Hillary Rodham Clinton’s record of public service is long. Powerful lawyer, pioneering advocate of children’s and women’s rights, governor’s wife, first lady, and now senator—boasting thirty years of deep experience, she has become a household name in all corners of the world. And these days, perhaps more than ever before, she is the topic of discussion inside Washington’s beltway and beyond as Democrats and Republicans alike analyze and speculate: Will she run for president? Is she qualified to be president? Can she win?
In the November issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green argues that Clinton’s most recent professional stint as New York’s junior senator provides the most suitable lens through which to assess her future political career. It is in the Senate, not the White House, that Clinton has laid the groundwork and formed the relationships that could best position her to run in 2008. Despite previous setbacks (most notably—though perhaps not most notoriously—her failed attempt at reforming the nation’s healthcare system as First Lady), Clinton has managed to first resurrect and then bolster her reputation as a political leader. She has done so cautiously and systematically, befriending former enemies—Trent Lott, Sam Brownback, and Newt Gingrich, to name a few—along the way. She has also been at the forefront—if not the architect—of most centrist movements in the Senate, employing what analysts call “third-way triangulation” (a strategy her husband also used to reign over the political center). “As the atmosphere in Washington has deteriorated,” Green writes, “Clinton has emerged within the Senate as the unlikeliest of figures: she, not George W. Bush, has turned out to be a uniter, not a divider.”
An examination of Clinton’s senate career showcases her strengths and liabilities, argues Green. While serving on Capitol Hill, Clinton has proved adept at building bridges across the aisle. But such compromise has come seemingly at the cost of other important qualities: the sincere idealism, which characterized so much of her earlier professional ambitions, appears all but gone. Have Clinton’s efforts to become “small enough to succeed in the Senate” undermined her strengths as a passionate advocate and leader? Clinton, of course, is burdened with a number of disadvantages; it is difficult to determine which of them (her gender? her politics?) are most damning. Like all freshmen in the Senate, Clinton must participate in what Green describes as a fraternity pledge process—drinking games not excluded. (“She can really hold her liquor,” John McCain relayed to Green with admiration.) She reveals no lingering resentment at her treatment during her husband’s presidency, shows deference to her male counterparts in front of the press, and even apparently offers to pour their coffee. Clinton has also managed to successfully woo her female colleagues:
Republican women, who are supposed to despise Clinton by reflex, would first describe seething as they sat behind their boss at some hearing or other and watched Clinton charm whichever beacon of conservatism was her target. But many eventually went on to confess a grudging admiration for her…. ‘She wore slacks to her swearing-in ceremony,’ one such staffer marveled. ‘I mean, you just don’t do that in the Senate.’”
No less important to her Senate reputation, of course, are the small but significant gains Clinton has made for New York. She has created new medical clusters in Syracuse, new defense technology in the Central Corridor, and agricultural programs that link upstate supply with downstate demand. And when faced with decisions that test her political allegiances, she has proven her loyalty to New York above all else—an especially important statement in the face of a possible presidential bid. If Clinton does decide to run, this leadership, Green predicts, will be the theme of her campaign.
A senior editor at The Atlantic, Joshua Green is a former editor of The Washington Monthly. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Playboy, Slate, and elsewhere. We communicated by email on October 11th.
What led you to write this piece?
Really the desire to capture Hillary Clinton at a unique moment—her first Senate term is winding up, and most people believe she’s on the verge of seeking the presidency in 2008, so I wanted to write about her before she disappears fully into “campaign mode.” Also, I hadn’t seen a satisfactory profile that delved deeply into her Senate career, which has been remarkable in many respects and is, I think, the best lens through which to view her as she begins a presidential campaign.
How did you get access to Clinton? Did scoring an interview with her really require, as you put it, “the Zen patience and preternatural psychological abilities of a hostage negotiator”? Can you elaborate?
Because Clinton is so famous and in such high demand (and also because she’s extremely cautious and protective of her image), it’s very difficult to get access to her. Philippe Reines, her press secretary, is undoubtedly the hardest working press secretary on the Hill, simply by virtue of all the media requests he has to respond to—or not respond to—in the course of a day. The Atlantic editors decided that we’d profile Clinton whether or not she cooperated, and once it became clear to them that this would be a substantial piece, I think they decided that they’d like to try and have a hand in how the story was told, and highlight Clinton’s accomplishments in the Senate.