Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

When Hillary Clinton and I sat down to talk in New York City, we had come, separately, from an event at which she had spoken to a group that honors 9/11 victims by asking people to do good deeds in remembrance of the dead. It took place in the cheerful headquarters of the children’s-book publisher Scholastic, which made for an unlikely setting. The nurturing, pastel-carpeted room, with its wall of children’s books—The Adventures of Captain Underpants (Collectors’ Edition) and, just above the press section, Piranhas and Other Fish—and the civic-minded audience, gathered to celebrate earnest acts of goodwill, offered the outward appearance of being the perfect Hillary Clinton environment. It was, but not for the reasons I expected.

The somber occasion brought forth a side of Clinton rarely seen in Washington. It was the only time I saw her move a crowd. Clinton looked weary and spoke with haggard fixity about the “long-term struggles against the forces of darkness and nihilism,” the need to “constantly be standing on the side of life.” Then she looked up appraisingly at the gathering, which included some of the people with whom she has worked most closely during her six years in office. Her tone changed. She spoke about the fallen brother of one of the group’s organizers. His favorite movie had been It’s a Wonderful Life, and she quoted the angel Clarence: “‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ That hole can never be filled.” No one applauded when she was finished. The small nods and squeezed hands of those in the audience conveyed a deeper kind of thanks.

Clinton spoke briefly to the bereaved, then headed uptown. When she arrived at the hotel restaurant she flashed a smile of businesslike sociability, and we sat down. I began by mentioning the event and asked how 9/11 had shaped her Senate term. “I felt this overwhelming sense of loss, and commitment and obligation to do everything I could do, and that’s basically what I’ve tried to do in the last five years,” she replied. “It was very fortunate for us in New York that Senator Byrd was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, that Tom Daschle was still the majority leader because of Jim Jeffords walking across the aisle, so we had a tremendous amount of sympathy from our colleagues, and that was enormously helpful.” Then she added a swipe: “The Republicans were ready to fight a war but not necessarily rebuild New York.”

This last bit was unprovoked and an apparently conscious effort, maintained throughout the interview, to come across as sweepingly critical—even angry—about the war. Clinton is prominent among the top Democrats who voted to support Bush’s resolution and who are now furiously trying to backpedal without recanting their votes. A popular dodge is to declare that the president exceeded the authority Congress granted him and allowed the war to become a distraction from the fight against terrorism, and to then express surprise that he could act so irresponsibly.

I asked whether Bush’s decision to go to war was really something she didn’t expect at the time. “Well, I’ve said that he ‘misused’ the authority granted to him,” she replied. “When I spoke at the time of the vote I made it very clear that this was not a vote for preemptive war; this was a vote, I thought, that would enable diplomacy to succeed because we would have a unified front between the president and our Congress to go to the Security Council to try to get the inspectors back in. Obviously we now know, in retrospect, that the president and vice president and his team probably didn’t intend for the inspectors to do their work.”

Most people correctly foresaw the vote as authorization for Bush to invade Iraq. Did she really mean to suggest she had not been among them? “Well, I think that’s right,” she said, affecting total ignorance, and then launched into a point-by-point defense of the position. “That’s what Bush said in his speech in Cincinnati on October 7th. They called me to the White House on October 8th and gave me another briefing. When I got back to my office, Condi Rice called me and asked if I had any questions. I said, ‘Look, I have one question: If the president has this authority, will he go to the United Nations and use it to get inspectors to go back into Iraq and figure out what this guy has?’ [Rice replied,] ‘Yes, that’s what it’s for.’ Privately and publicly, that was the argument they were making.”

She returned to blaming Bush, with her familiar charge that he had withheld intelligence about the locations of possible weapons of mass destruction from the UN inspectors. Then she made a final, sustained push to get away from her decision and onto the safer terrain of the administration’s execution of its mandate: “And, you know, it was also hard to believe that they would be so foolhardy and shortsighted as to do something without adequate preparation.”

Did she feel that Bush lied to her? “I feel like he”—pause—misled the Congress and the country.” Intentionally? “I don’t know about ‘intentionally.’ I don’t know what Bush knew. I honestly don’t know. I think he is surrounded by people who limit his access to information. I believe that you could have taken the major players in this drama in the Bush administration and they would have passed polygraphs about what they believed the threat was, because they were so obsessed with what [Saddam Hussein] had done before, and the potential for what he could do again.”

