Take Two: Hillary's Choice

How Hillary Clinton turned herself into the consummate Washington player

Photo by Jez Coulson

Of the many realms of power on Capitol Hill, the least understood may be the lawmakers’ prayer group. The tradition of private worship in small, informal gatherings is one that stretches back for generations, as does a genuine tendency within them to transcend partisanship, though as with so much that is religiously oriented in Washington, the chief adherents are the more conservative Republicans.

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Most of the prayer groups are informally affiliated with a secretive Christian organization called the Fellowship, established in the 1930s by a Methodist evangelist named Abraham Vereide, whose great hope was to preach the word of Jesus to political and business leaders throughout the world. Vereide believed that the best way to change the powerful was through discreet personal ministry, and over his lifetime he succeeded to a remarkable degree. The first Senate prayer group met over breakfast in 1943; a decade later one of its members, Senator Frank Carlson, persuaded Dwight Eisenhower to host a Presidential Prayer Breakfast, which has become a tradition.

"Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get," Hillary Clinton told me, finally. That's just who I am, and that's what I live with."

"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. Though it still sponsors what is now called the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship scrupulously avoids publicity, as Vereide insisted it must. “If you want to help people, Jesus said, you don’t do your alms in public,” Douglas Coe, the group’s leader since the late 1960s, said in a rare interview several years ago.

Today, on Capitol Hill, as the old avenues of bipartisanship have gradually been blocked off by hardening ideology, the prayer groups have become cherished sanctuaries for their members—providing respite, however brief, from the cacophony of political Washington. Speaking about a group is strongly discouraged, and what transpires at meetings is strictly off the record. As a result, the groups provide an intimate setting in which members can share their faith without fear of being judged. “Once you take off the cloak of politics and look into a person’s soul, you find that you can establish a relationship that is enduring and deep and doesn’t let politics get in the way,” one longtime participant explained to me. “If you’re going to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus, it’s about forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace.” Many who come, he said, are surprised to wind up forming close friendships with colleagues who in any other setting would be considered political enemies.

You’re not supposed to think about lofty spiritual affairs in terms so temporal as their political importance. But among the prayer groups, one holds special status: a tight-knit gathering of about a dozen senators which still meets every Wednesday morning for prayer and discussion, led by Douglas Coe himself. Each week, someone starts the meeting by giving personal testimony, secure in the support of the audience. Once, Senator Dan Coats stood before the group and sang “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.”

The roster of regular participants has included such notable conservative names as Brownback, Santorum, Nickles, Enzi, and Inhofe. Then, in 2001, just after the new class of senators was sworn in, another name was added to the list: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

One spring Wednesday, a few months into the term, Senator Sam Brownback’s turn came to lead the group, and he rose intending to talk about a recent cancer scare. But as he stood before his colleagues Brownback spotted Clinton, and was overcome with the impulse to change the subject of his testimony. “I came here today prepared to share about this experience in my life that has caused great suffering, the result of which has deepened my faith,” Brownback said, according to someone who watched the scene unfold. “But I’m overcome now with only one thought.” He confessed to having hated Clinton and having said derogatory things about her. Through God, he now recognized his sin. Then he turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Clinton, will you forgive me?” Clinton replied that she would, and that she appreciated the apology.

“It was an extraordinary moment,” the member told me.

This repentance fostered an unlikely relationship that has yielded political bounty. Clinton and Brownback went on to cosponsor one measure protecting refugees fleeing sexual abuse, and another to study the effects on children of violent video games and television shows. “That morning helped make our working relationship,” Brownback told me recently. “It brought me close to someone I did not ever imagine I would become close to.” Since then, Clinton has teamed up on legislation with many members of the prayer group.

Hillary Clinton’s proficiency in this innermost sanctum has unnerved some of the capital’s most exalted religious conservatives. “You’re not talking about some tree-hugging, Jesus-is-my-Buddha sort of stuff,” says David Kuo, a former Bush official in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, who worked with Clinton to promote joint legislation and who, like Brownback, has apologized to her for past misdeeds. “These are powerful evangelicals she’s meeting with.” Like many conservatives, they are caught between warring dictates of their faith: the religious one, which requires them to embrace a fellow Christian, and the political one, more powerful in some, which causes them to instinctively distrust the motives of a Clinton. Everyone in Washington experiences their dilemma at one time or another—the lack of an Archimedean point from which to judge Hillary Clinton.

A full term in the Senate has not made the task any easier. In her Senate race six years ago Clinton seemed headed for an epic showdown with Rudolph Giuliani that she appeared likely to lose. History wrote a different ending. Clinton will cruise to reelection this month without serious challenge. After she was elected, Trent Lott, the Republican leader at the time, voiced a widespread sentiment—held by more than just Republicans—when he mused, not unhopefully, that lightning might strike her before she arrived. Yet by this past spring, when Lott and Clinton introduced legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, forty-nine Republicans shared the designation of having cooperated with her, including many who once numbered among her fiercest critics.

There is also the question of her public dexterity. The one major initiative she led in her husband’s administration, a broad reform of the health-care system, was a calamitous failure, and led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But Clinton has adapted surprisingly well to the byways of the Senate, becoming what few could have foreseen: a wily manipulator of the Senate’s outsize egos, and a master of cloakroom politics. This has come at the cost of some of her most deeply held values. However flawed Clinton’s health-care plan was in execution, it was undergirded by an element of sincere idealism that is all but absent from her Senate record. Clinton has chosen systematic caution as the path to power.

