Candidate Hillary

Joshua Green talks about his experience profiling Hillary Clinton and shares his thoughts on her presidential prospects

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s record of public service is long. Powerful lawyer, pioneering advocate of children’s and women’s rights, governor’s wife, first lady, and now senator—boasting thirty years of deep experience, she has become a household name in all corners of the world. And these days, perhaps more than ever before, she is the topic of discussion inside Washington’s beltway and beyond as Democrats and Republicans alike analyze and speculate: Will she run for president? Is she qualified to be president? Can she win?

In the November issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green argues that Clinton’s most recent professional stint as New York’s junior senator provides the most suitable lens through which to assess her future political career. It is in the Senate, not the White House, that Clinton has laid the groundwork and formed the relationships that could best position her to run in 2008. Despite previous setbacks (most notably—though perhaps not most notoriously—her failed attempt at reforming the nation’s healthcare system as First Lady), Clinton has managed to first resurrect and then bolster her reputation as a political leader. She has done so cautiously and systematically, befriending former enemies—Trent Lott, Sam Brownback, and Newt Gingrich, to name a few—along the way. She has also been at the forefront—if not the architect—of most centrist movements in the Senate, employing what analysts call “third-way triangulation” (a strategy her husband also used to reign over the political center). “As the atmosphere in Washington has deteriorated,” Green writes, “Clinton has emerged within the Senate as the unlikeliest of figures: she, not George W. Bush, has turned out to be a uniter, not a divider.”

An examination of Clinton’s senate career showcases her strengths and liabilities, argues Green. While serving on Capitol Hill, Clinton has proved adept at building bridges across the aisle. But such compromise has come seemingly at the cost of other important qualities: the sincere idealism, which characterized so much of her earlier professional ambitions, appears all but gone. Have Clinton’s efforts to become “small enough to succeed in the Senate” undermined her strengths as a passionate advocate and leader? Clinton, of course, is burdened with a number of disadvantages; it is difficult to determine which of them (her gender? her politics?) are most damning. Like all freshmen in the Senate, Clinton must participate in what Green describes as a fraternity pledge process—drinking games not excluded. (“She can really hold her liquor,” John McCain relayed to Green with admiration.) She reveals no lingering resentment at her treatment during her husband’s presidency, shows deference to her male counterparts in front of the press, and even apparently offers to pour their coffee. Clinton has also managed to successfully woo her female colleagues:

Republican women, who are supposed to despise Clinton by reflex, would first describe seething as they sat behind their boss at some hearing or other and watched Clinton charm whichever beacon of conservatism was her target. But many eventually went on to confess a grudging admiration for her…. ‘She wore slacks to her swearing-in ceremony,’ one such staffer marveled. ‘I mean, you just don’t do that in the Senate.’”

No less important to her Senate reputation, of course, are the small but significant gains Clinton has made for New York. She has created new medical clusters in Syracuse, new defense technology in the Central Corridor, and agricultural programs that link upstate supply with downstate demand. And when faced with decisions that test her political allegiances, she has proven her loyalty to New York above all else—an especially important statement in the face of a possible presidential bid. If Clinton does decide to run, this leadership, Green predicts, will be the theme of her campaign.

A senior editor at The Atlantic, Joshua Green is a former editor of The Washington Monthly. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Playboy, Slate, and elsewhere. We communicated by email on October 11th.

Abigail Cutler

What led you to write this piece?

Really the desire to capture Hillary Clinton at a unique moment—her first Senate term is winding up, and most people believe she’s on the verge of seeking the presidency in 2008, so I wanted to write about her before she disappears fully into “campaign mode.” Also, I hadn’t seen a satisfactory profile that delved deeply into her Senate career, which has been remarkable in many respects and is, I think, the best lens through which to view her as she begins a presidential campaign.

How did you get access to Clinton? Did scoring an interview with her really require, as you put it, “the Zen patience and preternatural psychological abilities of a hostage negotiator”? Can you elaborate?

Because Clinton is so famous and in such high demand (and also because she’s extremely cautious and protective of her image), it’s very difficult to get access to her. Philippe Reines, her press secretary, is undoubtedly the hardest working press secretary on the Hill, simply by virtue of all the media requests he has to respond to—or not respond to—in the course of a day. The Atlantic editors decided that we’d profile Clinton whether or not she cooperated, and once it became clear to them that this would be a substantial piece, I think they decided that they’d like to try and have a hand in how the story was told, and highlight Clinton’s accomplishments in the Senate.

How did your perspective change throughout the reporting process?

My respect for Clinton’s political skills intensified, especially as I heard testimony from two groups of people: Republicans who’ve worked with her, and women. Clinton is viewed with a jaundiced eye by many in the media and on Capitol Hill, but the Republicans she’s cooperated with in the Senate she’s truly won over. Likewise, women. The biggest surprise for me in reporting this piece was discovering what a chauvinistic institution the Senate still is, and what women have to endure and overcome to be taken seriously there. Until a few years ago, they were required to wear lipstick and skirts. The fact that Clinton could flourish despite this environment gives you a sense of her formidable political skills.

