You’ve Changed, Hill. How Much Have We?

Did anyone else cringe watching Hillary announce for the Senate? The moment that made me want to click the channel changer in embarrassment was, I think, meant to be a joke. Acknowledging the hard road ahead, she ducked her head and did a Hillary version of a New York accent: “Buddaaay, this is New Yawk!”

As a fellow Illinois native who’s finally almost comfortable in my New York disguise, I’ve been watching uneasily as Hillary progresses into a metropolitan woman. Where Mandy Grunwald and Harold Ickes see the candidate they can mold into a reasonable facsimile of a New Yorker (black pantsuit, and weren’t those Prada boots in The New York Times ?), I see the apparition of an H.R.C. I met on a few occasions back in the beginning, when the reflexive Midwestern niceness was still apparent and there was still a Park Ridge nasal twang audible behind the practiced Arkansas drawl (both now traded in for something distinctly nonregional-did she get speech training or what?).

In the summer of 1992, I was assigned by the Midwest bureau of People magazine to follow Hillary around and get some color for a nice, friendly piece on the feminist phenom who had “first woman to (fill in the blank)” all over her résumé and who was still talking about her husband’s candidacy as a 2-for-1 deal. When I later interviewed her, two things stayed with me: that she seemed very personable and warm and that her accent was exactly that of the girls I had gone to high school with in a suburb not far from Park Ridge.

It was hard in the summer of 1992 for a young woman to stay objective and not become enchanted by the promise of Hillary. I had spent my formative professional years undercover in the dark age of Reagan-Bush. Those were the days when women were not allowed to wear pants in the White House. Anita Hill had just been whomped. Anti-abortion judges were packing the Supreme Court. And here was a woman who had kept her own name!

That afternoon, I ran into her in the bathroom. An aide was combing out her hair (long, with the headband, remember?) and Hillary asked where I’d bought my shoes. She was, I knew then, just a nice girl with guts, out doing battle for us.

After the 1992 election, I was assigned to follow Hillary around on her national health care listening tour. She had lured from their holes all the nation’s psychotic embryo-savers and seemed traumatized by the campaign. She and her camp were in full bunker mode. No more warm handshakes for this fellow traveler. I couldn’t get closer to her than the police barricade, though I straggled along from Tampa, Fla., to Billings, Mont., watching, waiting, begging for crumbs of color.

I interviewed every friend who would talk, bark or meow, starved for scraps of anything (“She loves hot sauce!”). They invariably extolled her wit and humor, her ability to mimic and make fun of people. But no one dared share a real anecdote, and Hillary never flashed an inch of leg in public. I longed to hear her lob some zingers at the pasty-pink, pudgy-fingered righteous freaks she had so violated by her mere presence on the national scene. She should have been making us laugh at them! Instead she was taking them seriously and becoming more and more cautious, prim, polite and dour, the worst caricature of a humorless feminist. I started to hate the fraudulent ping in her “Thank you so much” and wanted to gag over the robotic way she spoke, even if it was famously extemporaneous.

Later, I was assigned to go along on a White House interview she’d consented to, following some early Whitewater crisis. I twitchily asked all my scripted questions about lost billing records and cattle-future windfalls, and she answered deftly, without giving up a thing. By this time, I was a junior member of the National Hunt Club, and she was big game. I thought her stuffed carcass in a pastel pantsuit would look pretty cool on the fireplace mantel of my rented D.C. town house.

Not long after, I found myself buying steak, wine and an expensive cigar on Time Warner for a guy named Dave Bossi, who had quit his job as a Maryland fireman to scour backwoods courthouses in Arkansas for Clintonian abuses. Mr. Bossi was motivated by his concern for the nation’s embryos and a visceral hatred for Hillary. I followed him to his lair in a South Carolina senator’s office (marveling at how this thug breezed into the Capitol at midnight), where he plied me with documents and showed me a closet piled to the ceiling with cartons of Salem Lights and Kools-the South Carolina delegation’s version of an official souvenir.

The last time I spoke to Hillary was in a rope line at one of the White House press Christmas parties. It was early in the second Administration, pre-Monica. She shook my hand and smiled automatically, but her eyeballs were ice cubes. Did she know about my transformation, my betrayal? Or was I just investing meaning into this small encounter with an impossibly famous person who had forgotten all about me?

My participation in the big-game hunt ended when I moved to New York in 1997. I missed the final blooding and the kill. And when I heard rumors Hillary was considering a run for the Senate, I assumed she was heading back to Illinois and was happy for that.

Instead she’s here. And when she can finally unleash her sarcasm on voters who might appreciate it, she murmurs that half-assed little “Buddaaay, this is New Yawk.” Timidly, with an embarrassed duck of the chin.

Hillary might win (I’ll be voting for her just to make sure Trent Lott doesn’t get another foot soldier for his holy war), but it’s going to be sad to watch her try. Aside from recalling the epic tragedy of her personal life, I will have to bear witness to the final eradication of whatever it was in her that seemed so endearing that summer day back in 1992.

Even worse, we’ll all have to be reminded of how far women have not come, baby (isn’t that what’s really bothering New York women about her?). Her disastrously retro marital history, her vaunted “firsts,” her portrayal as the feminazi of feminazis, her ongoing transformation and fundamental insecurity and her feeble lashings at right-wing conspirators-all remind us of where women are now: just eight years and one President away from the day when a woman keeping her own name was national news. I can’t speak for the rest of New York’s female residents, but I’d rather not be reminded of that particular truth.