What Was Hillary Thinking?

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Hillary Clinton, in her Web announcement of a presidential exploratory committee (it's all the rage to do it that way), said she wanted to start a conversation with the American people. Fair enough. So she trekked off to chilly Iowa and started shaking hands, meeting with folks in town halls, answering unscripted questions–always a very tricky business for a new presidential candidate. Buy, hey, Hillary isn't new to this business: She's an accomplished senator and a former first lady. And, of course, she learned politics at the heels of the master: husband Bill.

So, lo and behold, Hillary gets a relatively innocuous question about how she would handle evil and bad foreign leaders. It was a softball, lobbed in a way that would have allowed the candidate to talk about how a woman can be tough, yada yada. Instead, Hillary said this: " . . . and in the gentleman's words we face a lot of evil men, you know, like Osama bin Laden. And what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?"

There was a long pause, as the audience laughed. She let it go on, with all the good timing of a standup comedian. She seemed, at the very least, playfully ambiguous, and the audience knew it. After the pause, she launched into a more serious explanation of what she would do. "I believe a lot in my background and a lot in my public life, you know, shows the character and the toughness that is required to be president."

Well, well, that was the predictable answer. But her first answer–that was interesting. In a way, Hillary was answering a question that no one asked–and it was about Bill. Most political strategists I spoke with say it's clear she was referring to Bill. "I assume she was referring to Bill Clinton," former Howard Dean campaign adviser Joe Trippi told me. "I think a lot of people in the audience assumed that, too. But she did it in a playful way and it worked, I think."

Indeed, when it comes to presidential campaigns–and this one in particular–you have to assume that nothing is unplanned. And if this was part of a plan, it was a way to start dealing with the inevitable questions about her marriage–early, with humor, and some real attitude. Hillary was really trying. And when asked about the exchange later by reporters, she tried to make light of it again: "You know, I get a little funny and now I'm being psychoanalyzed," she said. But she tensed up when a reporter asked her the direct question: Were you talking about Bill? She became dismissive, and cold as ice.

"Oh, come on," she said. "Well, I don't think anybody in there thought that."

Really?