»  National Review Online

February 6th, 2001

  Hillary's Style Crash

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Like you, I have been watching with fascination as our sleek, svelte, coiffed, poised, ever-smiling ex-First Lady turns into a grim-lipped, shapeless, stringy-haired old bag in a muu-muu. I am not even going to attempt to draw any inferences about Mrs. Clinton's state of mind. Even less am I going to try to deduce what this style collapse tells us about the inner dynamics of the Clinton marriage. Like everybody else, I have long since given up trying to figure out what that is all about. I just want to indulge in some personal nostalgia, and pass a few general remarks about the world. Look, this is a web magazine. As his colleague says to Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, when DeNiro has scoffed at the guy's garbled attempt to answer some large question about the purpose of life: "Whaddya expect — Bertrand Russell? I'm a cabbie." And anyway, if you were paying attention, I actually gave you Bertrand Russell last week.

I grew up in a small English country town. For an intelligent teenager, there were only two political scenes going. One of them was the Young Conservatives / Young Farmers crowd. (The two organizations were consubstantial and coextensive. Pas métayers à gauche, in England at any rate.) The other was Young Socialists / CND. "CND" stands for "Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament," a movement that urged the British government to abandon its nuclear weapons. CND ebbed and flowed through the '60s, '70s and '80s in Britain, depending on the requirements of Soviet foreign policy. It was, of course, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the KGB, though there were some sincere people in it (including, in an earlier phase, Bertrand Russell! — I can't seem to shake off the old goat these few days).

The YC/YF crowd drank beer, drove Land Rovers, played rugby, listened to soft pop, wore tweeds and brogues (the men), pretty dresses, cardigans and pearls (the women … though in later life the women, too, have gone into tweeds and brogues, I notice). The YS/CND people drank wine, drove Deux Chevauxs (you need a plural of a plural here … I give up), played chess, listened to Edith Piaf and wore black turtle-neck sweaters. In such a small place you couldn't avoid considerable contact with both sets, but they were philosophically and culturally at opposite poles. They were Guelphs and Ghibellines, Cavaliers and Roundheads, Yankees and Mets, matter and anti-matter.

The main thing that caught my febrile adolescent attention was the very striking difference in the female population of these two political tribes. The conservative women were much prettier, but the socialist girls were much looser. The star of the latter set was actually a girl named … well, never mind her name. Her nickname was "Nookie," and for very excellent reasons. Though far from being a beauty queen, and even further from being obsessive-compulsive about personal hygiene (regarded in this set as a contemptible bourgeois affectation), this young lady, not to obscure the matter behind any veil of false delicacy, banged like an outhouse door in a force nine gale. Well, youth has its own priorities. I became a socialist, and remained one well into my twenties.

I have shaken off my youthful leftism, but not the conviction that conservative women are prettier, and more moral, than their sisters on the Left. Possibly my perceptions on this matter, after so long a residence in my psyche, are now hopelessly colored by partiality. During the recent election fiasco in Florida, when the media lefties started bad-mouthing Katherine Harris, I was baffled. She had struck me, from her first appearance, and with due allowance for her age, as a very attractive woman.

Still, I think I could make an objective case for the general proposition. Just line them up, for goodness' sake. On the Left: Janet Reno, Donna Shalala, Hillary Clinton (you can take her before or after the style crash, far as I'm concerned), Madeleine Albright, Barbra Streisand, Rosie O'Donnell, Katie Couric, Anna Quindlen, Andrea Dworkin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nina Khrushchev, Mao Tse-tung's last wife … On the Right: Margaret Thatcher, Condoleeza Rice (pity about that forename — what were her parents thinking of?), Linda Chavez, Katherine Harris, Laura Bush (a cutie, in my book, though I wish she'd get the squint fixed), Suzanna Gratia Hupp, Heather Nauert (oh God), Paula Zahn, Ann Coulter, Peggy Noonan, Grace Coolidge, Elizabeth the First, the last Tsarina, Eva Peron … I rest my case.

