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The Woman in the Bubble

The Clintons after Hillary's debate with Senate-race opponent John Spencer last month.  

The cornerstone of Clinton’s empire is called Friends of Hillary. In January 2001—after she’d been elected to the Senate but before she’d been sworn in—Clinton signed papers permitting it to raise money for any future campaign, and in the past six years it’s reeled in $48 million (though Clinton will end her romp of a reelection with less in the bank, about $15 million, than many expected). FOH has two headquarters: one in Washington, on the K Street power corridor, and one in the Graybar Building, on Lexington Avenue at 43rd Street. Both are commanded by Patti Solis Doyle, the first person Hillary Clinton hired during the 1992 presidential campaign. But Hillaryland, the playful nickname hung on the predominantly female staff during Clinton’s years as First Lady, sprawls far beyond any set of office suites, and includes key New Yorkers like political consultant Howard Wolfson, media guru Mandy Grunwald, and Maureen White, former finance chair of the DNC and wife of investment banker Steve Rattner.

Big as it is, so far the Hillary machine has been impressively quick, efficient, and relentless. The flip side is that Clinton’s superstructure also is at the core of her authenticity problems. Everything she does seems stage-managed. Netroots giving Clinton unmitigated grief? Wolfson sees to it that Friends of Hillary hires one of the political blogosphere’s sharpest practitioners, Peter Daou. Chattering-class talk that Hillary can’t win growing ever louder? James Carville and Mark Penn write an op-ed for the Washington Post laying out why she can. Not that she’s running for president, mind you.

This is a team of tough, resourceful fighters—and they’re a necessity when beating back the Republican attack machine. Yet Hillary’s troops give off a pervasive sense of embattlement that contributes to their leader’s reputation for coldness. They’ve nicknamed her “the Warrior,” and they mean it as a compliment. But that image, that surface reality, is what turns many people off; there’s a great deal more going on inside Clinton.

The most important Friend of Hillary, the one who provides her remarkable story line and much of her considerable momentum in the Democratic Party, is also the most approachable. And, as if Hillary needs it, he’s also a Technicolor warning about the perils of life in the White House.

Hillary want some of this grub?”

Yesterday Bill Clinton was in Africa, Germany, and Switzerland. Today he’s in the skybox of Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, to catch a game against the Minnesota Vikings. The former president’s stepfather is a big Bills fan, one motivation for today’s trip.

Bill Clinton is wearing a powder-blue sports jacket and a garish orange tie, and he looks exhausted—and also, somehow, regal. Maybe it’s the snow-white hair, but the slimmed-down Clinton is still a commanding presence, even as he scans the skybox steam table, helping himself to some sliced turkey, mixed green salad, avocado, and sausage. He drawls out the question about his wife’s appetite to an aide, who scurries into the other half of the stadium suite. Moments later, Hillary is piling up her own plate. The two of them look thrilled to be relaxing in each other’s company, screaming like any other wealthy NFL fans at the behemoths crashing into one another on the field below.

Not that politics is ever far from the conversation. “I’m her Westchester caseworker,” Bill says, his eyes twinkling. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Where’s my Social Security check?’ ”

Hillary Clinton has become her own person these past six years. Bill certainly hasn’t been invisible during her Senate term, traveling the globe to fight AIDS, among other good works; more ominously, there was his recent blowup on Fox over who lost Osama bin Laden. If Hillary runs, however, there’s no way Bill can stay in the background, quietly offering sage advice, even if he’s in Botswana. The marquee would be rearranged, but the Hill and Bill Show would be back in town. The prospect of a wife’s following her husband into the Oval Office would take on historical and soap-operatic dimensions. A Republican strategist calls Bill a “net asset,” pointing to recent approval ratings near 70 percent for the ex-prez. Yet Bill causes Hillary some political problems. He is the face of the Democratic Party, its biggest fund-raising draw. Would she be running to improve on his record, or reinstall him in power? One moment from Hillary’s 59th birthday party/fund-raiser at Tavern on the Green last month was emblematic: After a rock band played, Bill and Hillary climbed onstage to shake the musicians’ hands and pose for photos. It was Hillary’s night, but Bill was the one who grabbed a guitar and stood at the center of the group. Hillary was behind his left shoulder, looking like a backup singer.