Clinton is fairly worked up now, but she’s far from finished. “I didn’t think I was in a position to take it on because it would have looked like it was just about me. And I didn’t think it was just about me. So the only time we took it on was in the thing about Chelsea, which was so far beyond the bounds, I mean, what planet are we living on? But nobody said anything until I made it an issue. So I just want everybody to really think hard about the larger lesson here. I know you can’t take me out of the equation, because I’m in the center of the storm. But it’s much bigger than me. And women know that. Because if it were just about me, those who sympathize with me would say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ But instead it’s, ‘Wait a minute! This is not just about her! It’s about us! And when are we going to see somebody stand up and say, What are you doing here?’ ”
Clinton made a point of not naming names in the course of her media critique. But when I ask her former staff for particular examples of sexism in the press, they exhibit less restraint. “The whole MSNBC crew,” says Lewis. “I mean, at what point in Chris Matthews’s career do we choose? Then there was night on CNN when [Republican strategist] Alex Castellanos said, Well, it’s appropriate to call some women a white bitch because that’s what they are.” What especially galls Clinton’s fans about her coverage is what they perceive as a double standard regarding race and gender that (among other biases, in their view) tilted the media playing field dramatically toward Obama. The argument, roughly put, is that whereas casual sexism takes place with impunity, the slightest hint of racial bias provokes gales of protest. I ask Clinton if she agrees. She says she does: “The contrast between the outrage over anything concerning race compared to anything concerning gender was incredibly out of balance, I thought.”
How much any of this affected the outcome of the battle between Obama and Clinton is impossible to gauge. But what’s indisputable is that the belief among many women that Hillary was ill-treated by the press is one of the most powerful contributing factors to her renewed, and greatly enhanced, status as a feminist hero. And in this she shares something vital with her husband. It was only after Bill Clinton’s impeachment ordeal that he became a beloved figure on the traditional left, which had long regarded him warily before his persecution by the special prosecutor and the congressional Republicans. WJC, in other words, was fortunate in his enemies. Now HRC finds herself similarly blessed; in Chris Matthews she appears to have found her own version of Ken Starr. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating once again. Whatever else one thinks about the Clintons, there’s no denying that martyrdom has been very, very good to them.
When Hillary launched her presidential bid in early 2007, she famously said she was “in to win.” This is what they all say, these lunatics who decide that they could be, should be president of the United States. But precious few have a hope in hell of grabbing the brass ring, and most of them are smart enough to know that. Clinton, by contrast, expected to win. For weeks, even months, the question has been, what does Hillary want? But now an equally compelling question is, what will she do next?
Naturally, the answer depends, first of all, on whether Obama decides to offer her the VP slot. For all the talk of her trying to muscle her way onto the ticket, one senses in her a genuine ambivalence about whether she wants the job. If Obama does offer it, however, she will have no choice but to take it. She is all too aware that if she turned it down and he lost this fall, she would be blamed even more loudly than she will be already, even though in her view his downfall is foreordained, and has nothing to do with her.
If the call doesn’t come from Obama, Clinton will return to the Senate—where, in many ways, she will instantly become the first among equals. “She’ll be greatly, greatly enhanced,” says former senator Bob Kerrey. “She’ll have the most valuable e-mail list in the Senate. She’ll be the most heavily sought out person in the Congress as an endorser, a fund-raiser. Everybody is gonna want to have her come and campaign for them. She’s gonna be at the very top of everybody’s list.”
Clinton tells me she has no qualms about returning to the Senate. “I think I’m both more prepared and more impatient than I was before,” she says. “And I’m even more committed to the agenda we laid out.” At the top of that agenda, of course, is universal health care, an issue on which Clinton would almost certainly take the lead if Obama is in the White House, giving at once a shot at a place in history and a chance to redeem herself after her searing failure in 1993 and 1994.
Would that be enough for Hillary? It’s possible—but not likely. It’s now 36 years since Clinton, while she was working in Texas on George McGovern’s campaign, was told by her husband’s future chief of staff, Betsey Wright, that she might have what it took to be the country’s first female president. Dreams held that long are dreams that die hard, especially if they’re held as fiercely and tenaciously as Hillary has always held the ambitions that propel her forward. The endless, brutal, wrenching campaign of 2008 would have wrecked a lesser woman. Hillary tells me she feels just fine: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Spoken like a true Clinton.