate some of the most powerful Democrats, starting with the New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who urged patience in reforming health care.
When Bill Bradley, then a senator, suggested changes to her plan he was dismissed. Forget about it, she said, threatening to "demonize" anyone who stood in her way.
As Bradley recounted later to the author Carl Bernstein: "It was obviously so basic to who she is. The arrogance. The assumption that people with questions are enemies. The disdain. The hypocrisy."
It was at the Washington Hilton on 30 March 1981, that the last assassination attempt on an American president took place on US soil. President Ronald Reagan had just come down the same President's Walk and was leaving the hotel via a side entrance after speaking to an audience of unhappy trade unionists. Six shots rang out as John Hinkley fired his "Saturday Night Special" into the President's entourage. One of the "devastator" bullets, designed to open up on impact, hit the president in the abdomen, almost claiming his life.
Now, some 26 years on, security arrangements for the presidential candidates appear no better organized than they were on that day. A phalanx of secret-service agents protects Hillary Clinton and her main democratic rival Barack Obama, who addressed the same Take Back America conference the day before.
But despite worries about terrorism - one of Hillary's big campaign themes - security for the candidates seems extraordinarily sloppy. There were no metal detectors, no ID checks or even cursory searches of the audience. The average inner-city American high school has tighter security.
Finally, Hillary arrived. Wearing a silk yellow top and her hair stylishly cut, she made her entrance into the lion's den of liberal Democrats, who are both excited and disappointed with her at the same time. Tightly scripted and brimming with confidence, she launched into 30-minute speech in which she accused the Bush administration of "a stunning record of secrecy and corruption, of cronyism run amok... of [putting] ideology before science, politics before the needs of families".
The crowd, putting aside whatever doubts it had, stomped and cheered as she blasted Bush. Then she moved on to the subject of the war in Iraq and the mood suddenly changed. It is only this year, as public hostility to the war became overwhelming, that Hillary, once the most enthusiastic backer of the war in Iraq, suddenly changed tack. But while she rescued her candidacy from oblivion, she has not apologized for backing the war in the first place, and remains a big advocate of the so called "War on Terror".
From the stage, she praised the success of the American military in toppling Saddam Hussein and said it was the Iraqi government which was to blame for the current mess.
The audience booed and heckled as she continued: "The American military has succeeded. It is the Iraqi government which has failed to make the tough decisions that are important for their own people,'' she said, unable to finish her sentence because of a chorus of the uproar.
Members of CodePink, so named to mock the US government's color-coded terrorist warning system, tried to drown Hillary out. But she talked over them and by the time she finished her speech the audience was back applauding her. It was nothing in comparison to the performance of Barack Obama, the day before, when the audience would not let him leave the room after a barnstorming speech.
Some 15 years after Hillary Clinton was first introduced to America, the fascination continues. There are by one count 17,000 websites devoted to her - mostly negative - the most famous of which is the Hillary Clinton Quarterly. Her life, her name changes, her makeovers, her shifting politics and her marriage are grist to the mill of the late-night TV chat shows and morning queues at America's Starbucks. The New York Times last year assigned its crack investigative team to work out how often Bill and Hillary slept in the same marital bed and put the story on the front page.
Following "interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities" the writer discovered that: "Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple's schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night.... Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons' private schedule."
The Clintons have taken over from the Kennedys as the most picked over family in the country. As Jay Leno put it: "According to a new poll, 15 percent of Americans say that Sen Hillary Clinton gives them the creeps. The other 85 percent say she gives them the willies or the heebie-jeebies."
My neighbour in Washington, who spent his 4th of July talking politics at a local barbecue party said: "The only circumstances in which I would vote for Hillary would be if she first divorced her husband."
Another self-confessed Hillary hater explained some of the animosity: "She's hated because she personifies liberalism. It's her politics, her name, her stupid smirks and her pride. Her carpetbagger ways and her socialist tendencies. Oh, and also her husband. It's the insistence that they are always right, even when they are wrong."
This is mild compared to some of the commentary in the media. Take right-wing pundit Ann Coulter - a sometime guest on Good Morning America. She is putting it about that(omega) Hillary Clinton is gay: "I'd say that's about even money on Senator Clinton coming out of the closet in 2008," she says.
As anxious as Democrats are about Hillary, Republicans are increasingly fearful. John Podhoretz, a columnist with the New York Post has written what he calls "a wake-up call to the Right" to keep Hillary out of the White House.
He thinks she poses a huge threat: "I was in conversations with conservatives who seemed confident that Hillary Clinton could not possibly win the presidency," he wrote, "that she was too polarizing, had negatives that were too high, and that she was not likable enough to make it to the White House.
"As I examined these presumptions, they began to seem very hollow to me - and the notion that Hillary was unelectable began to seem like a delusion."
Podhoretz's view is that Hillary can win the election if she gets the votes John Kerry got - 59 million - and Republicans should assume that she can get those votes. "It will take a heroic effort to get more people to the polls," he says. "And right now, Republicans seem more intent on fighting with each other."
Despite the worries of the Left, the Democrats are - reluctantly at times - lining up to back her. Hollywood, a key source of fundraising for Democrats has been difficult to crack. Many have already thrown their lot in with Obama and there is a notable scarcity of star power at Hillary's fund-raising events. Barbra Streisand, known as a friend of Bill Clinton, shared a head table at a recent fundraiser. But even she is hedging her bets and backing three candidates, Hillary, Obama and John Edwards.
