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FIRST FAMILY

The Hera Factor in Hillary's Run

July 11, 1999|Laura Shamas | Laura Shamas is a professor of English and communications at Pepperdine University

He was the most important man in the world. His daily decisions affected the entire cosmos. Officially, he was married, and their "sacred union" was constantly under public scrutiny. They presided together at stately functions, providing a handsome, regal example of what matrimony should be.

But he had extramarital affairs, lots of them. He couldn't seem to control himself when it came to women. He took great risks to arrange elicit sexual escapades, and that made his wife angry. She tried not to show it. She vowed to stay with him, to be "the good wife," even when it got embarrassing and humiliating. Young women complained; he was accused of rape. Gossip was repeated. Although their lives were filled with tension, she stayed with him.

Gradually, she began to assert her hand in public policy. She built a power base that rivaled her husband's realm.

A familiar synopsis? Yes, it is the story of the Greek goddess Hera. Many pundits have compared the Clinton White House during 1997-99 to a Greek tragedy, but few could name specifics that had the ring of truth. The Oval Office is our Mt. Olympus. Cast Monica S. Lewinsky as an Aphrodite-inspired mortal maiden and President Bill Clinton in the role of Zeus. That makes First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton our modern-day Hera.

Hillary Clinton's likely Senate campaign echoes part of Hera's story: the final bid for individual power and integrity after years as a suffering "partner." Call it the Hera factor. It explains why Hillary Clinton is raising money for a Senate campaign in the state of New York at a time when many wonder why she would want the annoyance of further public scrutiny.

For thousands of years, Hera has represented the archetype for "the good wife" in Western culture. Revered by women and the only married goddess on Mt. Olympus, she was the symbol of childbirth and marriage. Known for beauty, intelligence and a love of children, Hera embodied three phases of a woman's life: maiden, wife and matron, each with a separate identity. Originally Zeus' sister, their partnership took on a new dimension when they wed.

Zeus was the most powerful figure in the Greek pantheon, the symbol for justice and power. His weakness was his love life. He seduced goddesses, but the chief of the gods was just as happy to woo "mere mortals." Zeus took the magical form of a bull, swan or even a "shower of gold" to lure the mortal maidens he lusted after.

Hera never adjusted to Zeus' nonstop philandering. In "The Iliad," Hera joins a plot to keep Zeus in chains. The dynamic between Zeus and Hera shifts between anger, forgiveness and love. Hera's suffering seems to annoy Zeus further; she feels she has sacrificed her pride to stay with him, and he feels manipulated into guilt by her reaction. Some of the goddess' detractors label her quarrelsome, even vindictive, because of her dogged pursuit of her enemies and rivals, such as Io, whom Hera tortured with a horsefly until Io went mad. Gradually, Hera's image evolves to that of the steadfast spouse, the woman who suffers infidelity to ensure the longevity of her marriage.

But as she grows older, Hera's interests broaden into the realm of governing. She fights wars and becomes protectress of the Argonauts, helping them pass between the Cyanean rocks. Devoted and passionate, Hera is a master player in the Olympian arena, able to govern without consulting other gods and capable of instigating action without her husband's assistance or approval. Hera has her own causes, her own purposes, her own cosmic game: She is her husband's equal.

Over the past year, we have watched Hillary Clinton stand by a president who cavorted with a mere mortal. The first lady endured months of impeachment hearings, even allegations that her husband raped a woman. Throughout, she stumped for causes she believed in, weathering what must be the most public, sensationalized and documented marital-infidelity admission in modern history. So why would she want to run for the U.S. Senate now?

Because it's a win-win scenario for Hillary Clinton, from a psychological standpoint. Even if she loses the race, she will, merely by running for office, win her separateness from her husband as a viable political entity. If she is labeled a carpetbagger or is forced to talk about Whitewater again, she will do so as Hillary Clinton, candidate for Senate, no longer just the female component of the first couple. If she wins, all the better. She will become Sen. Clinton, the first former first lady to become a U.S. senator.

The Hera factor helps explain the mythical context of Hillary Clinton's brave move; it may also help her candidacy resonate with New York voters on a deep, archetypal level, something that her probable contender, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, will have a tough time combating with mere rhetoric.

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