This article originally appeared in the NY Daily News on Sunday, April 19.
Having barely aged out of sexism slams, Hillary Clinton is now an easy target for ageism slurs.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a multiply-chinned 73-year-old, compared his 67-year-old former Senate colleague to a cast member from “the Golden Girls.” Last week, 43-year-old Sen. Marco Rubio denounced Hillary as “a leader from yesterday” who is “promising to take us back to yesterday,” even as he attacked Obama’s political courage in taking us into the future with Cuba, a policy Clinton has championed.
Michael Savage asked his viewers if they really want to look at Clinton’s “frightening face” for “eight straight years.”
Hillary’s age is irrelevant, older supporters sniff in reply. And amazingly, young people (18 to 29) see Clinton as at least 20 years younger than she is. According to a Pew survey, 69% think she is either in her 40s or 50s. Maybe because 50 is the farthest shore they can imagine before oblivion.
Both are wrong. Her actual age is relevant. But it’s smart for her to ignore or use irony to deflect the cheapest of these attacks. Indeed, many of her female supporters will express deep umbrage if Hillary’s opponents try to use “grandma” as a smear.
That said, Hillary must tackle head on the concerns that Americans of good will, including aging women themselves, have about electing a leader who can stand up to the superhuman demands on a commander-in-chief.
Hillary knew this day would come. She must have been rehearsing her response to the age complaint nearly as long as she’s been thinking about the implications of breaking through the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” as America’s first female President.
In the epilogue of her memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton describes how, in just the first few months, granddaughter Charlotte helped her see the world in new ways. “Becoming a grandmother has made me think deeply about the responsibility we all share as stewards of the world… rather than make me want to slow down, it has spurred me to speed up.”
By choosing to showcase her proud grandmother status, Hillary is able to present an authentic and appealing identity — the opposite of the tougher-than-any-man persona that she overplayed in her 2008 campaign. Then, her chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn — using what I and others thought to be a sexist template — insisted she hide her folksy, funny, empathetic side. (Bill Clinton agreed.)
Hillary certainly is tougher than most men and women. But another authentic core of her character is the nurturer-rescuer, a dedicated advocate for children and mothers since she went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund right out of law school.
That’s the persona she is now free to use to connect with everyday families. She genuinely gets their struggles to afford care for their children while working too many hours just to stay ahead of the bills — a life she lived as breadwinner for a poor law professor with political ambitions.
In a youth-obsessed culture, ageism is internalized by most women. Many studies, including my own, find that in their mid-50s, the majority of American women complain of feeing invisible. They worry that their views and opinions are no longer taken seriously.
Being recognized and listened to is one thing Hillary does not have to worry about. Yet it behooves us to recall that, because of the way she sidelined her ambitions to support her husband’s — in a way that parallels the lives of many women her age — even she did not feel fully independent until she was 52.
It wasn’t until the day the vote was being taken to impeach her husband that the First Lady huddled with her longtime advisor, Harold Ickes, to start planning her own campaign for high office. “It’s the first time I feel I can speak with my own voice,” she told me then.
The 2008 campaign took a lot out of her. While her staff was obsessed with in-fighting, Hillary carried the campaign on her back, often pulling 12- to 18-hour days. She does not thrive on playing nice to strangers non-stop, as her husband does. In the ’90s I often heard her say, “I don’t care what other people think!”
At an annual holiday weekend, I frequently watched her duck out of a group dinner at 10 p.m. to go to bed, leaving her attention-addicted husband to troll the halls until he won the heart of every straggler.
After her nearly year-long, bruising and losing 2008 fight for the Presidency, she went straight into the cauldron of representing America as its top diplomat. That job required no shortage of endless plane trips, long nights and forced smiles. Hillary had no time to go off somewhere sight unseen to restore body and soul — sans makeup, sans Spanx, sans fans.
Instead, while crisscrossing the globe through 112 countries, Hillary is estimated to have put on roughly 40 pounds. By 2012, in her last year as Secretary Clinton, she once groaned to a deputy, “It’s just incoming fire, 24-seven.” As far back as the ’90s, she told me she needs eight hours sleep. She rarely got anything near that as an even more peripatetic secretary state than Henry Kissinger.
