Hillary Clinton meets with children at a public school in New York City in 1993.Richard Drew / AP

When Bill Clinton offered Arkansas businessman Mack McLarty the job of White House chief of staff in late 1992, McLarty quietly approached James A. Baker III, who had held the same position under two Republican presidents, to ask how best to prepare for the unusual responsibilities of the presidency. “Mack,” Baker replied, “you just kind of have to be there.” Most White House veterans agree: The only certain training for the Oval Office is on-the-job.

Hillary Clinton was “there” for eight years as first lady—meaning that if elected, she would take the oath of office with an unprecedented familiarity with the arcane and sometimes thorny levers of presidential power. This prior experience—described in confidential oral-history interviews recorded by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center—is as revealing as anything she might say in this year’s presidential debates about how she would function if elected herself. Indeed, much of what was on display by Hillary Clinton in the first debate—her detailed grasp of policy, her manifest preparation, and her willingness to go aggressively after her Republican opponent—are features of a well-established operating style that is detailed extensively in these oral histories.

By all accounts, for example, she is extraordinarily bright, and so would bring a high-octane intellect to the intractable problems that find their way to the president’s desk. Longtime friend Susan Thomases, a New York political activist, said of her mental capacities: “How many people do you know who speak in paragraphs? … [You’re] just blown away by it.” Mickey Kantor, who chaired her husband’s 1992 campaign and served as commerce secretary, offered an almost identical description: “Full sentences, full paragraphs, organized, never needs a note. Unbelievable talent.”

And she is notably resolute: Throughout her husband’s administration, she was recognized as a key source of discipline in a White House that often tended toward chaos. Former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin reported: “I think for a good part of his career, [Bill Clinton] was probably rescued by Hillary—by her being a more decisive person who kept things moving. … I remember at least one instance [during the White House transition process] in Little Rock, where Hillary simply said, ‘We have to decide something here and get this moved on.’ And the president would look sort of, ‘Well, all right.’ But she … had more discipline than he in getting to a decision.”

At the root of the efficiencies in her operating style is a native confidence in reaching conclusions for herself, including a greater comfort in working with imperfect information than her husband—for better or worse. “As much as he needs people, needs to draw from people, needs to bounce ideas, needs to validate them, … [she’s] just the opposite,” Kantor said. “She needs to think for herself. … She said it just muddles your mind when you start listening to other people tell you what you ought to be doing.” She easily recognized a reality of the modern presidency: On some issues, it matters less what the president decides than that a decision is actually made.

As for partisan politics, Hillary Clinton’s willingness to go after Donald Trump, face-to-face, in their first debate would have come as no surprise to those who worked with her earlier. Former White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum observed that “she’s very tough … [or] very tough-minded, which is a better word.” Bill Clinton, Nussbaum added, “could take a punch and keep going, but what he couldn’t do, [which Hillary Clinton could], was throw a punch and fight back.”

That penchant for directness carried over into her policy advocacy. Her former congressional-relations specialist, Chris Jennings, recalls this approach from one of their joint visits on Capitol Hill.

We went into [Michigan Democrat] John Dingell’s office. He has around him all of his trophies of all the deer and moose he’s shot. He’s a lifelong [National Rifle Association] member. Hillary Clinton has just been quoted as saying, “Frankly I think we should have some sort of tax on ammunition, because there are all these people in hospitals who are being shot up and it’s costing us huge amounts of money,” et cetera. She was briefed, I told her [this was a non-starter], and she still had the gumption to say, “John, I think this is something worth considering. We should think about doing this.” And he said, “Actually, Mrs. Clinton, I really think that’s not a very good idea.”

What was interesting about the exchange and the subsequent conversation I had with John Dingell about it was that he respected that she would bring up any issue directly to him, whether it was controversial or not, whether it would please him or not. He liked her spunk and her smarts.

The first lady evidently took a similarly direct approach with staff. McLarty’s successor as chief of staff, Leon Panetta, stated in his oral history “that people were a little intimidated by her. There were several meetings where she basically walked in and let everybody have it, very different from what the president would do. If she thought something was going wrong, she’d say it. … But if she ultimately believed that you had the capacity to do a job, she backed off.”

This no-nonsense attitude about staff work did not, ironically, alienate those who worked most closely with her. To the contrary, former Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman observed: “There’s an interesting difference that always has struck everybody who’s watched it up close, which is that [notwithstanding her toughness], she inspires fierce loyalty and [Bill Clinton] doesn’t. … It’s quite a difference and I ascribe it to the fact that she does not look at the world as, or at least in my experience, as solely and only politically. She wears her heart on her sleeve much more than he does.”

