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Hill Climbing

One might think that Hillary Clinton would be about as reviled by her new colleagues as, say, her husband. But the Survivor world of the Senate makes for the strangest of bedfellows. Even Jesse Helms gets a kick out of her -- though that doesn't mean he likes her.

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Just minutes after Strom Thurmond's mortifying guerrilla hug on swearing-in day, Hillary Clinton walked back up the aisle of the Senate chamber and plopped herself down next to John Breaux. If you're going to be strangled by a subsentient nonagenarian on your first day in public office, Breaux's the best man to turn to for comic relief. An easygoing Democrat from the Big Easy, he's a charmer, a bit of a rogue, and one of the few senators who don't take themselves or the pomp of their station all that seriously. Clinton looked at him. Breaux looked at her. "Well, Hillary," he said, shrugging, "welcome to the Senate. Now it's your turn to deal with him."

Even if Thurmond, 98 and still horny as a brass band -- he's been known to blurt his admiration for the female form at the most horrific of moments -- hadn't ambushed Clinton and squeezed her speechless, it would have been a peculiar afternoon. Ted Kennedy didn't know whether to call our new senator Mrs. Clinton or Hillary, didn't know whether to hug her or to shake her hand. Hours before she took her oath, rumors were whipping through the Capitol that she'd have to be sworn in ahead of the other senators because of Secret Service considerations. And the president -- of the United States -- was sitting in the gallery of the chamber, nearly weeping, surrounded by dozens of Senate wives in updos.

But it was Breaux, a pal of the former president's (both are southern centrists and set on the same devious frequency), who zoomed in on the most awkward part of the proceedings.

"Look at all those Republicans," he whispered as her colleagues rose, one by one, to plant their hands on the Bible and take their oaths. "Lookin' at ya, all wishin', or at least thinkin', that they'd finally gotten rid of the Clintons, and here you are -- they're baaack!"

And how. After seven years of running Bill Clinton through a steady rinse cycle of hatred and contempt, congressional Republicans are now in the terribly awkward position of seeing his wife -- that bungler of health care, that concealer of billing records, that suspicious profiteer from cattle futures! -- every day. To them, Hillary was arguably even worse than he was, the very blow-dried embodiment of political turpitude. And now, she's their colleague. Trent Lott, who idly wondered aloud whether she'd be struck by lightning before her arrival, wasn't even the worst of her Senate antagonists. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Finance Committee, made several trips to the Senate floor in 1996, decrying the First Lady's involvement in the White House travel office and Whitewater. (And he's one of the Senate good guys: a plainspoken, 67-year-old Iowa farmer, the sort who'd pitch in if your John Deere conked out on you.) And then there was Don Nickles, Lott's deputy. He blithely predicted four years ago on CNN that she'd be indicted.

President Clinton's mad pardon spree in his last 24 hours in office, combined with the revelation that the brothers Rodham had been involved, only managed to confirm what everyone already knew.

"People weren't shocked," said John McCain, charming and outspoken as ever, when I asked him about Marc Rich a couple of weeks ago as he was heading down to the Capitol basement. "Did you see that Clinton's conversations with Monica Lewinsky were taped by the Russians?" He pulled out the The Hotline, a Beltway tip sheet summarizing the day's papers, and started to skim. "Accused spy . . . Russian . . . Hanssen . . . here: 'Seventy hours of phone sex, some from Air Force One.' " He looked at me helplessly.

So Pardongate pales in comparison?

"I'm saying it's . . . " He shrugged, at a loss for words, and climbed into the Senate Subway. It let out an evocative clang-clang, like a San Francisco trolley.

It's what?

"Interesting!" he shouted as the car pulled away.

What he probably meant was that Pardongate was just one more obstacle for Hillary to climb over. A huge obstacle, certainly: forcing her to roll out her plans for New York in a less timely fashion, driving her into hiding, consuming most of her time with the media (at her first press conference, more than half of the eighteen questions were about gifts and pardons, while others were about Giuliani, the Giants, and her hair), and -- worst of all -- enraging her Democratic colleagues, who once again had to gnash their teeth as she and her husband gaudily dominated the news. (When I recently told Joe Lieberman I was looking for good Hillary anecdotes, unrelated to pardons, he told me: "Good -- otherwise I might have had to jump off this escalator.")

But the Senate is a funny place. In some ways, it's a lot like a posh northeastern boarding school: clannish, predominantly male, spilling over with rich people of only middling intelligence. But it is also clubby and self-congratulating and stuffed with large, fragile personalities. Its climate -- a neurotic combination of camaraderie and strained formality, comity and vitriol, ego and deference -- is, to say the least, sociologically unique. From this tension, strange unions and friendships are born.

Certainly, Hillary's arrival has created some turmoil and irritation. How could it not? She's a goodie-goodie do-gooder but surrounded by a penumbra of scandal and stink; she's opaque but charming, polite but condescending, courtly but stubborn, ingratiating but aloof.

But in the Senate, none of this is a recipe for permanent pariah status. "What is most surprising for people who come here," muses Byron Dorgan, a mild-mannered Democrat from North Dakota, "is that what appears from the outside is not always true on the inside. Inside the institution, people respect each other, generally."


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