What assumptions did you have about Clinton before beginning?

That she’d be tough to persuade to cooperate.

Were you proven wrong?

I wasn’t.

You mention in the piece that you spoke (“briefly, abortively”) about Bill. Was she unwilling to talk about her husband in personal terms, or more generally speaking?

I asked specifically if, after six years as a senator, she would compare herself to her husband as a politician. It struck me as an eminently fair question, since she’s now an elected official with a record of her own. She didn’t agree.

She didn’t agree that she compared or that your question was fair?

She didn't agree the question was fair. Or in any event, she refused to answer it.

What qualifies her to be president?

I don’t think she has yet laid out a compelling case for that. It’s a decision voters will have to make. She certainly has a unique background, having been first lady of both Arkansas and the United States, so she’s been to the mountaintop. But her record as an elected official is limited to her single Senate term, so that will unquestionably be important.

History is rife with examples of failed presidential bids by senators. Will Clinton’s reputation as senator hurt her or help her should she decide to run for president?

It’s an interesting question, and one that applies to possible candidates beyond Clinton (such as Senator Barack Obama). One reason that being a senator has been a handicap in recent elections is that the lengthy voting record any senator amasses is easy to attack and distort, and the longer the record the more open it presumably is to attack. Certainly, if she runs, Clinton will be attacked for hers, both from the left (for her vote in favor of the Iraq War) and from the right (for her generally liberal record on most social issues). Whether her record hurts her, though, depends primarily on how she handles the inevitable attacks.

The Clintons’ circle is wide, but how deep is it? Does Hillary have many real confidants? Were any of your sources particularly insightful or helpful to your reporting process?

The loyalty in Clinton’s immediate circle is very deep, and it consists primarily of a group of women who have worked for her for many years and refer to themselves collectively as “Hillaryland.” More broadly speaking, the answer isn’t quite clear. As I wrote in my piece, much of the Washington Democratic establishment is extremely loyal to her husband, and for the time being that has carried over to her. It will be interesting to see, if she falters, just how deep that loyalty runs to her.

You write that Clinton’s success in the Senate has come “at the cost of some of her most deeply held values,” like her vision for nationalized healthcare. What other big ideas has she had to sweep under the rug?

She hasn’t swept anything under the rug, so much as chosen to focus on many small-bore policies to the exclusion of bigger things like health care. My sense from talking to those around her is that they felt this was a necessary step to rehabilitate her political image. But it poses something of a dilemma for her too in that you can’t very well run for president on a platform of risk avoidance and minor accomplishments.

Did you come across any Democrats or former supporters who have been disappointed or even angered by some of her attempts to be a centrist?

Yes. I think most Democrats cut her a certain amount of slack, knowing that she's operating in a Republican majority. But her decision to support a law outlawing flag burning and her vote in support of the Iraq War are two things that Democrats, and many Clinton supporters, are very angry about.

You note that a number of midlevel operatives—"the kind who could expect a good job in any Democratic administration”—told you they didn't believe Clinton could win a general election, particularly if she were up against someone like McCain. What were the reasons behind this doubt?

Really just skepticism that she could win a general election, for the same reason that other observers are skeptical: she is a polarizing figure outside the Senate, she has what traditionally are very high negative ratings, and she doesn't seem to have much to say on a lot of the big issues—particularly the Iraq War.

I loved your description of how Clinton considers and weighs each question pitched to her—imagining potential headlines in thought bubbles. Were you ever able to catch her off guard?

The most unanticipated moment for me was when I asked her what she has done in the Senate that is politically brave or risky, in the sense that it's not in her immediate personal interest. (One criticism I heard from Republicans and Democrats is that, for all her obvious talent, her record has been extremely cautious and avoided risk.) She seemed uncharacteristically shaky and, when pressed, seemed to let down her guard in a way you don't usually see. Her reply was, "Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get. It's not like I have any margin for error whatsoever. I don't. Everybody else does, and I don't. And that's fine. That's just who I am, and that's what I live with."

Do you think she actually lacks these big ideas, or is she just keeping her mouth shut in the spirit of “Be a workhorse, not a showhorse”? Is that what you mean by your last line—she has plenty to talk about but not much to say?

That's the million-dollar question about Hillary Clinton, and I think that how she answers it will determine whether or not she can be president. In the Senate, she has shown very little evidence of or capacity for thinking big—yet it's impossible to believe that she isn't aware of this and hasn't thought about how to address it. Her top advisers argue, as Mark Penn did to me for this article, that her small-bore approach in the Senate is a conscious strategy designed to show that she can "get things done," but that she hasn't lost the ability to "throw the long ball." Their message, in effect, is "stay tuned." And, of course, the entire political universe will be raptly doing just that.