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The Woman in the Bubble

But Clinton worked assiduously at playing well with others, including Republicans who’d vilified her and Bill during the White House years. She stood in the back at photo ops. She fetched coffee for her senior colleagues. And she won New York a fair share of pork, especially considering the hostility of the Bush administration. “You can’t find anybody on either side of the aisle who would argue she hasn’t been an effective senator,” says a senior national Republican. “She has been.”

Ever since she left the White House, however, there’s been a background noise following Clinton, like a persistent hum in a pair of stereo speakers: Hillary ’08. Now, the formality of her reelection campaign out of the way, that noise will move to the foreground. The timing couldn’t be more fascinating. For the past month, Clinton has watched as the Barack Obama boomlet has swelled. Part of the hype is media infatuation. Part is book-tour manipulation. But beneath the buzz lies a genuine public hunger for change, a fresh face, authenticity. Also feeding Obamamania, on the Democratic left, is a rabid desire for an antiwar 2008 presidential candidate.

These qualities are exactly Clinton’s weaknesses. The complaint most often heard about Hillary, even from supporters, is that she has no principles other than ambition, that it’s impossible to say what she stands for anymore.

There will never be a single, simple Hillary. But in her six years as New York senator, a genuine, multifaceted Hillary has been on display, in plainer sight than at any other time in her political life. She’s less ideologically rigid than her caricature, more obsessed with the details of policy than the media has the attention span for, and true to her faith in government as protector, instigator, and moral force. If Clinton now goes national, the challenge for the candidate and her massive organization will be to turn the unscripted Hillary loose now and then, to trust the human Hillary who’s turned up in every remote corner of New York.

Professionally and personally, Clinton has come a vast distance in six years. She’s widely hailed as a successful senator, with the potential for greatness. She’s a major influence on the philosophical direction of the Democratic Party. At 59, for the first time in her life, Clinton is rich, thanks to her best-selling autobiography. Her daughter is gainfully employed and miraculously sane. And, as best anyone can tell, she’s enjoying a period of hard-earned marital peace.

The great mystery isn’t who Hillary Clinton is or what she believes. It’s why she’d risk giving up the best time of her life to run for president.

She’s become senator Hillary pothole, having developed the crucial retail-politics skills that seemed alien to her in the First Lady years —the warm handshake, the casual banter.

The senator is in Harlem, visiting a gleaming charter high school three days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The students of Promise Academy are baking bread for a neighborhood senior citizens’ residence, an act of kindness organized by a foundation that spreads good deeds in memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks. Clinton plunges right in, kneading dough and decorating the brown paper bags that will hold the loaves. When a sample is finished, Clinton walks around the room offering a taste to everyone, students, teachers, reporters. She is wearing an apron.

This sets off a riot of images and associations in my head: Hillary’s infamous “cookie baking” comment on 60 Minutes. Bill Clinton’s campaign visit to a Harlem library when he was first running for the White House. Jack Stanton’s campaign visit to Harlem in Primary Colors and his dalliance with a fictional librarian. Headband Hillary. Third World microcredit wonk Hillary. Hillary as doting mother to Chelsea.

It’s impossible to look at Clinton with anything approaching a clear mind. Some of her political choices have seemed foolish—like refusing to compromise on universal health care—and some transparently cunning, like her support for an anti-flag-burning bill. And some of her private decisions, like staying in her bizarre marriage, have struck me as downright brave. She certainly didn’t seem like much fun. But it’s strange that Hillary hasn’t been able to make my blood boil or heart leap, given the passion she provokes in friends (“She’s like a pitcher with a great fastball who insists on nibbling around the corners of the plate,” says one frustrated sports-minded pal) and colleagues (“I hope you rip her good”). Maybe it’s because I’m not a child of the sixties, but I’ve never felt she was worth the emotional investment, pro or con.

I’ve also never seen her in action as senator. One morning in September, two dozen executives of upstate New York credit unions are gathered in the gargantuan marble hallway outside Clinton’s Washington office, waiting to pose for pictures with the senator. Suddenly, she pops out of a side door, chewing some kind of lozenge, casual as can be. She sees the assembled bankers, strides over briskly, and begins directing the photos.