Interviews November 2006

Candidate Hillary

Joshua Green talks about his experience profiling Hillary Clinton and shares his thoughts on her presidential prospects

How did your perspective change throughout the reporting process?

My respect for Clinton’s political skills intensified, especially as I heard testimony from two groups of people: Republicans who’ve worked with her, and women. Clinton is viewed with a jaundiced eye by many in the media and on Capitol Hill, but the Republicans she’s cooperated with in the Senate she’s truly won over. Likewise, women. The biggest surprise for me in reporting this piece was discovering what a chauvinistic institution the Senate still is, and what women have to endure and overcome to be taken seriously there. Until a few years ago, they were required to wear lipstick and skirts. The fact that Clinton could flourish despite this environment gives you a sense of her formidable political skills.

What assumptions did you have about Clinton before beginning?

That she’d be tough to persuade to cooperate.

Were you proven wrong?

I wasn’t.

You mention in the piece that you spoke (“briefly, abortively”) about Bill. Was she unwilling to talk about her husband in personal terms, or more generally speaking?

I asked specifically if, after six years as a senator, she would compare herself to her husband as a politician. It struck me as an eminently fair question, since she’s now an elected official with a record of her own. She didn’t agree.

She didn’t agree that she compared or that your question was fair?

She didn't agree the question was fair. Or in any event, she refused to answer it.

What qualifies her to be president?

I don’t think she has yet laid out a compelling case for that. It’s a decision voters will have to make. She certainly has a unique background, having been first lady of both Arkansas and the United States, so she’s been to the mountaintop. But her record as an elected official is limited to her single Senate term, so that will unquestionably be important.

History is rife with examples of failed presidential bids by senators. Will Clinton’s reputation as senator hurt her or help her should she decide to run for president?

It’s an interesting question, and one that applies to possible candidates beyond Clinton (such as Senator Barack Obama). One reason that being a senator has been a handicap in recent elections is that the lengthy voting record any senator amasses is easy to attack and distort, and the longer the record the more open it presumably is to attack. Certainly, if she runs, Clinton will be attacked for hers, both from the left (for her vote in favor of the Iraq War) and from the right (for her generally liberal record on most social issues). Whether her record hurts her, though, depends primarily on how she handles the inevitable attacks.

The Clintons’ circle is wide, but how deep is it? Does Hillary have many real confidants? Were any of your sources particularly insightful or helpful to your reporting process?

The loyalty in Clinton’s immediate circle is very deep, and it consists primarily of a group of women who have worked for her for many years and refer to themselves collectively as “Hillaryland.” More broadly speaking, the answer isn’t quite clear. As I wrote in my piece, much of the Washington Democratic establishment is extremely loyal to her husband, and for the time being that has carried over to her. It will be interesting to see, if she falters, just how deep that loyalty runs to her.

You write that Clinton’s success in the Senate has come “at the cost of some of her most deeply held values,” like her vision for nationalized healthcare. What other big ideas has she had to sweep under the rug?

She hasn’t swept anything under the rug, so much as chosen to focus on many small-bore policies to the exclusion of bigger things like health care. My sense from talking to those around her is that they felt this was a necessary step to rehabilitate her political image. But it poses something of a dilemma for her too in that you can’t very well run for president on a platform of risk avoidance and minor accomplishments.

Did you come across any Democrats or former supporters who have been disappointed or even angered by some of her attempts to be a centrist?

Yes. I think most Democrats cut her a certain amount of slack, knowing that she's operating in a Republican majority. But her decision to support a law outlawing flag burning and her vote in support of the Iraq War are two things that Democrats, and many Clinton supporters, are very angry about.

You note that a number of midlevel operatives—"the kind who could expect a good job in any Democratic administration”—told you they didn't believe Clinton could win a general election, particularly if she were up against someone like McCain. What were the reasons behind this doubt?

Really just skepticism that she could win a general election, for the same reason that other observers are skeptical: she is a polarizing figure outside the Senate, she has what traditionally are very high negative ratings, and she doesn't seem to have much to say on a lot of the big issues—particularly the Iraq War.

I loved your description of how Clinton considers and weighs each question pitched to her—imagining potential headlines in thought bubbles. Were you ever able to catch her off guard?

The most unanticipated moment for me was when I asked her what she has done in the Senate that is politically brave or risky, in the sense that it's not in her immediate personal interest. (One criticism I heard from Republicans and Democrats is that, for all her obvious talent, her record has been extremely cautious and avoided risk.) She seemed uncharacteristically shaky and, when pressed, seemed to let down her guard in a way you don't usually see. Her reply was, "Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get. It's not like I have any margin for error whatsoever. I don't. Everybody else does, and I don't. And that's fine. That's just who I am, and that's what I live with."

Do you think she actually lacks these big ideas, or is she just keeping her mouth shut in the spirit of “Be a workhorse, not a showhorse”? Is that what you mean by your last line—she has plenty to talk about but not much to say?

That's the million-dollar question about Hillary Clinton, and I think that how she answers it will determine whether or not she can be president. In the Senate, she has shown very little evidence of or capacity for thinking big—yet it's impossible to believe that she isn't aware of this and hasn't thought about how to address it. Her top advisers argue, as Mark Penn did to me for this article, that her small-bore approach in the Senate is a conscious strategy designed to show that she can "get things done," but that she hasn't lost the ability to "throw the long ball." Their message, in effect, is "stay tuned." And, of course, the entire political universe will be raptly doing just that.

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Abigail Cutler is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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