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The Woman in the Bubble

Though Clinton traveled widely as First Lady, she was inevitably isolated. There’s a tactile element to her current role that thrills her. Clinton is forever hugging shopkeepers, and dancing little jigs as she waits for official functions to begin. “I adore it,” she says of being a senator. “I absolutely adore it. I’ve been lucky in my life that I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of really interesting, satisfying jobs, both in the private sector and the public. But this is just the best experience. I couldn’t have a job that I enjoyed more.”

Clinton has never been good at the vision thing, and she usually disdains symbolism—two traditional requirements for winning the presidency, if not conducting an exemplary one. “As much as everybody accuses her of wanting to be a candidate from the time she could walk, it really isn’t true,” says another close adviser. “She was comfortable in the backroom role.” Clinton is hardly anonymous as New York’s junior senator. But her zone of privacy is enormous when compared with life in the White House.

“If the Democrats make some progress in the midterms, add more members in Congress, I could see her staying,” says Susan Thomases, a friend of more than 30 years who talks to Clinton regularly.

If Hillary runs, it will be in part because Bill pushed and her own campaign machinery pulled. But ultimately it will be her call. Clearly, ego will be involved. But, corny as it sounds, Hillary Clinton is a true believer in public service. In these past six years, she’s seen government’s capacity for good and evil in a fine-grained detail—and experienced her own firsthand ability to move government—that she’d never known before. To Clinton, her political career is about us, not her, and that’s why she’d submit herself to a brutal 2008 campaign. Skeptics will never believe it; they’ll see a grab for power, the arrogance of a woman who thinks she knows what’s best for the little people. Yet central to Clinton’s decision will be her judgment of where she can do the most good, for New York and for the nation.

Clinton could, of course, run for president, lose, and have her Senate seat as a fallback. But that’s a scenario with nasty political and psychic costs. Just ask John Kerry.

Clinton is walking out of the restaurant now, her path slowed by well-wishers—three men from Britain in town for a Barbra Streisand concert (“I’m going to see her Wednesday night!” she tells them), two women from Costa Rica (“Welcome! I’ve been to your country!”). After greeting the kitchen staff, she’s out the door.

I’ve chased Clinton from Buffalo to Washington, and she’s looser and warmer than I’d expected. I have a better understanding of where she’s been creative and where she’s been cowardly in the Senate, and why. Clinton is a pragmatic progressive, and after eight years of ruinously inflexible ideology in the White House, her incrementalism would be a quantum improvement. What crafty compromise won’t make Clinton is lovable. And we’ll never get a completely straight answer from her, at least on the record.

As her steps pick up speed, I ask one more question, to the back of Clinton’s expensively blonde head: If I’m a mainstream Democratic voter, why should I hope she’s one of the candidates running in ’08? Hillary Clinton laughs, loud and hard. “Oh, I’ll talk to you about that if I ever make such a decision,” she says. “Good try, though! That was clever!” And then she’s back inside the black van. Protected, and removed, by the bubble.