But few in the Senate today would deny that, whatever her motives, Clinton is diligent about her work there, and successful in ways that have moderated her image. Her deft touch with conservative colleagues has thus far neutralized the Republican National Committee’s strategy of getting people to put her in the same mental category as bumbling liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean. She’s no easy target. Her partnerships were deemed so successful in moderating her image that Karl Rove, according to a source close to him, sent word last year to halt Republican cooperation with her—an edict that has been ignored. As the atmosphere in Washington has deteriorated, 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.

What she might do next vexes many in the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton has worked to establish her place in the Senate, she has also been central in the effort to build up a new party infrastructure. Democrats now seem poised for a comeback—perhaps as soon as this month’s elections. But many worry that Clinton will soon go further and decide to seek the presidency. Should she win the nomination but lose the election, they believe, the party could suffer incalculable damage.

Over the last six months, Clinton has given a series of important policy speeches designed to fortify her national profile. Most people, including her closest advisers, believe this to be the groundwork for a presidential bid. Clinton has become a vocal critic of the president and, gingerly, of the war she voted to support—even as that vote has begun to eclipse everything else she has done.

The story of Clinton’s Senate career mirrors that of her political life generally: a pattern of ambition, failure, study, and advancement. It provides a showcase for her very considerable skills. But it also points up her core liabilities as she prepares to move from the New York stage and back to the national one. Maybe one way to frame the question is this: Can a woman who has made herself small enough for the Senate be big enough for the country?

In August, I met Hillary Clinton in a New York City hotel for the first of several wide-ranging conversations about her political career. Our initial talk straddled a meeting she had scheduled with the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni. I arrived early and happened to catch Livni’s entrance. A half-dozen Israeli agents, looking all business, leaped out of their vehicles and swept into the lobby. “Please step back,” one of them “asked” as he approached me, and then moved to impede my view as Livni was hustled into an elevator.


When Clinton arrived, a few minutes later, she barely caused a stir. Like any other senator, she is attended to by a press aide and a “body person,” cell phone to ear and BlackBerry to hand, who sees to her limitless horizon of engagements. The only thing that makes Clinton different is her Secret Service detail, and even that is practically invisible. In most everyday settings, her life today barely resembles the circus of her last campaign. The last six years have featured her near-constant presence in every corner of the state, quieting the cries of “carpetbagger” and making her a familiar enough presence in the city that her celebrity now seems manageable. She was greeted with polite smiles and nods of recognition, a token of this hard-won standing.

Clinton’s formative experience on the national stage was her leadership of the failed health-care effort, which was to have been the centerpiece of her husband’s first presidential term. A lot of what makes her success as a senator so interesting is how it contrasts with her performance during that initiative’s epic collapse. Many of her friends and colleagues believe the episode devastated Clinton personally, and I hoped to get a sense of how the loss might have changed her perspective. I had come to think of it as the Rosebud event through which her subsequent career could best be understood.

Clinton did not agree. “I didn’t take it personally,” she said with emphasis. That didn’t quite ring true. How could she not have? “I was disappointed for the country. I thought it was really unfortunate that, once again, the powers of the status quo and special interests and political partisanship had carried the day, so just like Truman and Johnson and Nixon and Carter we were not going to be able to save money and improve quality, and cover everybody. I thought that was really unfortunate. But I did not take that personally.”

Clinton was dressed in a loosely woven tan pantsuit highlighted with subtle gold jewelry, her blond hair swept back stylishly. The hairstyle, as she has recently taken to pointing out at public appearances, is one she’s managed to stick with for several years—a line good for a laugh each time, alluding as it does to her famously changing styles during her husband’s presidency, which were an easy metaphor for her inability to find a comfortable role in his administration. When she delivers the line, one also senses her wish that the metaphor ran the other way, to a clear index that she has now found her footing.

For the first few years of her Senate term, Clinton took pains to downplay her national status. Today, she is everywhere, intent on being recognized as a political figure who has come into her own. The new persona, like the hairstyle, is carefully arranged to impress. She leaves nothing to chance. Just arranging an interview requires the Zen patience and preternatural psychological abilities of a hostage negotiator.

As we talked—about September 11, the war in Iraq, her time in the Senate, and (briefly, abortively) her husband—she showed little trace of the coldness that has long been ascribed to her. Instead, first establishing a rapport and then working the jury like the first-class lawyer she is, Clinton laid out the case for how the world should see her: as a steady, strong leader committed to standing up to George W. Bush and working both sides of the aisle to “get things done” for the people of New York. It’s a presentation that rejects any hint of weakness or culpability, and not even the memories of the health-care debacle can tarnish it. “At the time we went forward,” she says now, “the Democratic leadership told us how they wanted us to do it. It turned out they were wrong.”

Clinton wants to be seen—but get too close and you’ll find the view impeded. Something politely tells you, “Please step back.”

But the past remains a powerful presence. A moment later, the new Hillary was briefly possessed by the old one. It turned out that the public rebuke over health care had not remotely been forgotten: “The fact that I was doing it was such a shock to the Washington system. I don’t think I ever recovered from that. That was the real challenge: ‘He put his wife in charge!’ … I think it was very convenient to hang this all on the first lady.”