There are a few necessary qualifications, but I don't think they blunt my argument. They may actually strengthen it. Madeleine Albright, for example, is said to have been a babe when younger. Well, water will find its level, physical states return to equilibrium sooner or later, and all lefty women, whatever attributes they may have started out with, revert to type at last. Margaret Thatcher at 60 could still drive men crazy — I would have given my all for one favoring glance. Those Young Conservative girls I used to know, who are now Middle-Aged Conservatives in tweeds, manage to look good in tweeds. (There is, in fact, a great deal to be said for women in tweeds. There will be a future column on this topic.) But Hillary Clinton at 60?

There is a piece of British Army slang I rather like: "double-bagger." The idea is, that if a lady is hard on the eye, you need to put a paper bag over her head before you can get intimate with her. If she is really hard on the eye, you will want to have a second bag close at hand, in case the first one breaks. There you have it: all left-wing women are, in their innermost souls, which will sooner or later take control of the situation, double-baggers. (An acquaintance raised in upstate New York tells me that the American equivalent — it may be only a localism, they are peculiar folk up there — is "a fifty-footer." This apparently refers to the minimum distance you can approach before being turned to stone.)

When Arthur Koestler was a communist in Weimar Germany, he used to have secret meetings with comrades in open public places where a police "tail" would be easy to spot. Once he met with a female comrade in a Berlin park. While discussing necessary business, the woman lost her attention and began staring at the surrounding trees. "Why is it," she suddenly blurted out, "that the leaves die wherever we go?"

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Footnotes: (There's an academic somewhere inside this ink-stained wretch, struggling to get out.)

Oh yes, I know, I mis-quoted Hamlet last week. The sentence is: "What a piece of work is a man!" I dropped the "a" in front of "man." Not a typo, I just mis-remembered it, and perhaps unconsciously modified it to suit my thesis. At any rate, please rest assured I did NOT drop the article because I think that referring to a generalized human being as male is "exclusionary." I don't think any such damn fool drivelling knee-jerk PC thing. The grammatical rule I was taught, and to which I shall cleave until my dying day, is the one pithily expressed by Winston Churchill: that, in these situations, "the male embraces the female." I am a conservative, for Heaven's sake.

Dropping that indefinite article puts me in good company, anyway. When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon he said: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." At least, that's what he intended to say, and that's what he thought he said, according to him (according to Arthur C. Clarke). The "a" got lost somehow, though, and one of the greatest events in the history of the human race is now tagged with a remark that doesn't make sense. The truly depressing thing is that hardly anybody seems to notice.

Answer to last week's quiz-time question. Jun jun chen chen fu fu zi zi means: "The prince should act like a prince, the minister like a minister, the father like a father and the son like a son." In classical Chinese words hardly ever belong to definite parts of speech. Jun can be a noun ("prince"), a verb ("act like a prince"), an adjective ("princely") an adverb ("in a princely manner"), or even an honorific pronoun ("you"). Furthermore, verbs are not required to have any mark of tense, person, number, voice, mood or aspect. So that first jun is a noun, the second a verb in the subjunctive mood, with a coloring of obligation. Same for the others. You can just about do this in English, if you make the nominatives into vocatives and the subjunctives into imperatives: "Prince — prince! Minister — minister! Father — father! Son — son!" Prof. Burton Watson on classical Chinese grammar:  "The student of classical Chinese is sometimes led to conclude despairingly that … he is not dealing with a medium for the communication of new ideas but a mnemonic device for calling to mind old ones. Is it too much to ask that the writer indicate at least the subject of the sentence? he may ask. In the case of classical Chinese the answer is usually, yes."

[Added much later]   The general opinion expressed in this piece is not original with me. Here is a suave Nazi (or at least, Nazi sympathizer) mocking a disillusioned Communist (bourgeois, intellectual) in Arthur Koestler's 1941 novel Arrival and Departure, Part 4, Chapter 4:

There were exceptions, of course, but, generally speaking, the female element at your Party meetings, lectures, and discussion groups looked like a collection of neurotic Cinderellas who wanted to overthrow a society in which nobody asked them to dance … The workers in the revolutionary movement were the vanguard of their class; you were the suicide squad of yours. As a contrast to your blue-stockinged Cinderellas one always saw some pretty factory girls marching in your demonstrations, with tough and splendid youths — they were the same type as ours, and they were the first to come over to us …