But nobody ever got on Kissinger’s case for looking old and rotund.
Clinton tried going natural in May of her last year as Madam Secretary. While traveling in India, she let her hair go limp and her plain-washed face show, even at press events. When photographs surfaced-she actually looked quite pretty — she laughed off a CNN interviewer, saying, “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now… I haven’t got time to worry about make-up… if I want to wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back.”
Aaahhh, the dream of every working woman over 50. Alas, it is a fantasy in public life.
Deep down, as much as she must hate this fact, Hillary knows it. With her, it’s still always first about her hair. In her last months as secretary of state, when Hillary was 64, even loyal women supporters whispered to me that she looked like a hag. Her deputies and some staff gently urged her to cut the long, straggly greying mane. She stubbornly refused. When she tied it back, she looked like an aging male hippie.
Her staff backed off, as one deputy told me, for fear of “being spanked by Mama.”
Hillary griped, this deputy said, that she didn’t know how to do her own hair when it’s short, and she’d be damned if she’d get up a half hour earlier to sit for a stylist.
Most telling is that Hillary, unlike almost any other overweight presidential candidate, apparently made no effort to slim down before mounting this campaign. That extra padding adds more than any wrinkle to the perception of Hillary as “old,” rather than a “young old.”
So she can expect barbs about hair and makeup, “cankles” and pantsuits – tired obsessions of a male-dominated media. But this time, Hillary has an experienced image-maker traveling with her. Kristina Schake is the former aide who helped Michelle Obama show off her everyday woman side shopping at Target and dancing with Jimmy Fallon.
This time, the relevant issue is energy. It is neither sexist nor ageist to raise it. It is legitimate.
The question I hear from women who might otherwise support her is: Does she have the physical vitality to take on the toughest 24/7 job in the world?
Here, the comparisons among American Presidents are both flattering and unflattering.
Reagan was older than Hillary would be on inauguration, but he was always being photographed riding like a kid cowboy. Bush the elder jumped out of a plane at 80.
But let us also recall that, in his ’84 reelection campaign, Reagan faced age concerns after he stumbled in his first debate with Walter Mondale. In 1987, based on an unpublished study by USC neurologists of his increasingly halting answers at press conferences, and the fact that his mother died of Alzheimer’s disease nearly 10 years after its onset, I wrote a piece for The New Republic suggesting that Reagan showed possible signs of early Alzheimer’s. My story was viciously attacked by right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Bob Dole was 73 and John McCain was 72 when they were presidential nominees. Despite partisan defenses of McCain’s age, neither was elected, and age likely played a role.
Look beyond the United States for models, though, and there’s less cause for concern. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now 60, and despite carrying the troubles of Europe on her shoulders as the de-facto leader of the European Union, she is still going strong. Of 22 recently elected female world leaders, roughly one- third took the office in their sixties.
A woman who has passed age 65 without any evidence of cancer or heart disease is expected to live into her nineties, as did Hillary’s mother. Many of us know women in their 70s who are every bit as sharp and vital as men 20 years their junior.
Indeed, Clinton has shown the ability to run younger staffers ragged. With her baked-in Methodist work ethic, she wore herself out as secretary of state.
Excess weight, even a little, can drain energy. Lack of exercise — like sitting in motorcades and on long plane flights — contributes to the energy drain. Campaign food is notoriously greasy and loaded with carbs.
People want to see a candidate bound up on stage and look bright-eyed coming off Air Force One. Hillary needs to show us what Margaret Mead called “postmenopausal zest.”
Age doesn’t seem to have drained any of Hillary’s extraordinary brain power. She could probably name just about every leader in the world. (Okay, maybe not Hifikepunye Pohamba, Namibia’s previous leader.)
She is quick on her feet. The mind she honed as an attorney is still in top form.
Clinton has had 23 years of playing and working on a complex political stage, both domestically and internationally. Let’s see if Mama — now Grandma — knows best.
Sheehy is author of the biography “Hillary’s Choice.”