Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

When she feels that she is being led in a direction she doesn’t want to go, Clinton retreats to a space of her own choosing. In our interview she insisted that, even in 1994, she viewed health care as merely a political defeat—a tough day at the office. When I asked how she handled the disappointment of the experience, she said brightly: “It wasn’t more than a week after we lost that Senator Kennedy and I were talking at the White House and he said, ‘We can’t let this die,’ and I said, ‘You’re darned right, we’ve got to keep going.’ [And he replied,] ‘Well, let’s do children!’”

But with someone so professionally accomplished and publicly ambitious, it’s hard to believe such a loss could have been anything less than a terrible blow. In Living History, Clinton supports this view by describing how Maggie Williams, attuned to her despair, arranged for a meeting of the close-knit group of staffers and friends who refer to themselves collectively as “Hillaryland.” “I had been able to conceal my distress and discouragement from everyone on my staff except Maggie,” Clinton writes. “Now it all came out. Fighting back tears, my voice cracking, I poured out apologies. I was sorry if I had let everyone down and contributed to our losses. It wouldn’t happen again.” She also reveals that she considered withdrawing from political and policy work entirely, for fear of hindering her husband’s presidency.

At some point during the second term, however, Clinton decided to retrench and return once more to the political arena—only this time with an eye toward learning the system from within. It could not have been lost on her that while she had excelled in the hearing room, she had failed entirely to understand the cloakroom. It is often said of Clinton, as it is of so many of the city’s hyper-driven achievers, that she never makes the same mistake twice. But the cliché more aptly applies to her than to just about anyone else. It is remarkable the degree to which the episode seems to have taught Clinton about how power is wielded in Washington.

Even though she had so badly wanted to recast the job of first lady into a serious public post befitting her intellect, Clinton instead retreated into the traditional role of hostess and symbol, performing endless ceremonial tasks with determined aplomb. She had arrived in Washington ready to be a copresident. Now she was reduced to organizing a collection of children’s letters to Socks and Buddy, the White House pets.

Her colleagues emphasize that she did not abandon her policy role, and she herself made this point to me forcefully, still unwilling to yield that last shred of dignity. But even the work she did was a concession of sorts to her political radioactivity, focusing on such topics as children’s and women’s rights, and funding for the arts—important issues for which Clinton had long showed a genuine passion but that nevertheless are thought of as safely “first-lady material” in the chauvinistic reckoning of the capital. The fact that many of her public appearances at this time were on foreign trips only underscored the sense that she was still considered a liability.

Clinton stoically accepted the role as the price of re-admission. But she also began developing the political style that would become a signature of her Senate career. One of her more public endeavors was the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, which removed barriers to adoption. Clinton arranged to join with Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, a hard-edged conservative and varsity Clinton foe who, as a foster parent, is passionately concerned with such policies. If Clinton didn’t realize going in what a burst of good publicity this pairing would yield—although she must have known how political reporters swoon for “odd couple” stories—she certainly did afterward.

Clinton told me that she never considered pursuing elected office until 1998, after Moynihan, New York’s senior senator, announced he would retire at the end of his term. The official version of how it happened, presented in her book and repeated with eerie word-for-word precision whenever she’s asked about it publicly, is a saccharine tale in which Clinton attends an event to promote an HBO special on women in sports and finds herself standing alongside a young woman so excited by the rumors of her possible candidacy that she leans into Clinton and repeats the day’s fortifying slogan: “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton! Dare to compete!”

The decision became easier—or at least victory seemed more probable—after Clinton found herself the unexpected beneficiary of glowing coverage during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which broke early in 1998. As the wronged but dignified spouse, Clinton won public sympathy, and her favorability ratings soared. This must have been a disquieting experience. Clinton had always prided herself on her brains and talent, and now found herself rehabilitated largely for reasons owing nothing to them.

In her campaign for the Senate, Clinton took nothing for granted. Someone who worked closely with her told me that the Clintons’ decision to live in Chappaqua rather than New York City derived in part from polling information showing that New York’s conservative upstate denizens were more willing to support a Democrat from the suburbs than one from the city, which summoned images of heavy-spending liberalism. Her campaign was a triumph of bite-size policy proposals like the adoption bill she’d introduced with DeLay, all extensively poll-tested by her senior adviser, Mark Penn, who had helped right the listing White House ship after the 1994 elections with just this kind of strategy. In his book Hillary’s Turn, the definitive word on her 2000 campaign, Michael Tomasky dubbed Clinton “The Laundry Lady” for her style of speech making, which consisted mainly of a seemingly endless list of modest, unobjectionable policies—she called it “the school of smaller steps.” By the time she was sworn in, Clinton was substantially transfigured: she was humble, deferential, and, at last, victorious.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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