Saint or Sinner - The Construction of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Myth, 1992-1996

Susanna Montezemolo, Colby College


In 1992, Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the political landscape as her husband's equal. The Clinton duo openly marketed itself as a partnership; both Clintons repeatedly stated that they were "two-for-the-price-of-one." At first, they were popular, and Mrs. Clinton was revered by feminists, liberals, and other Democratic base voters because she took on a powerful role in her marriage and the white house. However, a year into Bill Clinton's presidency, the political partnership that Bill and Hillary Clinton had so proudly promoted during the campaign became marred by controversy. Specifically, Mrs. Clinton was criticized for her supposedly over-powerful role in the White House and for formulating the failed health-care initiative that formed the foundation of her husband's first year in office. Mrs. Clinton also was assailed for her role in the Whitewater affair, the disastrous land deal that she and her husband had entered in the 1970s. Although Mrs. Clinton retained a loyal following, she also was hated by many who maintained that she had usurped her power.

The Hillary Rodham Clinton myth emerged from these animadversions and approbations. "Saint or Sinner?" asked Newsweek's cover on 15 January 1996. This title captures the mood of the country perfectly. Americans are divided in their opinion of their first lady. About half believe that Mrs. Clinton is like a saint, the modem American woman who tries to balance a powerful career with having a family. Others think of her as a sinner. They despise her and claim that she has misused her power and has become a co-president.

This paper examines the "saint or sinner" Hillary Rodham Clinton myth and its implications. I am not concerned with ascertaining the "truth" about Mrs. Clinton in the way that the truth is conventionally defined. In fact, such would be impossible, since very few Americans know HRC personally, and the media only provide an interpretation of the "truth." Rather, this paper is concerned with examining the meaning of the saint/sinner dichotomy in American society. It examines the development of the myth in the 1992 campaign, the failed health-care initiative, the Whitewater affair and other "Clinton scandals," and in the Clintons' marriage. It then turns to the Clinton campaign's failed attempt to break down that myth in the 1996 presidential campaign. Finally, it concludes by explaining the implications of the myth for American society.

My argument is that Mrs. Clinton has been vilified and revered not because of who she is personally, but because of the kind of woman she represents. Liberals believe that the first lady is like a saint not because she is perfect, but rather because she struggles to succeed in a world of power traditionally dominated by men. Similarly, conservatives do not think of HRC as a sinner because she is inherently evil; instead, they look to her as a woman who threatens the status quo of society and therefore threatens their place in America today. In short, Mrs. Clinton serves as a cultural battleground over which conservatives and liberals fight about the proper role for a woman in contemporary American society.