Hillary Clinton in 1997, the year she turned 50.

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First Lady Michelle Obama turned 50 on Friday.

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Two first ladies come to terms with 50

  • Article by: Karen Tumulty
  • Washington Post
  • January 18, 2014 - 10:09 PM

For anyone, a 50th birthday is a moment for coming to terms with a life. Coming to terms with what it is, as measured against what she had hoped it would be. Reconciling options that have been closed with what it would take to try the ones that are left.

Michelle Obama has reached that milestone with what from all appearances is unalloyed jubilation. Her declaration that she is “50 and fabulous” is an understatement, given how saucily she waves her new AARP card. And there is no end to speculation as to what the next chapter will be, because — for her — just about anything seems possible.

To get a real sense of what is possible, in politics and in life, for a woman on the later side of midlife, it is worth considering the last first lady who marked that bittersweet ­birthday in the White House.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton turned 50 on Oct. 26, 1997, she carried the not-yet-healed bruises from having nearly run her husband’s presidency aground.

Her 50th birthday came just three years after her politically disastrous effort to overhaul the nation’s health care system. Clinton had spent the first two of them in a sort of political exile, rarely venturing into the West Wing, and choosing her public appearances carefully. Even her wardrobe had undergone a shift, from teals and reds and blacks to pastel suits, with pumps to match.

“She was trying to figure out how she could be who she is — a thinker, a doer — without arousing hostility from those who felt she was overstepping her bounds,” longtime confidant Diane Blair told Time magazine at the time.

Being first lady is a position that comes with no job description, and the trip wires can be hard to see. What Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton also share is the fact that they each have been an emblem, as well as a first lady — Michelle Obama, as the first African-American to have the role, and Clinton, as a symbol for a generation of women coming of age as feminists.

Where Michelle Obama wears that burden as though it is weightless, Hillary Clinton at 50 was still struggling. “There is no formula that I’m aware of for being a successful or fulfilled woman today,” Clinton had once said. “Perhaps it would be easier … if we could be handed a pattern and just cut it out, just as our mothers and grandmothers and foremothers were.”

Clinton also was dealing with letting go in her personal life. Her daughter had headed to a college nearly 3,000 miles away, leaving the white pillared nest empty. As 50 approached, she had also begun to take a few steps toward political rehabilitation.

As muted as she was at home, Clinton was finding her voice overseas. Later, as secretary of state, she would celebrate the moment when she declared in Beijing that “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” In 1996, her book “It Takes a Village” became a bestseller and helped to redefine her.

Still, when she reached 50, the Monica Lewinsky scandal that would send sympathy for her soaring was still in the future.

Public humiliation was a huge price to pay for an opportunity. But on the very day in February 1999 that the Senate was voting to acquit Bill Clinton of impeachment, Hillary Clinton, at 51, was giving advisers the go-ahead to begin laying the groundwork for a Senate campaign.

The week Michelle Obama turned 50, the cover of Time asks: “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?”

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