Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Hillary in Midair

Hillary Clinton says her daughter’s entrance into the foundation was an organic extension of everything the Clintons have ever done. “It sort of is in the DNA, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” she says. “She’s an incredibly able—obviously I’m biased—but extremely well-organized, results-oriented person, so rather than joining a lot of other groups, on which she could pursue her interests, she thought, I want to be part of continuing to build something I have worked on off and on over the years, and I really believe in it. I was thrilled to hear that.

“She comes by it naturally, don’t you think?” she adds cheerfully.

Chelsea is now the chief Bill Clinton gatekeeper. At HBO, where Martin Scorsese is making a documentary about him, Chelsea has been involved from the start and is weighing in on the production.

As the various staffs of the three Clintons come under one roof, in a headquarters in the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan, there are dangers of internecine conflict. “It’s all people jockeying for position,” says a person with close ties to the foundation. “This is an operation that runs on proximity to people. Now there are three people. How does all that work?”

For Bill Clinton to acknowledge flaws in his institute and relinquish control to his daughter and wife was a new twist in the family relationship. People in both Bill’s and Hillary’s camp are quick to emphasize that Bill Clinton is still the lifeblood of the foundation and its social mission. Chelsea’s arrival is ultimately about preserving the foundation for the long term as he gets older and winds down some of his activities. But the subtext of the cleanup operation is no mystery among Clinton people. Bill’s loosey-goosey world had to be straightened out if Hillary was going to run for president. “She doesn’t operate that way,” says one of her former State Department advisers. “I mean, she has all sorts of creative ideas, but that’s not how she operates. She is much more systematic.”

As part of the shifting landscape in Clintonworld, Bill Clinton got a new chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, one of the group of African-American women—including Maggie Williams and Donna Brazile—who have been close advisers to the Clintons over the years. A former policy aide at the American Federation of Teachers, Flournoy's arrival last January was viewed by insiders as Hillary’s planting a sentinel at the office of her husband.

Bill Clinton is also a legendary politician, a brilliant tactician who won two presidential elections and reigned over the most prosperous years in America in recent memory. Some make the argument that he single-handedly won Obama reelection with his extraordinary takedown of Mitt Romney at the Democratic National Convention last year. The trick, say Clinton advocates, is to manage him effectively on behalf of his wife. “To the discredit of whoever is running a campaign, if that happens and they don’t use Bill Clinton—use his strategy, use his thoughts, take his dumb ideas and his great ideas and make sure they’re used effectively—they’re a moron,” says a person close to Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps this is where Chelsea comes in. After years of expectation, she has emerged from her chrysalis, a new power center, her father’s keeper and, maybe for Hillary … a shadow campaign manager.

In Clintonworld, wheels are turning, but no one wants them to turn too fast. Last spring, in a panel discussion at the Peterson Institute, Bill Clinton blew up, telling people to stop speculating on her presidential aspirations. It was too soon. Says Nides, “If you have every person you know say to you the following: ‘You should run for president, Madam Secretary, I love you, Madam Secretary, you’d be a great president, Madam Secretary,’ she nods. And she understands the context of that.”

Hillary is well aware of these dynamics. “I’m not in any hurry,” she tells me. “I think it’s a serious decision, not to be made lightly, but it’s also not one that has to be made soon.

“This election is more than three years away, and I just don’t think it’s good for the country,” she says. “It’s like when you meet somebody at a party and they look over your shoulder to see who else is there, and you want to talk to them about something that’s really important; in fact, maybe you came to the party to talk to that particular person, and they just want to know what’s next,” she says. “I feel like that’s our political process right now. I just don’t think it is good.”

So all the activity and planning and obsessive calculation that go into a presidential campaign take place behind a pleasant midwestern smile. Her time at State indeed transformed her—as did her 2008 campaign, and her time as a senator, and as First Lady, and on and on. Now she contains multitudes, a million contradictions. She’s a polarizing liberal with lots of Republican friends, the coolest of customers constantly at the center of swirling drama. She’s hung up on a decision over whether to run for an office she (not to mention her husband) has coveted for her entire adult life. She’s a Clinton. And what a candidate she’d make in 2016. But if that’s where she’s going, she’s not saying. “I’m somebody who gets up every day and says, ‘What am I going to do today, and how am I going to do it?’ ” she says. “I think it moves me toward some outcome I’m hoping for and also has some, you know, some joy attached to it. And I think it would be great if everybody else [took the same approach], for the foreseeable future.”

Of Hillary’s dreams, that one seems unlikely to come true.