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Although I tell my students that there are no stupid questions, news of any project about Hillary Rodham Clinton these days triggers predictable questions revealing the sorry state of modern political discourse and the particularly pathetic status of the conversation about New York's junior senator. People want to know: "Where do you stand — do you like her or hate her?" This question reveals an unfortunate, polarized, melodramatic Ebert & Roeper, "thumbs up or thumbs down" approach to history and politics. Historians prefer to assess her strengths and weaknesses, her successes and failures.
Friends inquire: "Did you interview her?" demonstrating a talismanic faith in journalistic techniques in our age of "mediaocracy," overlooking the limits of what interviews with well-practiced celebrities can achieve, and the corresponding historical distance lost. A more open, historical question would be: "What sources are available to understand who she is and what she has done?"
Many wonder: "Is she a lesbian?" betraying an addiction to sensational gossip not serious discussion of political values. And almost all ask: "Will Hillary Clinton become president in 2008?" reflecting a culture that speculates obsessively, perpetually handicapping the political horse race, seeking crystal balls, not historical insights.
Anyone trying to read Hillary Clinton's mind or predict her future is either courting frustration or demonstrating fanaticism. But nearly six years after the Clinton administration ended, we can begin measuring her historical footprint. Searching for the historical Hillary Clinton, her rocky tenure from 1993 to 2001 has to be viewed in the context of previous first ladies' experiences and the historical forces shaping her times. Mrs. Clinton's frustrations become more comprehensible considering the controversies that hemmed in other presidential spouses, from Mary Todd Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt to Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. Mrs. Clinton's polarizing impact becomes easier to understand considering the post-Sixties Culture Wars and her efforts to synthesize her 1950s Midwestern Methodist upbringing with her 1960s East Coast Ivy League awakening.
Ironically, these tensions and her humiliation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal helped propel her unprecedented move down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to Capitol Hill. Being first lady made "Hillary" a modern American icon, even as her dreams of reforming health care, revitalizing American values and redefining the first lady as co-president vanished. In her many speeches and writings, Mrs. Clinton's centrism on the abortion issue — and others — emerged, reflecting a more traditional philosophy than her liberal fans or conservative detractors appreciate.
As an historian, I understand the dangers in writing biographies about individuals who remain in the public arena, still shaping their careers. Yet there is value in offering a balanced, non-sensational account of such a polarizing political figure. By limiting my Hillary Clinton book to her First Lady years, a discrete historical epoch, I hope to push the conversation about Senator Clinton to a less partisan plane without sacrificing academic rigor. Society would benefit if more of us strayed beyond the academic cloister to practice scholarship, not partisanship. We might also have more fun — I certainly have.
History professor Gil Troy's book Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady (University Press of Kansas) comes out October 4.