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The Woman in the Bubble

After years of public trauma, Hillary Clinton is secure, triumphant, joyous even. Is it worth giving up all that for the White House?

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She is free. For a few minutes, Hillary Rodham Clinton is not New York’s junior senator, or the former president’s emotionally traumatized wife, or the Democratic Party’s presumptive and in some precincts dreaded 2008 presidential nominee, or “Hitlary,” the demonic embodiment of everything the right wing hates and fears, or one of the most famous faces in the world. She is simply a suburban woman on a Greenwich Village jaunt, resplendent in a checked brown jacket and knit gold scarf, strolling unnoticed down Downing Street in the sun on a glorious fall Friday afternoon on her way to a quick chat and a hot cup of black tea.

She is walking because she’s late, the West Village traffic is terrible, and she doesn’t want to stand up an interviewer. Stalled at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine, Clinton had opened the door of her big black van and escaped, hopping down onto the pavement. Now she is suddenly, blissfully, out of the bubble. Her Secret Service agents are scrambling to keep up. Hillary isn’t supposed to be the spontaneous Clinton. “Don’t you believe it!” she says, grinning and turning onto Bedford and striding into the Blue Ribbon Bakery. “Oh!” she says with a delighted tone. “I’ve never been here before!”

Clinton settles into a corner table as the startled restaurant staff tries to act as if she drops in all the time. Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees lost Game 2 of their playoff series to the Tigers, so I ask Hill-Rod if she’s following the struggles of A-Rod. She is. And for the next five minutes, Clinton’s blue eyes dance and her laughter fills the room. She is funny, charming, bitter, clear, persuasive, and insightful, about both baseball and human nature.

She is also, depressingly, off the record. Clinton doesn’t say anything remotely controversial or derogatory. But even the Yankees are a complicated subject for Hillary. There’s the whole baseball-hat thing, and the authenticity thing, and the Giuliani thing. There’s the fact that anything she says, however innocuous, can and will be used against her by multiple enemies. So, best to be off the record. Best to play it safe.

The idle chitchat done, the conversation shifts to Clinton’s first term in the Senate. And the curtain immediately comes down. The gears start to whir. Clinton’s face sets. “One thing I’m really proud of is working in a bipartisan way to get the health care for the Guard and the Reserves,” she says. “I was shocked. When I got on the armed-services committee, and here we are sending these kids, these young men and women, off to Afghanistan and Iraq, and they don’t have any insurance. Their families don’t have any insurance. And it just seemed to me that it was just such an obvious problem that needed to be righted. And it took three years. But we finally got it done in this last couple of weeks.”

She’s still pleasant, still expansive. She clearly cares about the work she’s done for the state. And much of it is important work. But even Clinton seems bored with what she’s saying.

Inside the Blue Ribbon, the four other patrons are being studiously blasé about the celebrity in their midst. Outside, however, a crowd is gathering. The restaurant, right at the intersection of Bedford and Downing, is separated from the sidewalk only by floor-to-ceiling windows. People are staring through the windows. Cell-phone cameras are being aimed. The Secret Service agents are holding back traffic to create space for Clinton’s black van and trail cars to park.

Now her aides are telling Clinton it’s time to go. “My minders,” she says with a sigh. She is apologetic, but she’s late for a fund-raiser, the first of three tonight. The van is pulling into position for her getaway. She finishes the tea, hurriedly pops a couple of strawberries into her mouth. Then Hillary Clinton is out the door, waving and offering a chipper “How are you?” to the gawking pedestrians. Back to work. Back to the bubble.

This week, Hillary Clinton will be reelected as senator from New York. She’ll win by a landslide, all the more amazing when you think back to who she was six years ago: a carpetbagging First Lady who’d moved to New York to run for office for the first time, trailing Clinton-administration scandals. She and Bill owed millions to defense lawyers. At first, she stumbled as a candidate, was mocked for her “listening tour,” then got lucky as Rudy Giuliani self-destructed. But even winning the election was hardly a guarantee she’d succeed in the job: Bill burdened her with one final controversy by pardoning felons at the last minute, and Trent Lott cheerfully wondered if she’d be hit by lightning, underlining Clinton’s status as the most polarizing freshman ever to arrive in the U.S. Senate.


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