Cokie and Steven Roberts
Americans want a president who has suffered adversity and overcome hardship — or at least knows people who have. But what many voters know about Hillary Clinton is just the opposite: high-powered lawyer, wife of a president, U.S. senator, rich and privileged insider with unlimited ambition and uncertain ethics.
Her husband, Bill, faced a similar problem in 1992. His staff was appalled to discover that the public saw him as an elitist with glossy degrees from Georgetown, Yale and Oxford. That's when he was rebaptized as "The Man From Hope," the son of a single mom whose father was killed before he was born.
As a campaign narrative, "The Woman From Park Ridge" has the same purpose as "The Man From Hope": to make the candidate more appealing and authentic, to send the message: I'm one of you, I understand your lives.
But Hillary has been in the national spotlight for 15 years; 2-in-5 Americans say they'll never vote for her. It won't be an easy sell.
As outlined on her Web site (and increasingly in public appearances), Hillary's story stresses her parents' modest origins. Her father, Hugh Rodham, "was the son of a factory worker in Scranton, Pa" (a key swing state).
He "trained sailors in the Navy during World War II" (her father served, even if her husband didn't) and imbued her with "a deep sense of patriotism" (which survives, despite her opposition to the Iraq war). A small business owner, he "was so frugal that he used to turn the heat off overnight" (no big-spending liberals here).
Hillary's mother, Dorothy, "the daughter of a firefighter" (remember the heroes of 9/11), was shipped across country at age 8 to live with a "strict grandmother" and "her mother's difficult childhood imbued in Hillary a fierce sense of justice" (and taught her about life on the other side of the tracks).
Clinton has been talking about her parents more lately, and the home they made for their children in suburban Chicago, far from the fancy houses she now owns in New York and Washington. As luck would have it, Illinois is right next to Iowa, the site of the first caucuses, and in case any voters miss the point, her campaign literature stresses her "strong Midwestern roots" and "the sense of community we Midwesterners hold dear."
If chapter one of "The Woman From Park Ridge" is aimed at hardworking, heartland suburbanites of both genders, chapter two is pitched more directly at women. A section of her biography, entitled "Mother and Advocate," runs less than 400 words, but it mentions "children" and "families" 15 times. Her campaign theme, "Let the Conversation Begin," strikes a distinctly feminine note.
This chapter reflects the central calculation of Team Clinton: she can only win the nomination, and the presidency, by running up big margins among female voters. Actually, her husband made the same bet, losing the male vote to Bob Dole in 1996 but cruising to a second term with a 16-point advantage among women.
Democrats then steadily lost ground with women (Gore won them by 12 points, Kerry by only three) until 2006, when their margin bounced back to 12 points. The critical role of female voters is illustrated by the latest ABC News poll of Democratic voters: Clinton ties Barack Obama among men but trounces him by 2-to-1 among women, and leads by 15 points overall.
But there is a warning here, too. Hillary's margins are based largely on her popularity among single and minority women. She still has a lot of work to do with women who resemble her: white married mothers.
Chapter three of Hillary's tale focuses on a subject that reinforces the first two: her faith. It's no secret that many women, even strong Hillary backers, wonder why she never left (or immolated) her husband after his flagrant infidelities.
At a recent forum on religion she offered this explanation: "I am very grateful I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right, regardless of what the world thought."
There's "The Woman From Park Ridge" in one sentence. I know where I come from. I did the right thing, even if it was unpopular. I stayed faithful to an unfaithful husband, and God helped me through my pain. I'm just like you.
Now, will the voters agree?
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.