A Learning Experience

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

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Hillary Clinton mingles with crowds at Quantico Marine Base.

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Hillary thinks the next president will be able to make another stab at reform, because the number of uninsured has risen and concerns about affordability and access are again increasing. Many Democratic activists agree, and they praise her for at least fighting the fight in 1993 and 1994. "Democratic primary voters give her a tremendous amount of credit for having tried," says a senior Clinton adviser. Even Republican strategists concede that independent voters consider her an expert on the issue.

And she apparently learned some harsh but valuable lessons about the need to compromise. She has previously acknowledged that the defeat of healthcare overhaul "may have happened in part because of a lack of give-and-take. Principles and values in politics should not be compromised, but strategies and tactics must be flexible enough to make progress possible, especially under the difficult political conditions we faced."

She added: "I knew I had contributed to our failure, both because of my own missteps and because I underestimated the resistance I would meet as a first lady with a policy mission.... But our most critical mistake was trying to do too much, too fast."

She is avoiding those pitfalls in her latest healthcare plan, announced a few weeks ago. It allows people who are satisfied with their current coverage to keep what they have—a big change from 1993. It minimizes the government's role. It avoids the complexity of her first effort. And it still aims for universal health coverage, which Clinton promised in last week's Democratic debate would be her first domestic priority if she wins the White House.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment. Early on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 15, 1998, Bill Clinton awakened his wife and made a confession. Pacing back and forth, he told her there had been what Hillary later called "an inappropriate intimacy" with former intern Monica Lewinsky—and he admitted lying about it for months in public and private. As she recounted in her memoir, Living History, "I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him, 'What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?' I was furious and getting more so by the second. He just stood there saying over and over again, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea.... I was dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged that I'd believed him at all."

Hillary Clinton added: "These were terrible moments for all of us. I didn't know whether our marriage could—or should—survive such a stinging betrayal, but I knew I had to work through my feelings carefully, on my own timetable."

Her friends now say her behavior showed the essence of her character and her approach to crisis. She resisted snap judgments, methodically analyzed her options, and held her discipline under enormous pressure until she could come to a rational decision. The weeks following the president's admission were described by someone who was at the White House as "an enormous strain and an awful, awkward situation" for everyone. It caused enormous heartache for Hillary as the aggrieved spouse, humiliated in front of the world as details of her husband's sexual escapades were described, over and over, in the media.

Typically, her decision was both pragmatic and political. After her husband confessed his affair to the nation, and after months of soul searching and prayer, she forgave him and became one of his staunchest defenders against impeachment. Hillary Clinton argued that his conduct had been a private matter and didn't affect his ability to be a good president. Polls showed that the American people, in the end, agreed with her. And even though he was impeached by the House of Representatives, he was not removed from office by the Senate. "As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill's neck," she concluded in her memoir. "But he was not only my husband, he was also my president, and I thought that, in spite of everything, Bill led America and the world in a way that I continued to support.... I believe what my husband did was morally wrong. So was lying to me and misleading the American people about it. I also knew his failing was not a betrayal of his country."