Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

Clinton is one of perhaps three senators whose celebrity transcends the bounds of the capital and suffuses the broader culture. John McCain and Barack Obama are the other two, but neither man has suffered the kind of public humiliation that Clinton has endured, and that induces the sense of strong personal connection millions of regular people develop for celebrities with genuine problems.

Last fall, Oprah Winfrey asked Clinton to present her with a lifetime-achievement award from the International Emmys. I went to New York City to watch. Given the scarcity of political reporters on the trip (just me), I was thrown in with the paparazzi, who were penned down the hall from the ceremony in a room that featured a small stage, where winners would pose for pictures after picking up their trophies. True to stereotype, there were many burly Italian photographers toting small stepladders who thought nothing of shoving everyone else aside to get a good shot. A woman explained that Oprah and Hillary were the two top celebrities (in that order) at the event, and a good shot of them together could fetch about $10,000 (women’s magazines adore them). But the prevailing mood was one of frustration, because rumor had it that the two would not be posing together. After Clinton presented Oprah with her award (we watched on closed-circuit television) there built up first a quiet and then a very loud commotion as two figures approached the press room down the long hallway. In a great burst of flashbulbs, Oprah led Hillary onstage, Emmy in one hand, Hillary’s hand gripped in the other, the two of them radiant in their ball gowns and waving for several electric seconds. Then Oprah hoisted Hillary’s hand in triumph like a referee at a prizefight, and the whole place erupted. It sounds corny, but it was really exciting!

The event was a reminder of just how far Clinton’s status stretches into worlds beyond her Senate colleagues, and what a powerful instrument fame can be. A large part of Clinton’s popularity is explained by how skillfully she has put this celebrity to work on behalf of her New York constituents. When she took office, Clinton held what was essentially an executive-branch view of governing. During the campaign she had pledged to create 200,000 jobs for the ailing upstate economy through a seven-part economic plan, the first piece of legislation she introduced. It didn’t get far. “We quickly came to the realization that the Republican Congress wasn’t going to give her a break,” Kris Balderston, her primary adviser on upstate economic matters, explains. Freshmen have almost no legislative muscle. So she turned to an altogether different style of politics.

Clinton’s staff often talks of her “power to convene—her ability as “Hillary Clinton, former first lady of the United States” to bring together almost anyone and instill a desire to please her and feel part of a great enterprise. In this way she has been able to operate like a popular big-city mayor. Both Clintons love fashioning imaginative programs that nurture partnerships, create new markets, or add value to existing enterprises. Clinton has used her extra-legislative superpower to help spur the creation of a medical cluster in Syracuse, new defense technology in the state’s Central Corridor, even artists’ lofts in abandoned Buffalo buildings. When she appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she requested that the band play “Erie Canal” when she appeared, giving her a musical opening to plug upstate tourism, which she did.

One of New York’s biggest industries, somewhat surprisingly, is agriculture. Here, again, Clinton has characteristically thrown herself into the prime advocate’s role through the classically Clintonian “Farm to Fork” program she created, which seeks to link upstate farming with downstate markets. To boost sales of New York wine, she piled New York City restaurateurs into a plane and led them on a tour of Finger Lakes wineries. When upstate apple growers complained that China and Canada were flooding the market with imported apples, Clinton attacked foreign apples, pushing for mandatory “country of origin” stickers that would identify apples grown in New York. When bad weather damaged the crop, Clinton sent former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman a rotten Hudson Valley apple and a plea for federal disaster funds. Nothing is too small or obscure to arouse her passionate interest. “I remember listening to a conversation at some black-tie event where she was talking about what you should feed to pigs,” Maggie Williams says. “If you fed them a certain kind of food, they produced better meat. We were in an extremely social setting, but she seemed perfectly intent on talking about it because it had to do with some upstate issue. I kind of felt like, um, do we really have to talk about this here?”

The quantitative effects of all this are negligible, considering the scope of the problems her state faces: New York has lost 65,000 jobs in the six years she has represented it. But the psychological benefits of her upstate attentions have been tremendous. It’s as if the prom queen had wandered over unbidden during lunch to insist on sitting with the kids from shop class and asked them to explain drop presses. Clinton never came close to adding 200,000 jobs upstate. Her popularity stems instead from sheer, bludgeoning persistence and an eager willingness to spread her glamour over an area with little of its own.

Any senator who entertains thoughts of the presidency inevitably comes up against doing what is best for her state or doing what is best for her country. Nothing highlights this more sharply than Congress’s effort this year to rewrite the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, a federal program that provides states with money to fight the spread of the disease. When the law first passed, in 1990, AIDS was ravaging cities, which properly received the preponderance of assistance. In the years since, urban areas—often with help from the states—have worked to bring AIDS cases under control. In New York, all patients who qualify under the act have access to the drug cocktails that can prevent HIV infections from becoming full-blown AIDS—with enough money left over to pay for quality-of-life services like dog walking and massage therapy.

Now AIDS is exploding across the rural South, especially in black areas, leaving some states unable to afford even the basic life-saving drugs. Some experts believe that the funding formula needs to be rewritten to address where the disease is newly spreading. In August, news accounts revealed that Clinton was holding up the writing of legislation. I was leaked documents from her office stamped CONFIDENTIAL showing Clinton’s proposed funding formula, which maintained New York’s high level of funding. When I asked her about entreaties from pastors’ groups and rural-state governors, who were concerned that their citizens would not receive essential medication, Clinton assured me that she hoped funding would be increased wherever it was needed—knowing how implausible this hope might be. She would not sacrifice her state’s allotment of money.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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