Clinton’s answers to questions about the war can be fugue-like in their complexity, and often assume a processional quality: the laundry lady, pinning up every fact, every conversation, every tidbit of exculpatory evidence for public display, attempting to disappear behind a screen of detail. Clinton harbors no illusion that her war vote will be anything less than a serious problem should she choose to seek the Democratic nomination. That’s why she works so hard at her public testimony. For a growing segment of the party, the sin of having authorized the war is not an issue on which one’s position can simply be readjusted—it’s one of inexpiable moral trespass with the potential to engulf any race. On the day we met, the political world was consumed with the fallout from the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary, where the three-term incumbent, Joe Lieberman, had fallen to an upstart challenger, Ned Lamont, largely over the issue of the war. Lieberman, like Clinton, had voted for it, so I asked her to explain her position and why the same voter animosity might not be directed at her.

Here is her full answer:

I think our positions are very different. We may have cast the same vote, [but] I was not standing in the Rose Garden with George Bush announcing the desire to go into Iraq. I have been a consistent critic of the way they conducted the war, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Tom Ricks referring to my questioning of Paul Wolfowitz in his book [Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq]. You know, I’m reading his book, feeling depressed, and I get to page 385, I think it is, and it says, “Finally the Democrats began to go after people,” and he has a page about my questioning of Wolfowitz. So I have consistently gone after the administration, and I worked with my Democratic colleagues, first in November, then in June, to craft a Democratic response. I thought both times we did a good job, and Lieberman didn’t vote for it either time. So we have very different positions. It is indisputable that we both voted to give Bush authority. But what we thought we were voting for, and what Bush eventually did, and then how we have responded since, I think, is really distinctive between us.

This was pure Hillary Clinton: the clear-eyed avowal of innocence, succinct and perfectly composed like a college-application essay; the flawless elocution; the slyly purposeful language (“… a consistent critic” … “I have consistently gone after …”); the “offhand” reference to a page-specific vindicating instance—right, of course. On big issues like the war, Washington judges you not by whether you were right or wrong—at least not in the short term—but by how systematically and formidably you maintain your position. Get caught skating in circles (“I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”), and you’re finished. Clinton’s position on the war may feel like justification after the fact for a decision that is coming to look much worse in hindsight. But over the last four years she has managed, with lawyerly precision and in politically acceptable gradations, to shift from a stance of Thatcherite fortitude before the war to one of betrayed dismay and anger at the Bush administration afterward without any jarring breach of consistency or abrupt shift in direction. When the judges are scoring you on form, that’s like landing a triple Lutz.

When Clinton prepares to answer a reporter’s question, there’s a split-second pause when you can almost see her imagining, in floating cartoon bubbles above her head, the worst-case headline that a candid answer could yield, and then pitching her reply in the least-objectionable terms. Several of her friends told me that they believed her to be genuinely happy in the Senate, liberated in a way she never was able to be as first lady—an impression I developed as well. I asked which job she liked better, and she replied that they were very different and that she liked them both. (Washington Post: “Clinton Denounces First Lady Role.”) I asked how she compared her political strengths and weaknesses to her husband’s, now that she’d served a full term in the Senate, citing Podesta’s observation that she was a disciplined, deep thinker. Clinton visibly recoiled: “I don’t talk about that.” (New York Times: “Clinton Calls Husband ‘Shallow,’ ‘Undisciplined.’”) Retreating to safer territory, I wondered how she had displaced the legitimate anger she surely felt when she was in the White House toward some of her current colleagues. “I had a job to do,” was the considered reply. (New York Post: “HIL STILL AIMS TO KILL!”)

The only question that seemed to throw her concerned her actual Senate record. After we’d gone through her positions and policies in some detail, I suggested that for all she’d been busy doing in the Senate, I couldn’t find an instance where she had taken a politically unpopular stance or championed a big idea, like health-care reform, that might not yield immediate benefits but was the right thing to do. Interviews with colleagues and observers seemed to imply an unspoken disappointment that her talents promised a record of more height and substance than she had displayed—he one consistent criticism I heard was that her record was marked by overwhelming caution. Could she refute their doubts, and point to a few examples of politically brave votes?

Clinton laughed. “Oh, well, see, my view is, how do you get things done? When you’re in the minority, getting things done is not easy.” She cited her work after September 11: “I think taking on the administration over the effects from breathing the contaminants that were in the air, fighting to get the tracking and screening programs set up, going back time and time again—”

I couldn’t help breaking in. These were certainly worthy programs, but where is the political risk in standing up for the victims of September 11?

She tried again: “I voted against every tax cut, and I represent the richest people in America.”

But you’re a Democrat!

“But I have a lot of constituents for whom those tax cuts were personally quite important.”

Aren’t they Republicans?

“I had no support in the financial-services community when I ran in 2000—none,” she replied, rather reinforcing the point. “That’s a slight exaggeration—I have worked really hard to develop credibility with them, but I have voted against their tax cuts, I have voted against repealing the estate tax, I took on Alan Greenspan at a hearing about his appearance before the budget committee.”

I was about to suggest that these might qualify as politically brave actions for a Republican, when her answer took a sharp turn toward the personal.

“Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get,” she said finally. “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.”

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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