Recently, as New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned in Eugene, her onetime friend and mentor Jean Houston was at home in her double geodesic dome, a style that is 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 when Clinton was at her lowest -- after the 1994 defeat of her healthcare initiative, the Republican takeover of Congress, seemingly 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 Houston had helped guide a devastated Hillary Clinton in imaginary conversations with her hero Eleanor Roosevelt.
Houston rarely speaks about her relationship with Clinton. As Clinton’s nomination seemed on the verge of hitting the skids, Houston reflected on Clinton’s style of politics and where the country’s first viable female presidential candidate may have gone wrong.
Houston is a scholar and philosopher who travels the world giving seminars on human potential and what she calls “social artistry,” applying myth, history and spirituality to help effect social, political or personal change.
During President Bill Clinton’s first term, Houston and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, a friend of Houston, 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 would consider her finest moment.
Houston is a prolific author whose associates have included Margaret Mead (Bateson’s mother) and mythology professor Joseph Campbell. She got to know Eleanor Roosevelt as a high school student in New York.
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. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has “a shamanic personality, of course,” she said. Clinton is “the classical wise woman or priestess, if you will.” The presumptive Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, she added, is “the warrior.”
The ‘rising feminine’
Houston believes Obama is on the verge of winning the 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.”
The biggest change in human history over the last 5,000 years, Houston said, “is the rise of the feminine . . . slowly, but surely, to full partnership with men over the whole domain of human affairs. This is shifting everything.” This was what Houston and Bateson tried to convey to Clinton in 1995 when they helped her understand why, quite apart from political strife, she was the object of so much loathing.
“It’s the fear of the ‘rising feminine,’ ” Houston said.
Ironically, Clinton’s problem today, Houston said, may be that Obama has given better voice to that new pattern of possibility -- that he 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 bestselling self-help authors -- Marianne Williamson, Anthony Robbins and Stephen R. Covey -- to Camp David over New Year’s Eve. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton were reeling from their 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,” Clinton 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.”
Woodward wrote that Houston tried to steer Clinton away from her “warrior mode” and “the need to have enemies who could symbolically be singled out to embody the opposition.”
“It’s a shame the warfare model is still there,” Houston said. “If she could have moved to the next level, she would be the next president.”
Houston and Bateson also helped Clinton prepare for her first solo trip as first lady, a visit to Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh in March 1995 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 bestseller.
Clinton has invoked her trips to South Asia and Beijing -- where she stood up for the rights of women and children -- as examples of foreign policy experience. (As for her misrepresentation of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia, Houston said, “Well, for goodness’ sakes! The woman’s been under sniper fire for 20 years, so I can see how that would happen.”)
Stung by ‘Wackygate’
Clinton herself had often remarked in speeches that she had imaginary conversations with Roosevelt, but Woodward’s detailed account of the hourlong session with Houston and Bateson, which had been taped, insinuated something stranger at play. Clinton handled the affair with humor, but her critics pounced, dubbing the episode “Wackygate.”
Houston was besieged by reporters. She gave a few interviews, including one to Larry King in which she humorously guided him in a conversation with his hero, Arthur Godfrey. The White House, she said, asked her to stop talking.
Houston found herself tarred as a “New Age queen” who had conducted “seances” with the first lady. She felt she suffered a tremendous blow to her professional reputation.
Co-founder with her husband, Robert Masters, of the Foundation for Mind Research, which studied human development and states of consciousness (she was among the few sanctioned LSD researchers in the ‘60s), she said she lost income, grants and an opportunity to serve on the board of a Laurance Rockefeller foundation.
The Clintons did not exactly abandon her, Houston said, but there was not much support. “They were living in a kind of war zone all the time, so I could not feel badly for myself under the circumstances,” she said.
“The whole episode was the single biggest trauma of my life,” Houston said. “Many people know my work has affected a great many lives around the world, but I stay quiet about it and I stay out of the press.”
On Thursday, Clinton attended a fundraiser in Ashland. Houston could have gone but opted to stay home.