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Jane Ahlin, Published February 04 2012

Ahlin: From headband to diplomat: Hillary Clinton impresses

Headbands are back. Even a cursory look at the many red carpet promenades this time of year (those glamorous photo shoots preceding shows where celebrities celebrate themselves) proves headbands are the hot accessory for fashionistas. From the young Hailee Steinfeld to the not-so-young Sandra Bullock and everyone in-between – Michelle Williams, Kate Hudson, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore, Sarah Michelle Gellar – wearing headbands says, “I’m gorgeous; I wear designer clothes; I’ve arrived.”

Hailee Steinfeld, who was born during President Bill Clinton’s first term, should be excused if she thinks headbands are a brand new accessory, so, so haute couture. She’d have no memory of the days when headbands were tacky, low-class – really, more painfully passé than polyester pantsuits.

Those were the days when Hillary Rodham Clinton was new to the role of first lady and reporters were picking her apart, particularly tying her character to her hopeless sense of fashion. What seemed to offend them most was her fondness for headbands. (Put in today’s fashion parlance, if a first lady had to be pushy and ambitious, they preferred her to be devastatingly chic in a bejeweled headband like Charlize Theron rather than annoyingly perky in a bright blue band of cotton knit like that white-aproned woman advertising Progressive insurance.)

Back then nobody imagined the trajectory Hillary Clinton’s life would take. Certainly, the notion that Gallup polling would show her to be the “most admired woman in America” 16 years out of the next 20 was nearly beyond imagination. However, from her role as first lady, she moved on to become a successful U.S. senator from New York, after which she made an impressive run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency; finally, she was offered the position of secretary of state in the Obama administration, and she accepted.

Today, in that position as a well-respected and effective secretary of state, she appears ready to leave the political spotlight for less-stressful civilian life. In recent remarks to State Department employees about her intent to step away from the job regardless of the outcome of the next election, she said, “It would be a … probably a good idea to just find out how tired I am.”

Unlike the early 1990s, this time the American public – and press – laughed with her, not at her. If typecast and caricatured during her early days in the public eye, she has grown enough in the nation’s estimation to be allowed an occasional human moment. (Her approval rating is just under 70 percent.)

Of course, Hillary Clinton is at ease with herself in ways she could not be during her time as first lady and immediately after leaving the White House. Seen as a survivor, nevertheless, she carried a taint from the White House years, both of overreach from her role in the health care legislation debacle and humiliation from her husband’s sex scandal. Her choice to move forward in life, carving out a role for herself in the political arena by running for the U.S. Senate, seemed odd and doomed to failure by most Americans. (Even if she won, how could she fit in?)

Surprise, surprise, she made it a success.

The truth is, Hillary Clinton has proved herself again and again to be hardworking and coalition-building, first as a senator and now as a government official, working quietly behind the scenes most of the time but willing to make tough public statements when necessary. What she has not done as secretary of state is to pursue the limelight or call attention to her accomplishments.

But back to headbands. In a 1995 Newsweek interview, Hillary Clinton mocked the press by saying, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hairstyle.” A true barometer of how far she’s come is that I didn’t see one news story noting that she wore a headband to the State of the Union speech. Of course now, she’s in style.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.