Why Hillary Clinton is Like India's Bandit Queen

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Every politician has an image — but most of them have no life story that would be worth writing down, or making into a movie, except maybe as a warning about special interests and the need for campaign finance reform.

American Senators, Congressmen and governors began their careers long ago as president of the senior class. They won the American Legion's "I Speak for Democracy" contest, or, like Bill Clinton, shined in Boy's Nation and posed in the Rose Garden. Then — except maybe in the case of Jesse Ventura — there ensued nothing more colorful or original than the grind through law school and after that — ambition, elections, shoeshines, smiles.

There are a few exceptions. John McCain has a story. But even McCain's record of war and imprisonment pales beside the story of Phoolan Devi — India's Bandit Queen and Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, assassinated the other day outside her home in New Delhi.

Devi was born, once upon a time — that is, 38 years ago — of a low-caste family in Uttar Pradesh. Sold into marriage at age 11, she ran away from her brutal husband, and fell in love with a highway robber.

The story says that upper-caste men from Behmai killed her lover, and took Devi prisoner and raped her repeatedly....and that she escaped and formed her own gang, and, by and by, returned to the upper-caste village and took her revenge. It is said she presided over a massacre there of 22 men. They made a movie about her wild, romantic youth — Devi seen with rifle slung across her back, galloping hell for leather across the Gangetic plain.

She gave herself up in 1983, but was freed by the Supreme Court eleven years later. She joined the regional Samajwadi party, and with wide support from women and the poor, won a seat in Parliament five years ago.

And the other day, she was gunned down outside her house by men who said they were avenging the massacre long ago.

It might be a little dangerous to suggest that every American politician should have a massacre in his or her background. The massacre in Phoolan Devi's past had the savor of rough justice in it — of victim's revenge. In the case of former Senator and former Navy Seal Bob Kerrey and that dark, problematic night in Viet Nam, we have seen that past massacre cannot play, politically or aesthetically, unless there is a perception of justice in it.

Every life needs a defining struggle — an identity earned the hard way. Theodore Roosevelt was America's most combative and convincing struggler — warrior, hunter, rancher, naturalist: a bracing prehistory for the White House. Franklin Roosevelt's defining struggle was polio. The affliction that cost him his legs made him fit in a greater way.

For a generation after 1945, no man was deemed quite suitable for office unless he had served in the military, preferably in combat. Texas Congressman Lyndon Johnson had himself shipped out to the Pacific for a little while during World War II and returned with a suspect silver star. John Kennedy allowed his PT-109 to get cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, but performed with real heroism in rescuing his crew. It was the war record, and the emaciated, boyish charm, that captured the ladies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and sent him to the House.

We now accept free-lance, unconventional struggles in our politicians' biographies. We are grateful to have any real story at all, so lusterless and lawyerly and venal has the breed become. Jesse Ventura's battles as a wrestler may have been an arduous sham, but at least they had some screwball color, and the goofy, sweaty theatrics of struggle. But of course sham subverts struggle, and gives the audience nothing more nourishing than irony and cheap entertainment.

George W. Bush's story is a dull one: Not much drama in a long-ago D.W.I., in political inheritance and abstinence from alcohol. In a sublimated and nonviolent way (unless you count the lamp), our nearest version to Phoolan Devi may be....Hillary Clinton. Her defining struggle was Bill Clinton (playing the roles of both her nasty husband and her robber-lover). Standing in (unsatisfactorily) for the robber gang, we have her moral smudges and various adventures ambiguously outside the law--billing records and all of that. But Hillary skipped the massacre, the rifle, the gallop across the plains, and went straight to the U.S. Senate.

Victim, or predator? At least it's a story.