Thirteen years later, most other people find it hard to recall the trauma of that period. Veterans of Bill Clinton’s White House often speak of themselves as having been a “modernizing force” in the Democratic Party, one that swept out the old interest-group-driven factions that had long held sway. Their guiding idea was that a more pragmatic, results-oriented approach to governing held greater promise for achieving traditional liberal goals. This was coupled with a self-confidence that was at a peak in the heady days after the 1993 inauguration. The Clintons saw themselves as reformers empowered to abolish the old ways of Washington. Bill Clinton’s decision to make Hillary the head of the task force that would write the health-care bill set off grumbling in some quarters of the administration from the outset. She had never been elected to office or served in a formal policy position in government. But as first lady of Arkansas she had led a successful commission on education reform, the centerpiece of her husband’s second term. No one doubted that she would get a prominent role; rather, the president’s political advisers worried that she would get too prominent a role, and the public would grow to resent its unelected “copresident.”


As a discrete but important issue, health care seemed to finesse this problem. It also became the main element in Hillary Clinton’s effort to recast the role of first lady into something far more substantial than what had been bequeathed to her—something more along the lines of a senior White House adviser. What made this seem plausible, even wise, was her formidable record quite apart from her service as the first lady of Arkansas. Clinton had cochaired the Children’s Defense Fund and earned a national reputation as a pioneering theorist on children’s law. Also active in women’s issues, she had compiled three editions of the Handbook on Legal Rights for Arkansas Women, and was the first woman partner at the state’s most prestigious law firm. Twice in the five years before her husband became president, The National Law Journal named her to its list of America’s most powerful lawyers. She was blue-chip talent through and through.

She didn’t shy from the job. Clinton assumed a high public profile, declaring that health-care reform would be “the Social Security Act of this generation and the defining legislation for generations to come.” She approached her assignment much as she had the earlier one in Arkansas—like a good lawyer—this time bearing down and learning the mind-numbing intricacies of the health-care system.

Clinton shines in precisely the sort of situation where she is called upon to master a distinct body of knowledge. “Both Clintons are intensely smart, but they have different ways of approaching issues,” says John Podesta, the White House chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s second term and now an adviser to Hillary Clinton. “I’d describe him as a horizontal thinker, whose broad-ranging mind is always connecting one thing to another. She tends to drill down deep into a single subject. One feels, at some level with her, more tightness, discipline, and focus.” These skills she eagerly applied to the problem of health-care policy.

Clinton acquired an early patron in Senator Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat whose career was then at its apex. Rockefeller was viewed as presidential material, but had opted to pass on the 1992 election. Health care was his major interest. The agony of watching his mother’s lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s had made him a crusader for universal health insurance, and in the years before Bill Clinton was elected he had organized labor and health interests toward that goal.

After a series of dazzling performances testifying about health care on the Hill, Clinton quieted many of her critics. Friends describe this period as her happiest in the administration. “When I think of Hillary I have one enduring image,” says Maggie Williams, her close friend and former chief of staff. “It’s of her after a day of events and meetings in an elevator, her arms bursting with books and papers and briefings, all about health care, on her way to the residence. She looked extraordinarily happy.”

It’s hard to imagine today, but press coverage at the time generally took the view that Hillary, not Bill, was the more dynamic and impressive Clinton. Her congressional testimony made her the administration’s first star.

National health care was a dream that had eluded U.S. presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to include it in his plan for Social Security. Special interests always beat it back. Roosevelt had to drop the medical benefit from the legislation when doctors protested the idea of government intrusion. Pharmaceutical and insurance companies helped kill subsequent attempts. Only Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory, in 1964, created the fleeting conditions that allowed Medicare and Medicaid to pass.

Mindful of this history, the Clintons thought they could prevail by rigidly shielding the process from the established interests—excluding even key Cabinet members. When presidents want a bill, they typically assign it to the relevant Cabinet member or put forward a set of principles and let allies in Congress write the legislation. Both strategies offer the advantage of warding off potential political problems and building a base of support: everyone gets an early sense of the important details and a chance to speak up.

But that includes those interests likely to oppose the legislation, who may seek to influence its outcome. Assessing the historical record of how major reform had been stymied in the past, Bill Clinton doubted that even his own Cabinet could fend off such pressure. And so the president and his counselors devised an end run around Washington’s normal way of doing business. They chose their good friend Ira Magaziner, a business consultant without Washington ties, to manage the task force with Hillary. The Clintons and Magaziner shared a certain hubris, as well as an often articulated disdain for (in what was then the president’s favored phrase of opprobrium) “the traditional Washington views” on health care.

So the Clinton White House made the audacious decision to write the whole thing itself, in a task force shrouded in secrecy, consciously shutting out Congress and the health-care community. They would simply outsmart the Washington establishment.

The task force quickly metastasized into a herd of more than 600, whose inescapably slow pace, along with continual interference from other administration priorities, kept pushing back the timeline for a bill. Eventually, as the months went on, members of Congress introduced competing plans. Some of these, notably that of Representative Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Bob Woodward’s book The Agenda, which details this period in the White House, notes “an increasing self- righteousness in Hillary” as frustration led to “a new, deeply anti-Washington flavor in her tone.” In his memoir, All Too Human, George Stephanopoulos describes her as “inflexible.” When “Hillarycare” finally arrived, in late October, the draft was a monstrous 1,342 pages long (Cooper’s was about 300). Hillary’s original star turn was all but forgotten.

