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The Fall and Rise of Hillary Clinton

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Hillary's Good-Byes: Clinton embracing supporters on June 2 in Rapid City, South Dakota, and on June 3 in New York.   

Experience, no doubt, was part of the story, but so was desperation. By the time she arrived in Texas and Ohio, Clinton had a loaded gun pressed against her temple. And nothing concentrates the mind—or motivates a pol—so effectively as the prospect of imminent demise. Yet even this explanation doesn’t completely account for Clinton’s transfiguration. The truth is that her improvement as a political performer began when the nomination was effectively beyond her grasp. And it continued steadily even as her prospects dimmed to the point of blackness.

One explanation, offered by several of her advisers, is that even in the face of the daunting delegate math touted by the Obamans, Clinton refused to let herself admit the possibility of defeat. “Right to the end, and I mean the very end, she believed that she would somehow win,” one says.

Harold Ickes offers a different kind of psychopolitical analysis. “My sense is that it’s almost going for broke—you decide you have nothing left to lose,” Ickes tells me. “This isn’t an exact parallel, but I worked for Ted Kennedy in 1980. He started with a series of stumbles in his campaign going back to the Roger Mudd interview. He lost Iowa and a number of other states. And at some point it became clear that Carter was going to be ahead in the delegate count and probably unmatchable, and only then did Kennedy slip the shackles that were constraining him, and he became really quite an extraordinary candidate—focused, coherent, compelling. It seems to me that Hillary, like Ted Kennedy, began trusting her own instincts and speaking in her own voice, and that made a dramatic difference.”

Chris Matthews was to Hillary in some sense what Ken Starr was to her husband. And whatever else one thinks about the Clintons, there’s no denying that martyrdom has been very, very good to them.

The shackles constraining Kennedy were the memories of his fallen brothers and the expectations they imposed on him. For Clinton, the bonds holding her back were greater in number, if more prosaic. The strategy set by Penn was one. Her doubts about her own political gut another. Her front-runner status yet another. But when it comes to the leg irons in Hillary’s political life, none has been as constricting, or simply annoying, as the Man from Hope.

It’s late in the afternoon of June 2, the final day before the final primaries of Campaign 2008, and the Clinton traveling show is occupying a high-school gym in Yankton, South Dakota. On the bus ride from Sioux Falls, we experience an only-in-America moment: the sighting of a combination bowling alley–karaoke bar–hourly motel. (Trifecta!) Later tonight, we will head back to Sioux Falls, for Hillary’s last campaign rally, at which both Chelsea and her husband will be in the house. As it happens, Sioux Falls is the place where Bill Clinton delivered the last campaign speech of his own political career, on a cold Election Eve in 1996, just past the stroke of midnight. I mention this coincidence to Time’s Joe Klein, because we shared a bleacher for that momentous event twelve years ago. Klein smiles and says, “She just can’t escape that guy.”

The truth of that observation is hammered home all too garishly a few minutes later. While Hillary is speaking to a couple of hundred of the good citizens of Yankton, an e-mail alert hits my BlackBerry from the Huffington Post: on a rope line in Milbank, South Dakota, 42 has apparently blown his stack about the just-published story on his post-presidency in Vanity Fair, calling the author, former Timesman Todd Purdum, a “sleazy … dishonest … slimy … scumbag.” All of which would have been bad enough, but then Clinton went further, venturing deep into nuthouse conspiracy territory: “It’s part of the national media’s attempt to nail Hillary for Obama.” Hoo, boy.

By now, as you’d imagine, Hillary’s staff has grown accustomed to outbursts from WJC exquisitely timed to wreak maximum havoc with HRC’s plans. But when I wander backstage, I find her people in a blue funk. “It’s the last day of his wife’s campaign, and he couldn’t keep a lid on his emotions for her sake,” says one aide. “How much more narcissistic can you get?” I ask how Hillary will handle it. “She used to get upset, but at this point, it’s been so bad for so long, I think her attitude is, like, Whatever.

Few turns of events in this campaign season have been more unexpected than the declining status and stature of Bill Clinton. Even just six months ago, there were two prevailing views in Hillaryland about the former president: that he would be an asset of no small importance to his wife’s candidacy; and that the only way that would not be the case was if he overshadowed her—i.e., made her look second-rate by comparison.


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