Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

If you’re a freshman set on succeeding in the Senate—not just on winning reelection but on gaining a position of power within the institution—you must submit to the ritual of being continuously judged by the seniors you’re trying to impress. It’s a lot like pledging a fraternity: you make a big show of deference by abasing yourself before your elders. You summon awestruck words to describe the honor of being admitted to this august body, and you adopt the local idiom (“I rise to second my distinguished colleague”). You maintain a record of diligent attendance at hearings and plow through committee work uncomplainingly, which means that if you do not already possess one, you develop a towering threshold for boredom. At press conferences you speak last, patiently observing hierarchy, head nodding thoughtfully while the seniors gas off to the cameras and microphones. If you’re already famous you tread very, very carefully, because your mere presence threatens to outshine the grasping, steroidally overdeveloped egos that command the Senate. And if—heaven forbid!—you are suspected of harboring presidential ambitions, you bury them like a painful childhood secret. Depending on the mood and the time of day, anywhere from a plurality to a supermajority of your colleagues harbor the same goal.

Hillary Clinton was no one’s obvious bet to succeed at this game. But she seems to have decided to conduct herself almost point by point in response to her failures in her husband’s administration. Before she was even sworn in, she went to pay obeisance to the very man who had all but driven a stake through her health-care plan, Senator Robert C. Byrd. Smart move. “I was not exactly a disciple,” Byrd told me. “I thought she would play upon her having been a president’s wife and expect to have a lot of favors done, a lot of bending and bowing.” He added huffily, “That didn’t concur with my impression of what a senator should be.”

Instead, Clinton asked Byrd for advice on being a good senator, and got a primer on how to comport herself. Afterward, she announced her intention to heed Byrd’s advice: “Be a workhorse, not a show horse.” (Surprisingly, I found that he said the same thing in 1973 to a fresh-faced young senator named Joe Biden—proof that, however well intentioned, advice doesn’t always take.)

The meeting with Byrd accomplished two things: it sent a public signal about how Clinton planned to conduct herself in her new job, and it sent a private signal to Byrd that she wanted to apprentice herself to him. A Senate staffer told me that Clinton also asked Byrd at the meeting if he would lead a series of classes for the freshmen, which she would arrange, on his specialty of parliamentary rules and procedures. Byrd delightedly agreed. For more than a year, groups of senators large and small filed through Byrd’s ornate office in the Capitol for their lessons. There was no question who was the star pupil.

Clinton made a big impression on Byrd, but she didn’t get what she wanted right away. When she tried enlisting his help to gain a seat on the Appropriations Committee, she was rebuffed. But the apprentice had studied hard. One afternoon Byrd was meeting with staff in his office beneath the Senate chamber when a knock came at the door. It was Clinton, and with a companion. She apologized for dropping by unannounced, but she was just walking by and, well—“Senator Byrd, I wanted you to meet my mother. She just loves to listen to your speeches on Mother’s Day!” The three fell into eager conversation.

Clinton has kept up the role of courtier throughout her term, nourishing Byrd’s vanity with flattery and deference. A prominent early supporter of the Iraq War, she nevertheless nominated Byrd for the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Award, which he won for his outspoken opposition to the war. To get an idea of what a big deal this sort of thing is to Byrd, consider that his 2005 autobiography painstakingly details what must be every honor he has ever received, a topic of remarkably little interest to just about anyone else. Yet it fails to mention in its 817 pages the historic Clinton health-care plan. In Living History, Clinton absolves him of even his ruinous refusal to attach it to the reconciliation bill: “In retrospect and based on my service in the Senate, I agree with his assessment.”

Byrd features significantly in Clinton’s two biggest accomplishments in the Senate. The day after September 11, she surveyed the devastation at Ground Zero with New York’s other senator, Charles Schumer. Realizing the need for federal help, she called Byrd first thing the next morning. “We’re in real trouble, and it’s going to take a lot to put the city back together. Can you help?” This time Byrd agreed at once: “Count me as the third senator from New York.” With his assistance on the Appropriations Committee, New York secured $20 billion in recovery funds, and Clinton likely cinched her reelection.

The other major accomplishment involved the Pentagon’s list of recommended military-base closures, announced last May, which included the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, one of the largest employers in a depressed area of the state. From her seat on the Armed Services Committee, Clinton played a prominent role in fighting the decision of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), and found Byrd a useful ally. West Virginia’s Air National Guard base had also been targeted for closure. Late one Friday night while preparing an appeal, a Byrd staffer came across an obscure 1917 statute denying the federal government the authority to close a National Guard base without authorization from the state’s governor—which, if he valued his job, would never be forthcoming. Byrd’s staff tipped off Clinton’s, since New York’s appeal hearing came sooner. Through her work on Armed Services, Clinton had developed close relationships with several Air Force sources at the Pentagon, and got hold of a document showing that the savings claimed for closing the Niagara station had been grossly exaggerated. Clinton personally laid out the information to the BRAC chairman, Anthony Principi. In September, word came from the White House that New York had been spared.

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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