The Clintons considered several legislative options before settling on a clever, but risky, strategy that seemed by then to be their best hope of getting a bill through Congress. An anonymous administration official quoted in a Time column had earlier belittled the petulant chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (“We’ll roll right over him if we have to”), who should have played a critical role. The decision was made to try to attach health care instead to the annual budget reconciliation bill. Theoretically, this offered a number of advantages. The reconciliation bill is the single most important piece of legislation Congress passes each year, because it locks in the spending and legislative changes in the budget—it simply must pass, or the government shuts down. As such, it is accorded special procedural shortcuts: it requires only a simple majority vote in both chambers of Congress, and, tantalizing from the administration’s standpoint, Senate rules permit just twenty hours of debate, so the bill can’t be filibustered. (Ronald Reagan used the reconciliation bill of 1981 to drastically shift spending from domestic programs to defense.)

What this strategy didn’t account for was the considerable ego of Senator Robert C. Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who was then chairman of the Appropriations Committee, through which the reconciliation bill would pass. Byrd worships the Senate the way some cultures worship their ancestors, believing that the Founders’ ideas live on in its arcane rules and procedures. He has a flair for windy oratory—nothing clears the Senate floor like his annual perorations celebrating Mother’s Day or the first day of spring. The author of a four-volume history of the Senate, he holds strong views about what should, and should not, be permitted. And he has the means to impose them on others.

Byrd felt the Clinton strategy violated the spirit of the budget reconciliation bill by trying to attach something to it that had nothing to do with the budget. In the mid-1980s he had established the “Byrd rule,” which forbade just this sort of tampering with the bill. Health care “was a big piece of legislation, it was important—it ought to have been debated,” he told me recently. “I certainly was abhorrent of the idea of ramming this piece of legislation through by that mechanism.” A succession of eminences led by Jay Rockefeller pleaded with him to relent. The president called him. Byrd wouldn’t budge. The elaborate plan to circumvent the establishment collapsed under the stern gaze of its senior member. “I was the bear trap,” Byrd told me, with a twinkle of defiant pride.

It is now widely accepted that the legislative strategy for health care was fatally flawed. Clinton’s White House never really understood the Senate. (Of the Clintons’ inner circle, Stephanopoulos, Leon Panetta, and Howard Paster all came from the House, and Al Gore had always been an outsider in the Senate.) Hillary Clinton is neither entirely wrong, nor especially charitable, to blame others for the bill’s demise. In her 2003 memoir, Living History, she singles out another House veteran, Majority Leader Richard Gephardt. But many administration officials had harbored serious misgivings from the outset, and many more grew to share them as the year went by. In All Too Human, Stephanopoulos charges that “her position stifled healthy skepticism about our strategy,” causing “quiet resentment.” By autumn President Clinton himself seems to have sensed the premonitory signs of failure, and maneuvered to cut a face-saving deal.

The best option now lay with Representative Jim Cooper, who, after first offering his own bill to the Clintons and being rebuffed, had introduced it in early October, stopping short of the universal coverage Clinton insisted upon but featuring many of the managed-care ideas she later came to embrace. That summer, a longtime friend of the Clintons named Thomas Schneider mentioned to them that Cooper had been a law-school classmate and remained a close friend. Schneider offered to broker a meeting.

One Saturday in late September, Schneider, Cooper, and Bill Clinton set out for an early-morning round of golf at the Army-Navy Club. Discussion soon turned to health care. Ever the deal maker, Clinton started probing Cooper for the possibility of a compromise. “Clinton was an artist at negotiation,” says one member of the group. “There was a lot of common ground there, and he had a good sense of the public mood about health care.”

It started to drizzle, so Clinton invited the group back to the White House, where the talk continued into the afternoon over beers. Cooper canceled a trip to Tennessee and kept listening. By the time he left that evening, says the source, “it was very close to a handshake.” Clinton’s parting words were, “Look, I think we can make this work. But Hillary’s leading this, and you’ll need to have a meeting with her.” Cooper agreed.

But when he met with the first lady shortly thereafter, it was as if the golf outing had been just a dream. “She was looking for Jim to surrender 100 percent,” says one source with knowledge of the meeting. “It was brutal,” Cooper told me. Things collapsed quickly, and no deal was struck. Hillary Clinton’s major initiative died ignominiously many months later, without even coming to a vote.

A close friend of the Clintons offers this diagnosis: “She was focusing on the delivery of health care. She was utterly and totally tone-deaf to the politics.”

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.

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.

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.”

It’s not often talked about, but the Senate, more than any other body in Washington, remains stubbornly rooted in an earlier time. The fact of being a woman at any level is an added burden, in a way you don’t often see anymore. Some vestigial notion of southern gentility, along with the advanced years and feudal powers of its senior members, fosters an atmosphere of sexism that is still passed off as “courtliness” or “fondness for the traditions of the Senate.” Some female staffers ruefully call it “the last plantation.” Clinton’s arrival has had a curious effect.

Until he was deposed in 2002 as majority leader, Trent Lott favored a lipstick-and-skirt dress code. Women still must cover their blouses with jackets in order to set foot on the Senate floor. (There was a big fuss this summer about whether they could wear open-toed shoes.) Far from being just quaint notions, these outdated standards of decorum are enforced by “bench ladies,” who are stationed on the floor. Staffers call them the “SS guards” behind their backs.