"I'm very excited about the strength of the Democratic field for the 2008 presidential election, and I'm looking forward to a lively and healthy primary debate that discusses the key issues facing this country," she said by way of explanation. But in a sign that the tide may be turning in Hillary's favor, she has recently landed some important supporters. Al Sharpton, the radical black firebrand and king of America's racial politics, says he is backing her, after a lengthy campaign to win his support. He took his radio show to the Take Back America conference and cheered her on for attacking the "plantation" politics of Republicans whereby decisions are made behind closed doors. "I absolutely back her," he said.
A major boost to the Clinton campaign came in June when Stephen Spielberg, the biggest Hollywood fish of all came out to endorse her. "I am convinced," said the most successful filmmaker ever, "that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate to lead us from her first day in the White House." The endorsement from one of the most influential people in America (Time magazine named him one of the 100 Greatest People of the Century) was just what Hillary's campaign was looking for.
How soon will the man with a soft spot for stories about ordinary people coming into contact with extraordinary beings shoot an advertisement for Hillary? Spielberg may be the one to ease the worries of millions of Americans who so viscerally dislike her. s
Hillary Clinton is just an old hippie at heart. Once a make-up free lawyer, accessorizing with over-sized glasses, before falling for a man with political plans even larger than her own hair. Then meeting his mother. It is thought that Bill's mum, Virginia Kelly, groomed Hillary from the start. Apparently the immaculately fashion-conscious Kelly was shocked at how plain her future daughter-in-law was. And so Hillary's makeover began. During her husband's presidential campaign, Hillary scraped her hair back into one of her many hairbands and wore muted suits - ever the supportive, yet subservient wife (at that stage).
Once in the White House, friends, and no doubt her teenage daughter, advised her to take more of an interest in fashion. She experimented with Oscar de la Renta and a little known conservative Washington designer brand called Tamotsu. The First Lady also courted Ralph Lauren through charity work, but try as she might, she never looked polished. Even designer Carolina Herrera - a favourite of the current First Lady, Laura Bush - says simply that Hillary "never found her way". Websites were dedicated to the growth and ever-changing style of her hair, while the cruel American press nicknamed her "sausage legs" and "your thighness".
It is no wonder, then, that Hillary fails to have a sense of humor about it. On her recent presidential campaign trip to Iowa, she complained to the crowd that the press make too much of her appearance and clothing. When one journalist asked what she was wearing to one press event, Hillary's PR snapped, "What's it look like she's wearing? It's a white jacket. Just like I'm wearing a black shirt, and you're wearing a pink one."
Yet suddenly, the one-time First Lady, sometime first lady president, is looking immaculate. There are rumours of $1,000 haircuts and a $2,000 make-over from Barbara Lacy, a Hollywood make-up artist, and it has been money well spent. Yet the ever-present trouser suit is going nowhere and she adapts it for the audience. New York - dark suit and Bruno Magli heels (serious); LA - bright suit and flats (fun); Deep South - earth tones, no jacket (one of you).
Hillary treats clothes like a costume and changes them as often as her character. She wants to be taken seriously as a political figure and not as a fashion figure, but for once designer Donatella Versace has a point: "I can understand (trousers) are comfortable but she's a woman and she is allowed to show that. She should treat femininity as an opportunity and not try to emulate masculinity in politics."
* Journalist, author and socialite Tina Brown said her support of Hillary Clinton "went wobbly" when she backed the war in Iraq, but she otherwise admires her. "There is nobody with her depth and grasp; she's so well-informed. And what I love about her is she's so tough. This is a woman who never sleeps, who's had everything thrown at her, who has been so trashed and she has come back. And I do admire that," she admitted.
* Maya Angelou announced her endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president in a video tribute. "I would encourage her to be a long-distance runner. Be in this thing to win," said Angelou. "You've got a lot of help and a lot of people care for you - not just admire you, but really have profound affection for you."
* Actress Elizabeth Taylor said she was donating $2,300 (£1,150) to Clinton's campaign, confessing she admired her vast experience and outspoken nature. In a statement, Taylor said: "I have contributed to Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign because she has a mind of her own and a very strong one at that. I like the way she thinks. She is very savvy and a smart leader with years of experience in government, diplomacy and politics."
* Clinton recruited 'The Sopranos' to help her win votes. The former First Lady poked fun at the recent finale of the mob drama by re-enacting the series climax with her husband Bill Clinton for a light-hearted TV campaign ad. She persuaded 'Sopranos' regular Vincent Curatola to join her. In the spoof, the Clintons, both huge fans of the show, are browsing a menu in a diner - just like Tony and Carmela Soprano were at the end of the TV series - when Curatola, who played mob boss Johnny Sack on the show, walks past and gives the politician a filthy look.
* American rapper, composer and music producer Timbaland hosted a fundraiser for Clinton on the last day of the first-quarter fund-raising period for presidential candidates. The fundraiser was reportedly billed at $1,000 per attendee. According to election figures, Timbaland contributed $4,600 to her campaign.
* Actor Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward both donated $2,000, while 'Walk the Line' star Reese Witherspoon gave $1,000. Chat-show host Jerry Springer added $4,200 to the cause, while singer Nancy Sinatra handed over a modest $200. Other contributors include the actor Edie Falco (who played Carmela Soprano), Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and actor Danny DeVito.
*Singer Barbra Streisand, a friend and supporter of former President Bill Clinton, has previously made contributions to the successful US Senate campaigns of Hillary. This time, the singer gave money not only to the New York senator but to two other would-be Democrat Presidential candidates, John Edwards and Barack Obama. "I'm very excited about the strength of the Democratic field for the 2008 presidential election, and I'm looking forward to a lively and healthy primary debate," Streisand wrote.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited