A Learning Experience

Hillary Clinton's taking a different tack in an attempt to return to the White House.


Hillary Clinton mingles with crowds at Quantico Marine Base.


Fight from the start. The Clintons' first six months in the White House were a study in chaos, marked by a remarkable series of gaffes, mishaps, tragedies, and waves of negative publicity. Hillary Clinton was at the vortex of virtually all of it.

"Being a different kind of first lady was difficult," says one of her advisers. "She was the first first lady who had an active professional career [as a lawyer] beyond her husband's. This was an adjustment for the American people and an adjustment for her."

One of her first acts was to close off the corridor used by White House reporters to gain access to the press secretary. This immediately alienated the press corps. When the first lady took an office in the West Wing and a big suite of rooms in the Executive Office Building across from the White House, she signaled a much more exalted role than her predecessors had assumed. Her own aides dubbed her world "Hillaryland."

There were also the personal losses. Less than three months after her husband's inauguration, Hillary's father, Hugh Rodham, died after a massive stroke. In July, deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, a close family friend, killed himself. There was a subsequent furor over the failure of the White House to safeguard Foster's files, which investigators felt might have contained clues to his death and information about Whitewater, a failed Arkansas land deal the Clintons invested in, which was under investigation.

There was also "Travelgate"—the firing of members of the White House Travel Office for alleged mismanagement and waste. This caused the rift with the media to widen, since a bond had developed between the press corps and the travel office staff.

The Whitewater deal got saturation coverage. Critics suspected shady dealings, and the president named a special counsel to put the matter behind him. But the counsel's office kept expanding its investigation and later ended up looking into the affair Bill Clinton had with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky—an episode that almost led to the president's removal from office.

There was still another media fuss over reports of Hillary Clinton's commodities trading back in 1978, when she parlayed an initial investment of $1,000 into a $99,000 profit. Critics said she was benefiting from political connections, but no wrongdoing was proved.

And there were the endless rumors. One especially got under her skin: that she had thrown a vase or a Bible at her husband during a fierce argument. According to one version, a Secret Service agent tried to separate Hillary from Bill and told the first lady, "We've got to protect him, including from you." She has always said nothing of the sort ever happened but was furious that some media outlets picked up the story.

Through those trying months, which featured many other missteps by the Clinton team, several traits became clear. Hillary was less willing to compromise than her husband. She was quick to divide the world into friends and enemies. She believed the administration would right itself with hard work and perseverance. And she had a huge agenda—to change as much of the world as she could.

The healthcare debacle. When President Bill Clinton placed his wife in charge of healthcare reform in 1993, shortly after they entered the White House, he served notice that this would indeed be a new era. The first lady would be in charge of a signature and mammoth initiative, and from the start many were skeptical that an unofficial adviser, with no government job or formal accountability, should get the assignment. Her critics said Hillary was too confrontational, egotistical, and liberal to assemble a successful coalition. After nearly two years of struggle, the administration abandoned the effort amid furious criticism that "Hillarycare" was a vast overreach, gave too much power to the federal government, and would have created a huge and expensive new bureaucracy. Hillary Clinton presented Congress with an all-or-nothing proposal that even majority Democrats couldn't swallow. It was pilloried, especially by the insurance industry. A series of "Harry and Louise" ads on television featured a middle-class couple who discovered endless flaws in the massive bill.