Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice: Who Are These Powerful Women?

Why, despite years in the public eye, do Hillary and Condi still seem so opaque? Two new books provide insights.

By Rebecca Barry

In Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary (HarperCollins), Susan Morrison, an editor at The New Yorker , has gathered an exhilaratingly honest collection of essays by many of the top writers of our time. In Condoleezza Rice: An American Life (Random House), Elisabeth Bumiller, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, traces the life of the secretary of state from her Southern childhood during the civil rights movement through the grueling White House years after 9/11. Here, the authors talk about their controversial subjects.MORE: Elisabeth, you wrote a straight biography, while, Susan, you chose to show us differing points of view. Why? BUMILLER: Rice’s life is just a great story. She witnessed many key events of the past 50 years: the civil rights movement, the Cold War, and the Bush administration’s foreign policy.MORRISON: I assigned essays because every time I went to a party, the conversation would come around to Hillary and turn contentious and emotional. Women, even more than men, seem to have intense feelings about her. As she once told a reporter herself, "I’m a Rorschach test."BUMILLER: You have 30 women writing and 30 different reactions. That would just never happen if Hillary were a man. Part of me wanted to say, "Enough already, stop. Let’s just look at her qualifications for the job."MORRISON: Yes. We obsess over what we want a woman leader to be. Many of the essayists who in the beginning said "She bugs me; I don’t know why" had worked through some of that by the time they handed in their pieces. While remaining critical, they seem to be cutting Hillary a lot more slack.BUMILLER: Rice’s gender was more of an issue at her Stanford provost job, which she says was the hardest she ever had. She was 38 years old, the youngest woman provost and the first African-American. She would say to her friends that male professors talked down to her. She had management-style problems. But she learned not to dress down subordinates then. There isn’t any evidence that she’s done that since.MORRISON: In Leslie Bennetts’ essay, she suggests that women are viable politically only when they’re postmenopausal. During their childbearing years, they can be criticized for not tending to the home front. Or they are seen as a sexual threat. It’s interesting, that comment Laura Bush made about Rice last year, when asked if she thought Rice would ever be president; she said something like, "Well, she’s single," as if that disqualified her for the job.BUMILLER: Yes, you need someone to come home to.MORRISON: I would’ve been furious if I were Rice, wouldn’t you? BUMILLER: Yes and no. It wasn’t meant in a nasty way — let’s assume that. She and Laura seem close. I think Laura meant it’s such a hard job, and George Bush comes home to her every day. Who do you have if you don’t have that person? It doesn’t disqualify someone from running for president, but you know, life is hard.MORRISON: Having a spouse could be a real liability. For Hillary, Bill brings likability and experience — and potential trouble.BUMILLER: He’s also really intelligent and fun to be around, and funny. I remember reading in the biographies that she fell for him hard.MORRISON: Exactly. Their relationship is one of the things that I find very attractive about each of them. They are intensely devoted to each other in a way that humanizes them.BUMILLER: There’s a reason they’re still married, and it’s not political expedience or that she’s married to the best political consultant in the business; it’s that shared intimacy.MORRISON: It took Hillary two or three years to decide to marry him. She obviously knew there would be unconventional aspects of the marriage and that he would be difficult to be married to. I think she really loved and respected him and knew that they could make something together.MORE: Did you get to know who your subjects really are?MORRISON: I can’t say that I’m particularly entitled to know Hillary, but it’s obvious that she’s incredibly smart and competent. BUMILLER: I had 10 long interviews with Condi. She’s changeable. She is a concert pianist turned political scientist, a Democrat turned Republican. Is she a realist, an idealist, a neocon? In the end, she’s a pragmatist, politically.

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