These indignities reach every level. Male senators have always had access to a private restroom just off the Senate floor. But for decades, the few women senators had to walk down two floors to use a public restroom. On certain committees, such as Armed Services—of which Clinton is a member—this culture is said to be particularly intense. One veteran female committee aide said that for years certain lobbyists—retired military types with a Tailhook attitude toward gender differences—refused even to speak to her.

Years of accumulated resentments over such slights have helped form one very significant dimension of Clinton’s strong working relationships in the Senate: her popularity among female staff members—even many Republicans—is almost universal. Something entirely unexpected happened as I went around inquiring about her working habits. 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, for reasons that initially struck me as bizarre. “She wore slacks to her swearing-in ceremony,” one such staffer marveled. “I mean, you just don’t do that in the Senate.” Her point was that Clinton has flourished in the male-dominated milieu without making the normal concessions demanded of women, and has done so—this is important if you’re a Republican—without making a big feminist stink about it.

But Clinton hasn’t so much exploded gender stereotypes as subtly exploited them. She has completely erased from her public persona any resentment she may still feel at her treatment during the White House years. When senators appear together at a press conference it is often possible to make out, just at the moment things are really getting under way, a minuet taking place—the statesmanlike jockeying for primacy of position before the cameras. Clinton, as fellow senators admiringly pointed out to me, is the only one who routinely steps backward and defers to her colleagues.

History having cast Clinton as aloof and hard-edged, it was no accident that early reports of her private meetings with her new colleagues often included revelatory details that cut against character type, such as her offering to pour coffee for her male seniors. As one of her (male) aides bragged, “You don’t expect the first lady of the United States to ask if you want two lumps of sugar.” In submitting to the institutional culture, though, Clinton has sublimated her power drive, not denied it.

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.

While she has been fitting herself into the Senate, Clinton has risen to become the dominant figure in Washington’s Democratic establishment. In its ideology, the Democratic Party has moved a long way since the Clintons came to Washington in 1993. The Clinton administration succeeded over its eight years in moving the party’s center away from the balkanized, liberal attitudinizing of the 1980s and toward something much closer to the American mainstream. There remain plenty of intraparty differences on the war, trade policy, and the like. But the terms of argument themselves are more or less where Bill Clinton worked to get them.

Most of the intellectual energy within the Democratic establishment today is directed at infrastructure, not ideology. Having watched reasonably moderate candidates lose the last two presidential elections in heartbreaking fashion, and feeling further frustrated by the steady failure to win either house of Congress, Democrats have made it an article of faith that they lack the political and policy mechanisms to compete with their Republican counterparts. Over the last few years they have moved to restore the balance by building up institutions of their own. More than anyone else—certainly more than any other elected official—Hillary Clinton has been central to this process, taking a hand in almost every new Democratic institution.

Clinton helped John Podesta found a think tank, the Center for American Progress, which serves as a kind of Democratic administration-in-waiting. She has supported another, the American Democracy Institute, run by veteran Clinton allies. She has advised a watchdog group, Media Matters for America, that keeps tabs on the vast right-wing conspiracy and is run by David Brock, the reborn conservative hatchet man who helped launch the Paula Jones scandal before he renounced his past and became a liberal activist. Clinton has also advised the Democracy Alliance, an organization of the party’s richest donors that is aiming to raise $200 million for party-building efforts. While each group purports to work for the Democratic Party generally, and will support the next presidential nominee regardless of who it may be, among the possible contenders Clinton is at the very least the first among equals.

The only place where Clinton lacks a strong hand is the Democratic National Committee, chaired by Howard Dean, and here her supporters have simply worked around the problem. The big advantage that the DNC will try to offer candidates in 2008 is access to a huge database of voter information, a level of technological power now considered crucial to winning races. Having no friend in Dean, and skeptical of his abilities, the Clinton camp allowed a longtime ally, Harold Ickes Jr., to raise money to set up a private version of that database for use in the likely event that Clinton runs.

Bill Clinton’s long tenure as president and the fact that no figure has risen to replace him have given birth to a professional class of Washington Democrats who both reflect the thinking of and feel intensely loyal to the former president—and, by extension, his wife. Al Gore might have been another claimant to such a heritage, but he rejected it, and never engendered anything like the visceral loyalty so many Democrats still feel for Clinton. At least in Washington, it’s Hillary Clinton’s party now.

What this means in practical terms is that she commands almost all the top talent. With rare exceptions, she can lay claim to the best fund-raisers, political operatives, pollsters, and media consultants—often several of each. Clinton’s ascendancy over the party is such that one prominent adviser to her told me that his biggest concern in the near term was “a Noah’s Ark problem”: there are more people loyal to her than her campaign could reasonably employ. Though Clinton faces no serious challenger in her Senate race, she has already raised almost $50 million; should she run for president, insiders say that she could raise $400 million—over $100 million more than George W. Bush raised for his reelection.

