Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player


Photo by Jez Coulson

Of the many realms of power on Capitol Hill, the least understood may be the lawmakers’ prayer group. The tradition of private worship in small, informal gatherings is one that stretches back for generations, as does a genuine tendency within them to transcend partisanship, though as with so much that is religiously oriented in Washington, the chief adherents are the more conservative Republicans.

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Most of the prayer groups are informally affiliated with a secretive Christian organization called the Fellowship, established in the 1930s by a Methodist evangelist named Abraham Vereide, whose great hope was to preach the word of Jesus to political and business leaders throughout the world. Vereide believed that the best way to change the powerful was through discreet personal ministry, and over his lifetime he succeeded to a remarkable degree. The first Senate prayer group met over breakfast in 1943; a decade later one of its members, Senator Frank Carlson, persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to host a Presidential Prayer Breakfast, which has become a tradition.

"Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get," Hillary Clinton told me, finally. That's just who I am, and that's what I live with."

"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. Though it still sponsors what is now called the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship scrupulously avoids publicity, as Vereide insisted it must. “If you want to help people, Jesus said, you don’t do your alms in public,” Douglas Coe, the group’s leader since the late 1960s, said in a rare interview several years ago.

Today, on Capitol Hill, as the old avenues of bipartisanship have gradually been blocked off by hardening ideology, the prayer groups have become cherished sanctuaries for their members—providing respite, however brief, from the cacophony of political Washington. Speaking about a group is strongly discouraged, and what transpires at meetings is strictly off the record. As a result, the groups provide an intimate setting in which members can share their faith without fear of being judged. “Once you take off the cloak of politics and look into a person’s soul, you find that you can establish a relationship that is enduring and deep and doesn’t let politics get in the way,” one longtime participant explained to me. “If you’re going to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus, it’s about forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.” Many who come, he said, are surprised to wind up forming close friendships with colleagues who in any other setting would be considered political enemies.

You’re not supposed to think about lofty spiritual affairs in terms so temporal as their political importance. But among the prayer groups, one holds special status: a tight-knit gathering of about a dozen senators which still meets every Wednesday morning for prayer and discussion, led by Douglas Coe himself. Each week, someone starts the meeting by giving personal testimony, secure in the support of the audience. Once, Senator Dan Coats stood before the group and sang “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

The roster of regular participants has included such notable conservative names as Brownback, Santorum, Nickles, Enzi, and Inhofe. Then, in 2001, just after the new class of senators was sworn in, another name was added to the list: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One spring Wednesday, a few months into the term, Senator Sam Brownback’s turn came to lead the group, and he rose intending to talk about a recent cancer scare. But as he stood before his colleagues Brownback spotted Clinton, and was overcome with the impulse to change the subject of his testimony. “I came here today prepared to share about this experience in my life that has caused great suffering, the result of which has deepened my faith,” Brownback said, according to someone who watched the scene unfold. “But I’m overcome now with only one thought.” He confessed to having hated Clinton and having said derogatory things about her. Through God, he now recognized his sin. Then he turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Clinton, will you forgive me?” Clinton replied that she would, and that she appreciated the apology.

“It was an extraordinary moment,” the member told me.

This repentance fostered an unlikely relationship that has yielded political bounty. Clinton and Brownback went on to cosponsor one measure protecting refugees fleeing sexual abuse, and another to study the effects on children of violent video games and television shows. “That morning helped make our working relationship,” Brownback told me recently. “It brought me close to someone I did not ever imagine I would become close to.” Since then, Clinton has teamed up on legislation with many members of the prayer group.

Hillary Clinton’s proficiency in this innermost sanctum has unnerved some of the capital’s most exalted religious conservatives. “You’re not talking about some tree-hugging, Jesus-is-my-Buddha sort of stuff,” says David Kuo, a former Bush official in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who worked with Clinton to promote joint legislation and who, like Brownback, has apologized to her for past misdeeds. “These are powerful evangelicals she’s meeting with.” Like many conservatives, they are caught between warring dictates of their faith: the religious one, which requires them to embrace a fellow Christian, and the political one, more powerful in some, which causes them to instinctively distrust the motives of a Clinton. Everyone in Washington experiences their dilemma at one time or another—the lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge Hillary Clinton.

A full term in the Senate has not made the task any easier. In her Senate race six years ago Clinton seemed headed for an epic showdown with Rudolph Giuliani that she appeared likely to lose. History wrote a different ending. Clinton will cruise to reelection this month without serious challenge. After she was elected, Trent Lott, the Republican leader at the time, voiced a widespread sentiment—held by more than just Republicans—when he mused, not unhopefully, that lightning might strike her before she arrived. Yet by this past spring, when Lott and Clinton introduced legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, forty-nine Republicans shared the designation of having cooperated with her, including many who once numbered among her fiercest critics.

There is also the question of her public dexterity. The one major initiative she led in her husband’s administration, a broad reform of the health-care system, was a calamitous failure, and led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But Clinton has adapted surprisingly well to the byways of the Senate, becoming what few could have foreseen: a wily manipulator of the Senate’s outsize egos, and a master of cloakroom politics. This has come at the cost of some of her most deeply held values. However flawed Clinton’s health-care plan was in execution, it was undergirded by an element of sincere idealism that is all but absent from her Senate record. Clinton has chosen systematic caution as the path to power.

But few in the Senate today would deny that, whatever her motives, Clinton is diligent about her work there, and successful in ways that have moderated her image. Her deft touch with conservative colleagues has thus far neutralized the Republican National Committee’s strategy of getting people to put her in the same mental category as bumbling liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. She’s no easy target. Her partnerships were deemed so successful in moderating her image that Karl Rove, according to a source close to him, sent word last year to halt Republican cooperation with her—an edict that has been ignored. As the atmosphere in Washington has deteriorated, 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.

What she might do next vexes many in the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton has worked to establish her place in the Senate, she has also been central in the effort to build up a new party infrastructure. Democrats now seem poised for a comeback—perhaps as soon as this month’s elections. But many worry that Clinton will soon go further and decide to seek the presidency. Should she win the nomination but lose the election, they believe, the party could suffer incalculable damage.

Over the last six months, Clinton has given a series of important policy speeches designed to fortify her national profile. Most people, including her closest advisers, believe this to be the groundwork for a presidential bid. Clinton has become a vocal critic of the president and, gingerly, of the war she voted to support—even as that vote has begun to eclipse everything else she has done.

The story of Clinton’s Senate career mirrors that of her political life generally: a pattern of ambition, failure, study, and advancement. It provides a showcase for her very considerable skills. But it also points up her core liabilities as she prepares to move from the New York stage and back to the national one. Maybe one way to frame the question is this: Can a woman who has made herself small enough for the Senate be big enough for the country?

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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