The moment still haunting Hillary Clinton 24 years later

By Sam Clench

Hillary Clinton can't escape her past.

Since she became the first lady of Arkansas all the way back in 1979, Clinton's every move has been publicly scrutinised. For each achievement adorning her resume, there's a scandal tainting it.

Some of those scandals matter more than others. Swirling accusations of corruption at the Clinton Foundation, for instance, are a big deal. So is Clinton's "careless" handling of classified information as Secretary of State.

By comparison, the smaller moments of controversy in Clinton's career might seem insignificant. But one of them - a throwaway quote that's hounded her for 24 years - still has huge political ramifications today.

Hillary Clinton's past is as big a threat to her as anything Donald Trump can do. Photo / AP
Hillary Clinton's past is as big a threat to her as anything Donald Trump can do. Photo / AP

'I COULD HAVE STAYED HOME AND BAKED COOKIES'

First, some context. In March of 1992, almost a year before he became president, Hillary's husband Bill Clinton was locked in a bitter contest for the Democratic Party's nomination.

One of Bill's opponents, Jerry Brown, used a live TV debate to accuse him of funnelling government money to Hillary's law firm. Bill leapt at the chance to fight back.

"I don't care what you say about me, but you ought to be ashamed of yourself for jumping on my wife. You're not worth being on the same platform as my wife," he spat. "My wife is a fine person who has not done anything unethical."

Boom.

Bill appeared to get the better of Brown on the debate stage, but that was all forgotten the following day, when the soon-to-be first lady spoke. Asked about the allegations involving her law firm, Hillary Clinton responded with a frustrated, sarcastic comment.

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life," she said.

The reaction was swift, passionate and deeply polarised. Many women were thrilled and inspired by Clinton's decision to spurn the traditional "politician's wife" role and pursue her own career. Others took her comment as a condescending slap in the face.

"If I ever entertained the idea of voting for Bill Clinton, the smug bitchiness of his wife's comment has nipped that notion in the bud," one voter told TIME Magazine at the time. "I resent the implication that those of us who stay home just bake cookies. We hardly have the time!"

"I was ready to like her. Not now ... after what she said ... she obviously doesn't have respect for what I do," another voter told CBS.

'AN INSULT TO MOST WOMEN'

Stay-at-home mothers felt Clinton had expressed contempt for them. Her political opponents portrayed her as a "radical" feminist. The ever blunt New York Post called her "a buffoon, an insult to most women", and while the rest of the media wasn't quite so harsh, it did obsess over the controversy.

"The problem is not that Hillary Clinton, successful lawyer and feminist, is coming across as a cunning political animal, threatening to insecure male voters. On the contrary, she is coming across as a political bumbler by appearing to show contempt for women who work at home," William Safire wrote in the New York Times.

"You do not defend yourself from a conflict-of-interest charge by insulting a large segment of the voting public. The cookies-and-tea stereotype is elitism in action."

After the backlash had simmered for a couple of weeks, Clinton went on The Today Show in an attempt to clarify her meaning once and for all.

"Come on, we're still talking about this?" Photo / Supplied
"Come on, we're still talking about this?" Photo / Supplied

"The only person I was trying to put down was Jerry Brown. I wasn't trying to put anybody else down," she told interviewer Katie Couric.

"I was trying to point out that his attitude seemed to be that I should've only confined myself to the ceremonial role of a first lady, and I've enjoyed that role, but I've also enjoyed very much doing the rest of my life."

Clinton said she regretted having her comment "taken out of context and misconstrued", and offered an olive branch to stay-at-home mothers.

"All of us, we're trying to find a way. Those who are fulltime mothers and homemakers, those with a fulltime career, and those of us who are the majority of us, trying to balance both."

FULL RETREAT

Even that didn't shut down the firestorm, and as Bill turned his attention to the general election, his strategists sought to reshape Hillary's public image. After featuring heavily during the Democratic primaries, often overshadowing the actual candidate, she took a step back. Everyone noticed.

"Shorn of her claws and fetchingly eager to be a White House wife, Hillary Clinton has returned after several months out of the limelight. No longer is she taunting, 'if you elect Bill, you get me,' or alluding to how she will reshape the role of the First Lady," Karen Lehman wrote for the Times.

"She's softened her hair, wardrobe and make-up, and even seems to have abandoned her yuppie headband - all with the none-too-subtle intent of making her appear more maternal, domestic, average, likeable."

The perfect symbol for Clinton's transformation was her participation in the first ever "Presidential Cookie Poll". Family Circle magazine created the glorified bake-off between the two potential first ladies as a direct response to Clinton's "I could have stayed home and baked cookies" comment, and she decided to play along.

For the record, her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies wiped the floor with Barbara Bush's regular chocolate chip ones, just like Bill Clinton wiped the floor with George H.W. Bush.

The bake-off is still running today, even amid accusations of sexism. This year, Melania Trump's "star cookies" (hopefully she didn't plagiarise the recipe) are up against the same chocolate chip cookies the Clintons submitted in 1992.

This comment on the Family Circle Facebook page sums it up pretty well: "I'll vote for the chocolate chip cookie anytime, but I hope that Family Circle will re-evaluate this poll. It's 2016 and frankly most of us, men and women, just buy our cookies from Costco."

24 YEARS LATER

So, why the hell does any of this still matter? Because if not for the backlash she suffered in 1992, the Hillary Clinton of 2016 could have been a very different candidate.

You may have noticed Clinton is extremely unpopular with the left wing of her party. The Democratic convention in July was marred by protests from the young supporters of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, many of whom insisted they would never vote for Clinton.

"Instead of ... nominating someone with actual leftist politics and actual principles, the DNC has elected to keep the status quo," one Sanders voter told Cosmopolitan.

Much of their criticism focuses on Clinton not being truly progressive, or lacking convictions, and that's fair enough. Present-day Clinton is politically flexible and calculating. She's robotic in public, repeating the same boring talking points like any other politician, and no one really knows what she believes.

The Clinton of 1992 was the opposite. Back then, she was a feminist trailblazer, and a rock star with the Democratic base. She was quick on her feet and willing to say bold, controversial things.

If that Hillary Clinton still exists, she's buried under an impenetrable protective layer of PR and spin - which exists because one innocuous sentence 24 years ago forced her to change.

- news.com.au

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