Hillary Clinton showed a flash of humor at last week's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire. When she expressed opposition to torture of suspected terrorists, even Osama bin Laden, NBC moderator Tim Russert pointed out that her husband, Bill Clinton, appeared to differ with her on that score. Senator Clinton paused ever so briefly and said, "Well, he's not standing here right now." After Russert asked if they had a real schism on the issue, she broke into a big grin and added, "Well, I'll talk to him later." The Dartmouth College audience cheered.
So did her advisers. It was just the kind of light moment that the folks in Hillaryland want to see more of as she tries to erase the hard edges of her past and appeal to a broader range of voters. Senator Clinton argues that even critics are in the process of giving her a fresh look and will eventually move beyond the stereotypes. "I believe the American people give you a fair shake if you are out there talking about what you believe, what you want to do, and what you think is important," she told U.S. News last week.
But as she pursues the presidency, it turns out Clinton is in many ways still trapped in the caricature that emerged during her eight years as first lady—the formative period of her public life. Millions of Americans concluded that she was a harridan, a left-wing zealot, and a cuckolded wife who remained with a straying husband to enhance her political ambitions. Clinton says that all those perceptions are erroneous and that Americans will come to agree as they pay closer attention to her as a presidential candidate. She also argues that she has changed in some crucial ways over the years, at least in terms of her governing philosophy and the way she deals with the power centers in Washington.
Perhaps her most important discovery as first lady was a sense of limits. Asked to describe her main lessons, she laughs and says, "Maybe first and foremost, understanding what the potential opportunities for a president would be and the limits of presidential power." She adds: "I think it's key to being able to come forward with an agenda and understand the rhythms of this city as to how to move forward.... I really had a developing understanding of, you know, what the system can deliver, how much, when, and the importance of relationships." She adds: "It's very important to know how to find common ground and how to stand your ground."
Friends, advisers, and associates say she still wants to perform good works and succeed. But she is no longer filled with the moralistic hubris and the know-it-all self-assurance that led her to push too hard, disdain compromise, and alienate so many people. "She does not touch a hot stove a second time—I can't see her overreaching," says a senior Clinton aide. "She saw what happened to her husband and herself. She will have lofty ambitions, but she will pursue them with balance."
This characterization may come as a surprise to critics, who say her "sense of limits" spiel is a sham. They contend Clinton is still an inveterate big-government meddler who always wants to steamroll the opposition. And there are still plenty of Americans who take that view. Facebook's online networking website Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong Against Hillary), for example, reports more than 418,000 members already.
But the central fact of the Democratic presidential race is that, so far, Clinton's message appears to be working. The latest polls show her support at near 50 percent among Democrats nationally, far ahead of any rival. And she is doing better than expected in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, raising the prospect that she could lock up the nomination right out of the gate. "When people see the Hillary Clinton of 2007, they see how ready she is to be president, and the old images are shattered," says Mark Penn, chief strategist for her presidential campaign. To grasp how she got to such a commanding position in the race, and to understand her current attitudes about governing, one needs to go back to her turbulent eight years at Bill Clinton's side from 1993 to 2001.
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.
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."
Many Americans admired her fortitude, her dignity, her sustaining religious faith, and her capacity for forgiveness. But some remain troubled that Hillary Clinton didn't leave Bill, and the critics chalk it up to her desire to avoid a messy divorce that might damage her political ambitions. Republican pollster Ed Goeas says many GOP women are particularly cynical. "They feel she was willing to do anything for political gain, that she did it not for her marriage but her for political future," Goeas says.
Setting her own pace. By her final year as first lady, she seemed a much different kind of leader. She took as her role model Eleanor Roosevelt, who pursued a series of scaled-back projects such as humanitarian aid around the world after being criticized for trying to push her husband's policies in a more liberal direction early in Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. For Clinton, the healthcare failure and the impeachment battle caused her to limit her own goals. One likely motivation was her desire to run for the Senate from New York in 2000, which she concluded would mean softening her image and showing a more pragmatic side. Another motivation was that she had probably reached the limit of her ability to shape policy because of her negative image. Instead of tilting at windmills, she took on smaller projects, frequently to improve the lives of children, such as a $24 billion initiative to expand children's health insurance, improve foster care, and increase vaccinations.
And she realized that she could still be a powerful advocate for women's rights and children's welfare around the world, taking her message to countries including China, Russia, Ireland, Panama, and Ukraine. She emerged as an international celebrity.
Today, the sense of limits is evident in her campaign. She finally knows when to terminate a controversy and cut her losses, even when she believes she did nothing wrong. For example, she moved quickly to end a recent furor over former Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, who pleaded no contest in 1992 to grand theft and is facing fraud and other charges. After the story broke of the campaign's indirect connections to Hsu, Clinton aides announced they would return more than $850,000 in contributions that Hsu had channeled to her from friends and business associates. "Ten years ago," says a former senior official in her husband's West Wing, "she would never have given ground because she believed it's wrong to give ground. Now she's not that way."
But some believe Clinton still has some convincing to do. "Based on her early political career and service as first lady, many Americans see her primarily as a partisan and well to the left of husband Bill on major issues," says Frank Donatelli, former political director for President Ronald Reagan. "Her No. 1 goal for her years in the Senate and her presidential campaign has been to show that she can move beyond liberal rhetoric and make common cause with a broader cross section of America. Time will tell if she will be successful."
The path she set at the end of her era as first lady—searching for what she now calls "common ground"—is today her chosen road to the White House. "She has realized she can't just rely on her husband," says a friend. "That didn't work anymore as first lady, and it doesn't work now. She needed her own life." As the front-running Democratic presidential candidate, it's clear that she has found it.