Hillary Clinton: life in the soft lane


BOSTON -- Somewhere between the surprise party, the 600-pound birthday cheesecake and the Oprah show, I came up with a few more reasons Why I Am Glad My Husband Isn't President of The United States: Reason 341: My 50th birthday wasn't a Time magazine cover story. Reason 342: Nor was it the occasion for a national popularity poll. Reason 343: Nor did ABC go out on the streets asking people how old I look.

50 fest

The good news about Hillary's four-day 50 fest is that since the baby boomers started hitting the half-century mark, the big five-oh has become a cause for public celebration. The bad news is that when a documentary crew follows you around, when someone names a park, a day, and a corner after you, there's not a whole lot of time for private musing.

The New York Times dubbed the birthday an "unofficial coming-out party for the second-term first lady." U.S. News said she had gone from modeling herself after a policy wonk to modeling herself after a princess, Di.

Everywhere you looked, the image analysts were saying that she had "softened" as if she were in the last act of "The Taming of the Shrew." On Oprah, the audience actually applauded the fact that at 50 she finally got her hair right.

But whatever her private thoughts were on this birthday, Hillary kept them, well, private. "I was just sort of rolling through time," she demurred, "now it's being turned into this huge deal."

On Monday, at the Chicago Historical Society she said just a bit ruefully, "I feel like a piece of history. . . . I should either be 100 years old or talking about somebody else."

Reflection time

Nobody wants to psychobabble through their birthday party. I accept her reluctance to be extrovertedly introspective. But as someone who has been there and doing that, I can promise that you don't get through your 50s without a whole lot of reflection on where you've been and what you are doing . . . next.

Women in their 50s today are all over the demographic lot -- having babies, mammograms and face lifts. But most of us, like the first lady, confront our 50s, menopause and an empty nest simultaneously.

Those of us who did it all, and then some, in our 40s hear the unmistakable sound of doors closing behind us. Kids are leaving home. The chance of becoming a nuclear physicist or a professional ballet dancer is less than the chance of getting a titanium hip. And honey, can I borrow your glasses to read the menu?

There are doors opening in front of us as well. But we know there isn't time to go bounding through them all. We have to pick carefully and boldly, to triage what we want to do and what we want to quit. We have to live intentionally, to figure out where we will go if we "let ourselves go."

In this decade, the lines the poet Adrienne Rich wrote to herself echo everywhere: "Dear Adrienne: / I'm calling you up tonight/ As I might call up a friend as I might call up a ghost/ To ask what you intend to do/ With the rest of your life."

At 50, Virginia Woolf began to write her famous and angry tract "Three Guineas." At 50, Julia Child brought taste to television. At 50 -- do not laugh -- Candice Bergen cut her hair short. At fiftysomething you have to build the rest of the life you don't want to regret not living.

Old age, they say, is not for sissies. But middle age with its loss and liberation demands courage as well. Hillary Clinton, who has tried to be her own woman and her husband's wife and her country's first lady, subject to astonishing scrutiny and overwhelming demands, can see all those open doorways down the corridor. They must look like thresholds to freedom, but it's not easy to know which one to cross.

Who are you?

On her birthday visit to her old school Monday, Hillary's second-grade teacher greeted her star pupil teasingly, "And who are you?" The first lady answered, "Oh yes, this is the question we're all trying to answer." Perhaps so.

Once, in "Song of Solomon," Toni Morrison's Pilate finally "tackled the problem of trying to decide how she wanted to live and what was valuable to her." She asked herself, "When am I happy and when am I sad and what is the difference? What do I need to know to stay alive? What is true in the world?"

These are more than enough questions to ask when at fiftysomething you call yourself up, like a friend or a ghost, to ask what you intend to do with the rest of your life.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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