Hillary the “Boss’s Wife from Hell”

parry-gilesTonight, former U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will throw down political style as she officially kicks off her bid for the White House. The speech will cap twenty-five years in a national spotlight that at various times lit Clinton in order to transform her into Lady MacBeth or any number of other Shakespearean monstrosities.

In the award-winning Hillary Clinton and the News, Shawn J. Parry-Giles offers a definitive account of Clinton’s fraught journey and her encounters—as a person, an image, an idea, and a symbol—with American journalism and, more often than not, “journamalism.” Take the 1996 presidential, for instance, when the media salivated at the idea of matching up Clinton against the more “traditional” Elizabeth Dole. As Parry-Giles shows, much stupidity was on display:

As in 1992, Hillary Clinton was still framed as a threat to her husband’s candidacy in 1996, eliciting what some in the press suggested was the need for further disciplinary action by the Clinton campaign. Greenfield’s aforementioned reference to Clinton as the “political equivalent of nitroglycerin” framed that danger in very acute terms. Reflecting a linguistic frame from 1992, NBC titled an October 22, 1996, newscast “The Hillary Factor” to underscore the problems that Clinton brought to her husband’s re-election campaign. ABC’s Nightline would revise the linguistic frame and identify this phenomenon as the “Hillary problem,” which, according to Ted Koppel, represented Clinton’s struggle “to deal with a public image . . . of being too strong, too intelligent, too driven.” Because of Clinton’s image problems, Nightline writers claimed that the Dole campaign was debating how Elizabeth Dole could “be seen as a strong partner but not as Hillary Clinton.”

Clinton’s threatening attributes were reinforced with the re-emergence of the “lightning rod” metaphor in 1996. In the context of the 1996 Democratic National Convention, Linda Douglass of CBS News argued that Clinton had become a “lightning rod for conservative wrath.” Lisa Myers also used the same construct for Clinton during the same time period, noting that such controversy was to blame for women’s doubts about her: “Most of these women rooted for Hillary when she became first lady but that was before she became a lightning rod for controversy.”

These stalwart images demonstrated once again the authenticating force of a feminist news frame—a frame with tremendous staying power revealed in the persistence of Clinton’s baseline frames from the first campaign to the second. Once authenticated, the frame made it more difficult for Clinton to move across the fields of career and motherhood/wife or progress and tradition. As Mary Douglas Vavrus explains, “The more naturalized and hegemonic ideologies are, the more difficult their articulations are to challenge.” When Clinton was acknowledged for her outspokenness and for her role as wife, it was still in very incendiary terms as CNN noted her reputation as “the boss’s wife from hell.”