Yet Hillary Clinton could also apply a softer touch when needed. Many sources commented on her high aptitude for the kind of retail politics essential for success in Washington. Even former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming expressed admiration for her interpersonal skills. “Hillary never turns her head when she’s talking to someone. She is absolutely riveted. She doesn’t look around like, ‘Oh, hi there, Tilly; how are you?’—or divert her attention from the person she’s talking to. That’s a gift. You have to have that in politics.”

Any discussion of Hillary Clinton’s prior White House experience has to include her chief failure, too: her leading role in the administration’s most devastating defeat, the loss of health-care reform in 1994. Although there is some exculpatory evidence in the interviews, most of these insider accounts actually echo, candidly, the highly critical conventional wisdom. In the words of one former policy adviser, the “decision to lead domestic policy with an issue that collapsed catastrophically and ignominiously dealt a blow to the momentum of the Clinton presidency from which it never recovered.”

Hillary Clinton’s leadership of that effort is not spared in their aggregate bill of particulars: Her deeply rooted faith in intellectual competence led to an overreliance on rational reform in a highly politicized environment, and the attempt to build a comprehensive, market-based health-care delivery system from scratch was far too complicated. Former Ohio Representative Bill Gradison, who led the insurance-industry effort to kill reform, said in his interview that the ultimate plan “was a little bit like a very fine Swiss watch.” Once the design was finalized, the craftsman couldn’t very well accept suggestions to tinker with the springs “because it throws the whole thing off.”

Moreover, that effort was hounded throughout by accusations that she was unreceptive to outside advice, claims that are confirmed in some of these interviews. As Alan Blinder, once a member of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, reported: “The general process … was very welcoming of criticism and suggestions—and then ignoring them. That was the overall gestalt of the thing. We were very much encouraged to make our suggestions, but they didn’t seem to have any effect.” The measure ultimately died in a polarized, all-or-nothing environment in 1994—and in a rebuke of monumental proportions, both houses of Congress subsequently went Republican in that year’s midterm elections.

Were the story to end there, Hillary Clinton’s argument in favor of her previous experience, at least on a policymaking level, would ring hollow: Who wants to bring back to the White House the architect of a catastrophe? But this question calls to mind a story Bill Clinton used to tell about himself regarding his effort to reclaim the Arkansas governorship after his embarrassing defeat for reelection in 1980. As recounted by Joan Baggett, former director of White House political affairs:

[Bill Clinton] ran into this guy … [and said] “I’d really appreciate your vote,” and the guy said, “Yes, I voted against you last time, but I’m going to vote for you this time.” Clinton said, “Do you mind me asking why…?” He goes, “Well, I voted against you because you raised … the fee on the hunting license.” And Clinton said, “Yes, I remember that. But why are you going to vote for me now?” He said, “I figure you’re not stupid enough to do it again.”

The simple truth is that nobody was more burned by the health-care failure than Hillary Clinton herself. On the evidence of the oral histories, she learned better. By early 1995, she changed her portfolio of issues to things far down the president’s agenda, such as women’s rights and microcredit, and she greatly reduced her profile in the formal policymaking activities of the West Wing. Her approach to problem-solving changed, too. Realpolitik began to weigh more heavily into her conceptions of rationality, as did the virtues of incrementalism and consensus. And the weight of that defeat permanently tempered her conception of the possible, revising as well her notions of presidential power.

Among scholars of the White House, John F. Kennedy’s decision to green-light a CIA-sponsored plan to invade Cuba to unseat Fidel Castro in April 1961 is considered to be the textbook case of a painfully ill-advised and politically costly presidential decision. Neither Kennedy, with his superior background, nor his close team of Harvard University-educated aides recognized that the Bay of Pigs operation was terribly flawed. Yet as costly as that humiliation was for Kennedy—soiling his international reputation and wounding his self-confidence—it was exactly that searing experience that prepared him the next year to lead the administration successfully to resolve the most dangerous foreign-policy moment of his time: the Cuban Missile Crisis. From having been “there,” he knew better.

Defeat may be an orphan, as Kennedy quipped to the press while explaining his failure, but it is also a damned fine teacher. Ironically—beyond her intellect, grasp of policy, or decisiveness—Hillary Clinton’s strongest asset as a presidential aspirant may be that she experienced her own personal Bay of Pigs 22 years ahead of November’s election.


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