Recently, as Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned in Eugene, one-time friend and mentor Jean Houston was at home in her double geodesic dome...
ASHLAND, Ore. — Recently, as Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned in Eugene, one-time friend and mentor Jean Houston was at home in her double geodesic dome, a style not out of place here in this town of theater lovers and spiritual seekers.
“I could have probably gone down to see her, and she would have hugged me and it would have been nice,” said Houston, as she sat on a sofa surrounded by art from Bali and Greece in her circular living room. “I could have been very useful to her. But there would have been cameras, and they would have said ‘Oh now, Hillary’s so desperate, she’s gone to the spiritualist.’ “
Houston was not Clinton’s spiritualist, but at a time when Clinton was at her lowest — after the 1994 defeat of her universal health-care initiative, the Republican takeover of Congress, interminable investigations and intense vilification — Houston, a pioneer of the human-potential movement, was something of a secret emotional life raft for the first lady.
The friendship ended after Bob Woodward revealed in a 1996 book that she had helped guide Clinton in imaginary conversations with her hero Eleanor Roosevelt, another controversial first lady with whom Clinton closely identified.
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Houston has spoken only rarely about her relationship with Clinton. As Clinton’s nomination seemed on the verge of hitting the skids, she reflected on Clinton’s style of politics and where the country’s first viable female presidential candidate might have gone wrong.
Houston is a scholar and philosopher who gives seminars on human potential and what she calls “social artistry,” applying myth, history and spirituality to help effect social, political or personal change. During the first Clinton administration, over the course of a year and a half, Houston and her friend, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, helped Hillary Clinton arrive at a new understanding of the symbolic power of her office and tutored her in what would become her most successful ventures as first lady — a trip to South Asia, her first book and a speech in Beijing about human rights that many considered her finest moment.
Houston sees the presidential race through a mythic lens.
“The current election is a look at archetypal structures,” said Houston, a handsome 71-year-old with a broad smile. “You have a shamanic personality, of course,” she said, referring to Barack Obama. Clinton is “the classical wise woman or priestess, if you will.” Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, she added, is “the warrior.”
She believes Obama is on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination partly because he has promoted himself as the embodiment of a new kind of politics and partly because Clinton has had trouble portraying her authentic self.
“She is funny, hilarious, generous, warm, given to acts of kindness that are extraordinary,” Houston said. “She is a deep woman, not just a very bright woman. But she is part of a dying breed, an archaic sensibility.”
Ironically, Clinton’s problem today, Houston said, might be that Obama embodies a more female, inclusive approach to problem solving, while Clinton has become mired in proving herself capable of emulating the male model, which requires combat and the demonization of enemies.
Houston got to know the Clintons at the end of 1994, when they invited a small group of best-selling self-help authors to Camp David over New Year’s Eve. Both Hillary and President Clinton were reeling from defeats and searching for a way to get back on track.
It was a time, as Woodward noted in “The Choice,” when Hillary Clinton seemed “jerked around by the muddled role of first lady, as she swung between New Age feminist and national housewife.”
In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” she seemed to agree: “As much as I loved my husband and my country, adjusting to being a full-time surrogate was difficult for me. Mary Catherine and Jean helped me better understand that the role of first lady is deeply symbolic and that I had better figure out how to make the best of it.”
Houston and Bateson also helped Clinton prepare for a visit to Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh in March 1995, a trip that helped soften Clinton’s image, particularly when she was photographed riding an elephant with daughter Chelsea.
Clinton later enlisted Houston and Bateson to help craft her first book, “It Takes a Village,” which became a best-seller.