This show of strength highlights a disparity between the Democratic Party as it exists in Washington, with Clinton the regnant power, and in the rest of the country, where the party has yet to decide who that power should be. And, oddly, it does not necessarily reflect any confidence, even in Washington, that Clinton can win the presidency. A number of mid-level Democratic operatives—the kind who could expect a good job in any Democratic administration—told me they didn’t believe she could win a general election, especially against a popular Republican like McCain. But at the same time, they did not entertain the possibility of working for another Democratic candidate. “It’s simple, really,” one of them explained to me. “Bill Clinton made my career—I wouldn’t be who I am, in the job I’m in, if he hadn’t made me. There’s no way I could ever work against Hillary.” He was conflicted about this, as are many others. It sounded as though he and his colleagues would rather cede the race than work against Bill Clinton’s wife.

When Hillary Clinton and I sat down to talk in New York City, we had come, separately, from an event at which she had spoken to a group that honors 9/11 victims by asking people to do good deeds in remembrance of the dead. It took place in the cheerful headquarters of the children’s-book publisher Scholastic, which made for an unlikely setting. The nurturing, pastel-carpeted room, with its wall of children’s books—The Adventures of Captain Underpants (Collectors’ Edition) and, just above the press section, Piranhas and Other Fish—and the civic-minded audience, gathered to celebrate earnest acts of goodwill, offered the outward appearance of being the perfect Hillary Clinton environment. It was, but not for the reasons I expected.

The somber occasion brought forth a side of Clinton rarely seen in Washington. It was the only time I saw her move a crowd. Clinton looked weary and spoke with haggard fixity about the “long-term struggles against the forces of darkness and nihilism,” the need to “constantly be standing on the side of life.” Then she looked up appraisingly at the gathering, which included some of the people with whom she has worked most closely during her six years in office. Her tone changed. She spoke about the fallen brother of one of the group’s organizers. His favorite movie had been It’s a Wonderful Life, and she quoted the angel Clarence: “‘Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’ That hole can never be filled.” No one applauded when she was finished. The small nods and squeezed hands of those in the audience conveyed a deeper kind of thanks.

Clinton spoke briefly to the bereaved, then headed uptown. When she arrived at the hotel restaurant she flashed a smile of businesslike sociability, and we sat down. I began by mentioning the event and asked how 9/11 had shaped her Senate term. “I felt this overwhelming sense of loss, and commitment and obligation to do everything I could do, and that’s basically what I’ve tried to do in the last five years,” she replied. “It was very fortunate for us in New York that Senator Byrd was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, that Tom Daschle was still the majority leader because of Jim Jeffords walking across the aisle, so we had a tremendous amount of sympathy from our colleagues, and that was enormously helpful.” Then she added a swipe: “The Republicans were ready to fight a war but not necessarily rebuild New York.”

This last bit was unprovoked and an apparently conscious effort, maintained throughout the interview, to come across as sweepingly critical—even angry—about the war. Clinton is prominent among the top Democrats who voted to support Bush’s resolution and who are now furiously trying to backpedal without recanting their votes. A popular dodge is to declare that the president exceeded the authority Congress granted him and allowed the war to become a distraction from the fight against terrorism, and to then express surprise that he could act so irresponsibly.

I asked whether Bush’s decision to go to war was really something she didn’t expect at the time. “Well, I’ve said that he ‘misused’ the authority granted to him,” she replied. “When I spoke at the time of the vote I made it very clear that this was not a vote for preemptive war; this was a vote, I thought, that would enable diplomacy to succeed because we would have a unified front between the president and our Congress to go to the Security Council to try to get the inspectors back in. Obviously we now know, in retrospect, that the president and vice president and his team probably didn’t intend for the inspectors to do their work.”

Most people correctly foresaw the vote as authorization for Bush to invade Iraq. Did she really mean to suggest she had not been among them? “Well, I think that’s right,” she said, affecting total ignorance, and then launched into a point-by-point defense of the position. “That’s what Bush said in his speech in Cincinnati on October 7th. They called me to the White House on October 8th and gave me another briefing. When I got back to my office, Condi Rice called me and asked if I had any questions. I said, ‘Look, I have one question: If the president has this authority, will he go to the United Nations and use it to get inspectors to go back into Iraq and figure out what this guy has?’ [Rice replied,] ‘Yes, that’s what it’s for.’ Privately and publicly, that was the argument they were making.”

She returned to blaming Bush, with her familiar charge that he had withheld intelligence about the locations of possible weapons of mass destruction from the UN inspectors. Then she made a final, sustained push to get away from her decision and onto the safer terrain of the administration’s execution of its mandate: “And, you know, it was also hard to believe that they would be so foolhardy and shortsighted as to do something without adequate preparation.”

Did she feel that Bush lied to her? “I feel like he”—pause—misled the Congress and the country.” Intentionally? “I don’t know about ‘intentionally.’ I don’t know what Bush knew. I honestly don’t know. I think he is surrounded by people who limit his access to information. I believe that you could have taken the major players in this drama in the Bush administration and they would have passed polygraphs about what they believed the threat was, because they were so obsessed with what [Saddam Hussein] had done before, and the potential for what he could do again.”

Clinton’s answers to questions about the war can be fugue-like in their complexity, and often assume a processional quality: the laundry lady, pinning up every fact, every conversation, every tidbit of exculpatory evidence for public display, attempting to disappear behind a screen of detail. Clinton harbors no illusion that her war vote will be anything less than a serious problem should she choose to seek the Democratic nomination. That’s why she works so hard at her public testimony. For a growing segment of the party, the sin of having authorized the war is not an issue on which one’s position can simply be readjusted—it’s one of inexpiable moral trespass with the potential to engulf any race. On the day we met, the political world was consumed with the fallout from the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary, where the three-term incumbent, Joe Lieberman, had fallen to an upstart challenger, Ned Lamont, largely over the issue of the war. Lieberman, like Clinton, had voted for it, so I asked her to explain her position and why the same voter animosity might not be directed at her.

