There's an oft-told joke about Hillary and Bill Clinton, which goes like this: The couple are driving along when they stop to get some gas, and it turns out that the attendant is a high-school boyfriend of Hillary's. As they're pulling away, Bill says, "Just think — if you had married him, today you'd be a gas station attendant's wife." Hillary shakes her head and says, "No, Bill, if I had married him, today he'd be president of the United States."
It's not really true — when Bill and Hillary met at Yale Law School, they were both superstars in the making. But she subsumed her political ambitions to his, because that's just what women did back then. And she traveled a long and tiring path to where she has finally come: Hillary Clinton is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, with a better than even chance of becoming the first woman president of the United States.
There may never have been a president who arrived in the White House carrying so much freight, so much political and cultural baggage, so many people's hopes and fears and anger, so much history and so much doubt.
It starts back in the 1960s, that decade America still can't escape. Hillary may have been a dutiful student and careful planner — the last person who would ever have tuned in, turned on, and dropped out — but to her and her husband's opponents, the young couple coming to Washington in 1993 were the embodiment of all their resentments from that tumultuous time. Newt Gingrich called them "counter-culture McGovernicks," and they were drafted into an endlessly recurring battle between the hippies and the squares, the cool kids who got high and got laid versus the ones who looked on with contempt and dismay while society's comfortable hierarchies were challenged and undermined.
Looking back now, we can see the 1990s as a preview of our own age of near-perfect polarization and unending partisan warfare. When Republicans failed to take out Bill Clinton over his affairs, they didn't just learn their lesson and attempt to fashion a more inclusive politics driven less by personal hatreds, they moved even farther to the right and cultivated their anger. Just as they convinced themselves that the Clintons killed Vince Foster, they'd go on to be sure that Barack Obama was a foreign-born secret Muslim plotting to drive their country to its knees.
And for all the vitriol directed at Bill, for Hillary they reserved a special kind of hatred. Few women in history have been the target of the volume and venom in sexist attacks that she was, throughout her husband's terms and then into her independent career. She was a castrater, a harpy, a harridan who shouted too much and made men fear for their manhood. "I cross my legs involuntarily every time she comes on the air," an unusually candid Tucker Carlson would say, making clear just what a threat she posed to the fragile male and his tender parts.
But she withstood all that and kept moving, even after her time seemed to come in 2008, only to have the ultimate prize taken away by a younger man brimming with all the natural talent she lacked. So she put her head down and kept on, persisting, always persisting, waiting for another chance. As Ann Friedman wrote in 2012 when Clinton left her job as Obama's secretary of state with high approval ratings, "Herein lies one of the most useful, but also saddest, lessons of Hillary Clinton's career: The best defense against being labeled a raging bitch is to convince people you're an underdog. The ability to eat shit, to suck it up and earn the affection of skeptical voters or older male colleagues or your cheating husband, again and again, is an essential skill for successful women of Hillary's generation."
Today Clinton is no underdog, but in the primaries at least, she got little credit from younger women for what she and her generation had to crawl through to reach positions of power. And her current campaign brings with it not just what others have thrust upon her but her own weaknesses: her insularity, her distrust of the media, her overvaluing of personal loyalty even when it means keeping around her people who should have been jettisoned long ago, her ability to set scandals in motion (even when they're overblown).
In the end it's only fitting that the last impediment to reaching the pinnacle of her ambition is Donald Trump, her opposite in so many ways. She's the target of so much sexism; he's a spectacular misogynist. She stayed with the world's most famous cheating husband; he discards one wife after another when they hit their 40s. She assiduously studies policy to be prepared for the job; he revels in his ignorance and inexperience. She's careful and calculated to a fault; he says whatever damn fool thing pops into his head.
Five months from now, we'll know whether, at long last, Hillary Clinton has reached her ultimate destination. Few people ever worked as hard, for as long, and fought through as much, in order to get there. Love her, hate her, or have nothing but mixed feelings about her, you have to give her that.