Perhaps it is my own perverse need for battle that drives me to do it. (Not battle exactly, but a good lean-across-the-table debate as the waiter brings more wine.) I have found that all I need do to ignite such a discussion in any setting, among any crowd is mention a single name: Hillary.
Her decision to run for senator in New York has irked even those whose familiarity with the place reaches little beyond "Seinfeld." They have a laundry list of reasons: They're weary of the Clintons. They feel she's calculating and hypocritical to have tolerated her husband's infidelities. She's too hungry for power and status. She's shirking her first-lady duties. If she really wants to serve the public after her husband leaves office, they say, she ought to run a non-profit agency or simply speak out on particular issues, as Betty Ford, Rosalyn Carter and other first ladies have done.
I, on the other hand, am delighted by Hillary Clinton's candidacy. It has nothing to do with politics. The results of a Senate election in New York are unlikely to affect my life in California. Rather, what inspires me isn't the politician but the woman.
Most of us see our lives as linear journeys. We even use the term "on track" to describe the act of moving forward on a sensible, established path. I look at Hillary Clinton and see a woman determinedly jumping the rails.
Instead of easing into a life of quiet quasi-royalty as a former first lady, she is choosing the political equivalent of cliff diving, knowing she could end up splattered on the rocks. The New York newspapers eat her for breakfast every day. Her every move and utterance are picked apart on the talk shows. With such a popular and fierce opponent in Rudy Giuliani, she could lose the race spectacularly. All of which makes her decision to run all the more astonishing and admirable.
If it's ego that motivates her, fine. Find me a strong leader without one. Her brash, know-it-all sort of confidence is something we see all too rarely in public women, who know the Mary Richards model still plays better. But as a candidate instead of a wife, Hillary Clinton is rolling up her Donna Karan sleeves. She's showing what she knows. She isn't playing down the fact that she actually likes reading policy papers and budgets. Most enjoyable of all, despite the odds against her, she's standing like DeNiro in front of Giuliani and saying, "You talkin' to me?"
Yes, to answer the critics, she can be manipulative and disingenuous and hard-headed. Certainly these are not flattering traits, but welcome to politics. And yes, she's neglecting some first-lady duties. It's interesting that newspapers have written articles about what White House events Hillary Clinton will be missing in the coming month. I haven't seen similar stories about what duties Al Gore is shirking as vice president, John McCain as senator and George W. Bush as governor. But somehow the American public will suffer the consequences if Hillary misses a few ribbon-cuttings and afternoon teas.
It is, of course, entirely possibly that I am reading too much into Hillary Clinton's decision to move to New York and run for the Senate. Perhaps it has nothing to do with fulfilling her personal goals and reaching her potential as a leader and redefining her place her history.
Maybe her motive is simpler.
Maybe she finally figured out how to dump her loser husband. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joan Ryan is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Send comments to her in care of this newspaper or send her e-mail at email@example.com.)