At the Sheraton Ballroom in Chicago last spring, Bill Clinton appeared before an eager crowd of Clinton groupies at the Clinton Global Initiative America, a special conference focused on domestic issues and set in Hillary’s hometown. Onstage, the former president looked older than in the past—thinner, stooped, more subdued, his hands trembling while he held his notes at the podium. Haloed in blue light, he spoke about the “still embattled American Dream” and then introduced his wife as his new partner in the foundation, the woman who “taught me everything I know about NGOs.”
Her appearance made for a stark contrast. When she emerged from behind the curtain, she appeared much more youthful—smiling, upright, beaming in a turquoise pantsuit; she received huge applause and a standing ovation that dwarfed the response to Bill.
On her first major public stage since leaving the State Department, Hillary told the crowd that the foundation will be a “full partnership between the three of us,” including her daughter, Chelsea. But this was clearly Hillary Clinton’s show. That week, she had launched her Twitter account, complete with a tongue-in-cheek description of her as a “glass ceiling cracker,” her future “TBD.” Clearly, her foundation work, as important as it is to her, wasn’t everything. And Chicago was a perfect site for the start of this new chapter. It was where she was from, the launchpad for her career in politics and early-childhood education and women’s empowerment, what she called the “great unfinished business of this century.” “When women participate in politics,” she said, “it ripples out to the entire society … Women are the world’s most underused resource.”
If you wanted to read her speech as an opening salvo for a 2016 run for the presidency, it wasn’t hard to do as she talked about all that she’d learned as she traveled the globe. Whatever country or situation they found themselves in, “what people wanted was a good job.”
The rechristening of the foundation marked the first time the Clintons had come under the same institutional roof since the nineties. For Hillary, it made sense, because she didn’t have to compete with her husband for donors at her own foundation. It would also allow her to warm up donors for future initiatives—like, just for instance, a 2016 campaign. Two days later, the family would appear together onstage, a picture-perfect photo op of what Bill Clinton called “our little family.”
The Clinton Global Initiative, in addition to its work combating poverty and aids, is a kind of unofficial Clinton-alumni reunion, with friends and donors dating back to the early years in Arkansas. Sprinkled around the ballroom in Chicago were the old hands, from Bruce Lindsey, the former deputy White House counsel and CEO of the foundation, to newer faces like J. B. Pritzker, the Chicago hotel scion who was national co-chair of Hillary’s 2008 campaign and was now raising $20 million for an early-childhood-education initiative.
The Clinton network has always been both an asset and a burden. Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Clinton ally now running for governor of Virginia, has raised millions for the Clintons at every juncture of their careers. Then again, he’s Terry McAuliffe, the guy who left his weeping wife and newborn child in the car while he collected $1 million at a fund-raiser, then wrote about it in a memoir. “You can’t change who these people are,” says one former Hillary adviser. “It’s like any other trade. You’ve got the good, and there’s a lot of good. And you’ve got the noise.”
To harness some of the noise—what some Clinton people called “the energy”—a faction has converged around the Ready for Hillary super-PAC started by a former 2008 campaign aide named Adam Parkhomenko. Launched early this year, it has appeared to many observers to be an informal satellite of Hillary’s larger designs for the White House, but her aides say it’s a rogue operation of questionable benefit. “There is nothing they are doing that couldn’t have waited a year,” says one. “Not a single fucking thing.”
Regardless, Clinton veterans like former campaign strategist James Carville have come out supporting the super-PAC, as has former White House political director Craig Smith, Bill’s old Arkansas pal. Supporters argue that the super-PAC has Hillary’s tacit approval, especially given the involvement of Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent Democratic donor who is among her oldest and closest friends. “It offers supporters the all-important link to click on, plus places to convene in both the digital and physical worlds,” says Tracy Sefl, an adviser to the super-PAC. “And although some perhaps just can’t quite believe it, Ready for Hillary’s name really does convey the totality of its purpose.”