Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

The spectacle made of Clinton’s arrival on the Hill reflected her dual status as global celebrity and junior senator. She was assigned temporary office space in the dingy basement storage area of a Senate office building, which soon overflowed with staff. The accommodations were such that one day, when Brownback was ushered into Clinton’s office for a meeting, he found himself in a windowless closet. Just outside, the eager media waited to document the new arrival’s every move and utterance: not an altogether unfamiliar scene for Clinton, but a bit of a shock to those accustomed to the normally staid corridors of Congress. “You couldn’t go anywhere without six TV cameras and a horde of reporters,” one Clinton aide told me. “There were times when we literally could not walk down the hall, there was so much media.”

Despite this chaos, Clinton managed to insinuate herself into the inner culture of the Senate almost immediately. Her operating belief seems to have been that the more her colleagues saw and knew of her, the more they would like her. This has indeed been the case. Almost every senator—especially every Republican—has a story of an early encounter with Clinton that, like Byrd’s and Brownback’s, invariably emphasizes the disparity between what they thought she would be like and what they saw when they actually met her.

Often Clinton’s dogged outgoingness—itself a subversion of her caricature—worked to reverse these old impressions, or pushed incidental encounters into prosperous partnerships. One of Clinton’s most enthusiastic and least likely fans is Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who, when he was still a congressman, served as one of the most energetic managers of her husband’s impeachment.

Some of these odd-couple partnerships have their roots in symbiotic benefit: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Bill Frist all made common cause with Clinton as a means of moderating their partisan image, just as she has used alliances with previous conservative critics to moderate hers. But Clinton has also displayed a subtler touch in the Senate than anyone could reasonably have expected, making especially good use of the ever-dwindling opportunities for casual commingling of members of the opposing parties. The Wednesday-morning prayer group is one. Another is the congressional delegation (“CODEL,” in Hill jargon), on which members travel together and wind up spending lots of time in close proximity. The story of one such trip, to Estonia, recently brought to light by The New York Times, gives a flavor of what Clinton is like in these settings. At a casual dinner with Senate colleagues Graham, John McCain, and Susan Collins, all Republicans, the waiter followed local custom by bringing a bottle of vodka and shot glasses, whereupon Clinton reached over and began pouring; a drinking contest ensued. McCain’s staff seemed pained by the revelation, and declined my request for an interview, because the last thing a Republican presidential hopeful wants floating around in the media is word that he’s becoming booze pals with Hillary Clinton. And McCain denied the story to Jay Leno. But when I recently intercepted him walking through the Capitol, McCain lit up at the recollection. “It’s been fifty years since I’d been in a drinking game,” said McCain, who as a former naval aviator knows whereof he speaks. He added, admiringly, “She can really hold her liquor.”

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Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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