Here is her full answer:

I think our positions are very different. We may have cast the same vote, [but] I was not standing in the Rose Garden with George Bush announcing the desire to go into Iraq. I have been a consistent critic of the way they conducted the war, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Tom Ricks referring to my questioning of Paul Wolfowitz in his book [Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq]. You know, I’m reading his book, feeling depressed, and I get to page 385, I think it is, and it says, “Finally the Democrats began to go after people,” and he has a page about my questioning of Wolfowitz. So I have consistently gone after the administration, and I worked with my Democratic colleagues, first in November, then in June, to craft a Democratic response. I thought both times we did a good job, and Lieberman didn’t vote for it either time. So we have very different positions. It is indisputable that we both voted to give Bush authority. But what we thought we were voting for, and what Bush eventually did, and then how we have responded since, I think, is really distinctive between us.

This was pure Hillary Clinton: the clear-eyed avowal of innocence, succinct and perfectly composed like a college-application essay; the flawless elocution; the slyly purposeful language (“… a consistent critic” … “I have consistently gone after …”); the “offhand” reference to a page-specific vindicating instance—right, of course. On big issues like the war, Washington judges you not by whether you were right or wrong—at least not in the short term—but by how systematically and formidably you maintain your position. Get caught skating in circles (“I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it”), and you’re finished. Clinton’s position on the war may feel like justification after the fact for a decision that is coming to look much worse in hindsight. But over the last four years she has managed, with lawyerly precision and in politically acceptable gradations, to shift from a stance of Thatcherite fortitude before the war to one of betrayed dismay and anger at the Bush administration afterward without any jarring breach of consistency or abrupt shift in direction. When the judges are scoring you on form, that’s like landing a triple Lutz.

When Clinton prepares to answer a reporter’s question, there’s a split-second pause when you can almost see her imagining, in floating cartoon bubbles above her head, the worst-case headline that a candid answer could yield, and then pitching her reply in the least-objectionable terms. Several of her friends told me that they believed her to be genuinely happy in the Senate, liberated in a way she never was able to be as first lady—an impression I developed as well. I asked which job she liked better, and she replied that they were very different and that she liked them both. (Washington Post: “Clinton Denounces First Lady Role.”) I asked how she compared her political strengths and weaknesses to her husband’s, now that she’d served a full term in the Senate, citing Podesta’s observation that she was a disciplined, deep thinker. Clinton visibly recoiled: “I don’t talk about that.” (New York Times: “Clinton Calls Husband ‘Shallow,’ ‘Undisciplined.’”) Retreating to safer territory, I wondered how she had displaced the legitimate anger she surely felt when she was in the White House toward some of her current colleagues. “I had a job to do,” was the considered reply. (New York Post: “HIL STILL AIMS TO KILL!”)

The only question that seemed to throw her concerned her actual Senate record. After we’d gone through her positions and policies in some detail, I suggested that for all she’d been busy doing in the Senate, I couldn’t find an instance where she had taken a politically unpopular stance or championed a big idea, like health-care reform, that might not yield immediate benefits but was the right thing to do. Interviews with colleagues and observers seemed to imply an unspoken disappointment that her talents promised a record of more height and substance than she had displayed—he one consistent criticism I heard was that her record was marked by overwhelming caution. Could she refute their doubts, and point to a few examples of politically brave votes?

Clinton laughed. “Oh, well, see, my view is, how do you get things done? When you’re in the minority, getting things done is not easy.” She cited her work after September 11: “I think taking on the administration over the effects from breathing the contaminants that were in the air, fighting to get the tracking and screening programs set up, going back time and time again—”

I couldn’t help breaking in. These were certainly worthy programs, but where is the political risk in standing up for the victims of September 11?

She tried again: “I voted against every tax cut, and I represent the richest people in America.”

But you’re a Democrat!

“But I have a lot of constituents for whom those tax cuts were personally quite important.”

Aren’t they Republicans?

“I had no support in the financial-services community when I ran in 2000—none,” she replied, rather reinforcing the point. “That’s a slight exaggeration—I have worked really hard to develop credibility with them, but I have voted against their tax cuts, I have voted against repealing the estate tax, I took on Alan Greenspan at a hearing about his appearance before the budget committee.”

I was about to suggest that these might qualify as politically brave actions for a Republican, when her answer took a sharp turn toward the personal.

“Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get,” she said finally. “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.”

Hillary Clinton is viewed through the lens of her larger ambition—and ambition is definitely there. Though she has always downplayed the issue, Clinton apparently flirted with running for the presidency in the 2004 election. According to one insider, in 2003 Mark Penn had created a unit within the polling firm of Penn, Schoen & Berland so clandestine that most of the staff didn’t even know it existed. It operated in a room whose computers had been disconnected from the company’s network. Penn polled to find out whether Clinton could break her pledge to serve a full term in the Senate and still maintain enough political viability to run for president. (Penn wouldn’t confirm—or deny—this episode, and said he believed that “at no time was she ever leaning in that direction.”) Ultimately, of course, she chose not to. But she must have been tempted. “Some very important people were coming to her on bended knee asking her to run,” a close friend of Clinton’s told me. “That was the phrase she used: ‘on bended knee.’”

