In the winter of 2005, I met the Clintons. All of them: Bill, Hillary and Chelsea. This came about because I was part of Sir Peter Hall’s second production of As You Like It, which, after a successful first run starring his daughter Rebecca as Rosalind, went for a second run with the then-unknown Dan Stevens as Orlando. After a fairly cold and inauspicious start in the yet-to-be-finished Rose Theatre in Kingston, New York welcomed and embraced us with open, warm arms. It seemed at the time like the whole world had come to see us perform over those few weeks. Lou Reed. Martin Scorsese. And then – the ultimate seal of New York approval at that time as we played deep in the heart of Brooklyn – the Clintons.
I heard about their impending visit 24 hours before the rest of the cast as my cast buddy on tour was our wardrobe mistress. (In theatre, Wardrobe is always ahead of the game). To say I was excited was an understatement. We tend to forget it now, after over a year of character assassinations by the Trump campaign and their supporters, and after EmailGate – but the Clintons were political royalty. They had that rock-star edge about them, and they were loved in New York, but adored in Brooklyn. Prior to the actual first African-American president, Bill Clinton was seen as the first honorary African American president. Which seems to say more about those times in retrospect – but that was the way it was.
Suffice it to say – their presence was the highlight of that part of the tour. The reception they received was rapturous – there was a 10-minute standing ovation for them. And afterwards we, the cast and crew, got to meet them.
I remember observing them, these smooth political operators, as they glided from person to person, and what struck me is the rarity of people like these. Our Touchstone, Michael Siberry (who later appeared in, among other shows, House of Cards) was costumed with a pair of stripey, colourful socks. Bill Clinton took one at them and said, in that infamous drawl ‘Y’know, if I’d had a pair of them, maybe things would have gone a bit easier for me at the UN sometimes’ – a quick, easy, wonderful, self-deprecating reference to his own position and the verbal acuity of the character. When a fellow cast member pushed me forward to have a photo with him (I’d mentioned I’d love to have it to send to my mum, and said so to Mr. Clinton), he took it graciously. Grace. Ease of character. Whatever his personal peccadilloes and failings, these qualities epitomise his presence.
But – and this is not with the benefit of hindsight – it was Hillary that impressed me most. She was much softer in person than television had led me to believe. They say you can get a measure of a person by how they treat those who are not as privileged around them. Not only did she seem to know everybody’s name on the staff in the theatre, but she also remembered personal details about them. Even if she’d done a quick spot of revision before coming – what a brain. Encyclopaedic. Astounding.
I remember acutely the first time I voted. It was for the first female president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Despite her obvious superiority as a politician and campaigner than the favourite, Brian Lenihan, she faced an uphill battle till he was forced to drop out of the race due to scandals surrounding his ‘mature recollections’ of certain political actions. There were those, including women, prior to that, who were vehemently opposed to her and yet she went on to become the greatest, and arguably the most memorable nationally and internationally President the Republic of Ireland has ever seen. As a young woman, growing up in the dark days of theocratic Ireland, this was huge. I look around at that generation of women, my friends, and remember what hope we all had for the state of women in the world. Young. Naive as to how our very existence and ambitions were a threat to some of the men around us.
If we were ever in doubt that misogyny exists in the world, and in Western society, once elevated as a beacon of hope for women among that society itself, this past 6 months of politics has exposed that lie. It has painted, easier than the many posts on Facebook and social media that I’ve written to that effect, to howls of incredulity from men, the picture that women face in society. Almost a quarter of a century on from Mary Robinson and my first vote, I’ve faced down enough misogyny in my own life – sexual, personal, workplace – to know that there is much work to be done before female equity (i.e. equality that truly benefits women) is achieved.
In 2008, while I was sceptical of Obama and his basically undefined policies at that time, I was cognisant of what his very presence in the White House, as the first African American, would mean to the African American community and the country at large. It’s been absolutely vital that he was there, and yet his presidency has exposed the deep racism at that had laid unseen by the wider world as long as white people were in charge. It’s been necessary, if horrifying to witness, in broad daylight, the acceptance of white supremacist dialogue, with all that entails, in political life and wider society.
So, while I have profound political differences with her, my hope is that Hillary Clinton will prevail today. For women and our current place in society, it is absolutely vital that she does. Even if all she is is a figurehead, that figurehead is necessary in today’s political climate of violent, invasive, rape-culture leanings. She has certainly proven herself to be a political warrior of some mettle in debates with an individual who, quite frankly, should never have progressed farther than his playpen. It is on a knife-edge in many states, and there are many of us this side of the pond suffering PBSD (Post Brexit Stress Disorder), as in political events that seemed inconceivable can now actually happen – but today, I have hope. A person who grew up in the countryside of Ireland and yet may have unwittingly met two US Presidents understands that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. To paraphrase Harvey Milk, for today, I ‘gotta give [myself] Hope’.