Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

In August, I met Hillary Clinton in a New York City hotel for the first of several wide-ranging conversations about her political career. Our initial talk straddled a meeting she had scheduled with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. I arrived early and happened to catch Livni’s entrance. A half-dozen Israeli agents, looking all business, leaped out of their vehicles and swept into the lobby. “Please step back,” one of them “asked” as he approached me, and then moved to impede my view as Livni was hustled into an elevator.

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When Clinton arrived, a few minutes later, she barely caused a stir. Like any other senator, she is attended to by a press aide and a “body person,” cell phone to ear and BlackBerry to hand, who sees to her limitless horizon of engagements. The only thing that makes Clinton different is her Secret Service detail, and even that is practically invisible. In most everyday settings, her life today barely resembles the circus of her last campaign. The last six years have featured her near-constant presence in every corner of the state, quieting the cries of “carpetbagger” and making her a familiar enough presence in the city that her celebrity now seems manageable. She was greeted with polite smiles and nods of recognition, a token of this hard-won standing.

Clinton’s formative experience on the national stage was her leadership of the failed health-care effort, which was to have been the centerpiece of her husband’s first presidential term. A lot of what makes her success as a senator so interesting is how it contrasts with her performance during that initiative’s epic collapse. Many of her friends and colleagues believe the episode devastated Clinton personally, and I hoped to get a sense of how the loss might have changed her perspective. I had come to think of it as the Rosebud event through which her subsequent career could best be understood.

Clinton did not agree. “I didn’t take it personally,” she said with emphasis. That didn’t quite ring true. How could she not have? “I was disappointed for the country. I thought it was really unfortunate that, once again, the powers of the status quo and special interests and political partisanship had carried the day, so just like Truman and Johnson and Nixon and Carter we were not going to be able to save money and improve quality, and cover everybody. I thought that was really unfortunate. But I did not take that personally.”

Clinton was dressed in a loosely woven tan pantsuit highlighted with subtle gold jewelry, her blond hair swept back stylishly. The hairstyle, as she has recently taken to pointing out at public appearances, is one she’s managed to stick with for several years—a line good for a laugh each time, alluding as it does to her famously changing styles during her husband’s presidency, which were an easy metaphor for her inability to find a comfortable role in his administration. When she delivers the line, one also senses her wish that the metaphor ran the other way, to a clear index that she has now found her footing.

For the first few years of her Senate term, Clinton took pains to downplay her national status. Today, she is everywhere, intent on being recognized as a political figure who has come into her own. The new persona, like the hairstyle, is carefully arranged to impress. She leaves nothing to chance. Just arranging an interview requires the Zen patience and preternatural psychological abilities of a hostage negotiator.

As we talked—about September 11, the war in Iraq, her time in the Senate, and (briefly, abortively) her husband—she showed little trace of the coldness that has long been ascribed to her. Instead, first establishing a rapport and then working the jury like the first-class lawyer she is, Clinton laid out the case for how the world should see her: as a steady, strong leader committed to standing up to George W. Bush and working both sides of the aisle to “get things done” for the people of New York. It’s a presentation that rejects any hint of weakness or culpability, and not even the memories of the health-care debacle can tarnish it. “At the time we went forward,” she says now, “the Democratic leadership told us how they wanted us to do it. It turned out they were wrong.”

Clinton wants to be seen—but get too close and you’ll find the view impeded. Something politely tells you, “Please step back.”

But the past remains a powerful presence. A moment later, the new Hillary was briefly possessed by the old one. It turned out that the public rebuke over health care had not remotely been forgotten: “The fact that I was doing it was such a shock to the Washington system. I don’t think I ever recovered from that. That was the real challenge: ‘He put his wife in charge!’ … I think it was very convenient to hang this all on the first lady.”

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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