This past July, Clinton was the keynote speaker at the Democratic Leadership Council’s annual conference in Denver. Her appearance at such a resonant event heightened speculation that she is preparing to run. The DLC was formed after Walter Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, to guide the party back to the political center. Bill Clinton chaired the organization when he was governor of Arkansas, and it served as a crucial vehicle in his advance to the presidency.

If you were studying how to get elected president, and you had examined Bill Clinton, you might, as he did, give a series of national policy speeches that, taken together, shape a platform right before the political class’s eyes. Hillary Clinton has done this. You would seek as best you could to position yourself as far as possible from the party’s leftward fringe. Hillary Clinton has done this, too, recalibrating when necessary. And if you wanted people to draw a pointed comparison to his presidential campaign, you might give a speech, as Clinton did in Denver, laying out a positive, centrist, credibly detailed message that echoed a lot of what Bill Clinton had said—although you probably wouldn’t go quite so far as to swipe his campaign’s catchphrase, as Clinton did when she struck the refrain: “It’s the American dream, stupid!”

Clinton has nothing like her husband’s skill at delivering a speech. She doesn’t dominate the room the way he does. Her political talent is precisely the opposite—she dominates in the Senate by yielding. She has a kind of anti-talent for hitting the right cadence, and her flat, midwestern voice lends itself poorly to impassioned exposition. When she tries to increase her register, it comes out as a sort of strained honk. An odd fact of Clinton’s public persona, an implicit acknowledgment of this shortcoming, is her reliance on sentimental videos to connect with her audience—essentially outsourcing the emotional element of a speech. Video presentations were a key part of both her 2000 announcement speech and her second-term nomination-acceptance speech in Buffalo this past June, where she elicited little more than pro forma applause. Afterward, when the crowd rose to its feet and the luminaries onstage poured into the audience, she herself inexplicably disappeared. It was her husband who characteristically soaked in the mass adoration and shook hands until his aides dragged him away.

Clinton has done what traditionally must be done to win your party establishment’s nomination for president. But her husband had the benefit of running as an outsider against a tired, intellectually listless Democratic Party. A lot has changed since then. The DLC, a band of outsiders twenty years ago, has become the veritable embodiment of what and who is connoted by the term Democratic establishment. Years of tireless study have made Hillary Clinton the consummate insider—but at a time when antiestablishment fervor in the Democratic base is at its highest point in a generation. It is not just her war vote but the very fact of being a Clinton that threatens her: an emerging liberal critique, especially virulent in the blogosphere, blames the Clintons and their self-absorption for the atrophy that has befallen the party. Clinton has reached the top of the Democratic establishment that once thwarted her. But that is looking like a less viable launching point to the presidency than at any time since she got to Washington.

There remains another option—one to which she is unquestionably well suited. As an admiring senator put it to me, “Hillary Clinton is everyone’s secret choice for majority leader.” It’s a line you hear often on Capitol Hill, and it has two possible meanings. For some it’s polite code for “Lord, I hope she doesn’t run for president.” But for others—I’d venture to say the majority—it is a compliment genuinely felt, an acknowledgment that she has satisfied the lions of the Senate and, should she wish to, might one day rank among them.

Clinton has overcome many unique obstacles to succeed in the Senate, but she has followed Washington’s well-worn path to power, acquiring patrons with a connoisseur’s discerning eye. Those whose talents can keep pace with their ambition are always in need of new patrons as they move ahead. This inevitably means leaving old ones behind, and sometimes disillusioning them. Out of all the people I asked to talk to about Clinton for this article, only one person refused: Jay Rockefeller.

Even though the Democrats are in the minority, Byrd, as the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, remains worth cultivating. His forty-eight-year career makes him the longest-serving senator in U.S. history: of the 1,885 people who have ever been in the Senate, Byrd has served alongside more than 400. Clinton, he tells aides, is among his very favorites. As I waited in the antechamber to his office, I noticed a letter atop the in-box on the desk thanking Byrd profusely for his help “funding key funding priorities for New York” in the fiscal year 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill, and singling out each of his staffers for praise. The letter was signed, in looping cursive, simply, “Hillary.” “I guess I’m blowing myself up a little,” Byrd told me sheepishly, “but I think of her as a pupil of mine.”

The story emerging from Clinton’s top advisers about her Senate career, however, does not suggest a thirst to stay. They clearly and unequivocally assert that when she sets her mind to learning and doing something, she’s successful—often against very long odds—and that she has proven to be a great leader for New York. If Clinton decides to run, this will be the theme of her campaign.

Her advisers try to give the impression that it’s all they can do to keep up. “We recently tried to review what she did in the Senate,” Penn told me, “and it took sixteen hours. And I don’t think we covered it all. There are very few people I could sit down with for whom, even after thirty years, it would require sixteen hours to review all the bills and positions and the involvement in so many issues.” When I remarked that most of the issues struck me as small-bore, he conceded as much, but insisted that they did not truly define Clinton. “In a Republican Senate, she has learned to gain ground a yard at a time,” he said. “But she hasn’t lost the ability to throw the long ball.”

Yet it is fair to wonder if Clinton learned the lesson of the health-care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform—willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it—with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no crusading causes—by her own tacit admission, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains. Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn’t have much to say.