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.
“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.”
Even Phil Gramm, the Tabasco-tongued Texan who spent years tormenting the Clinton administration, sounds positively expansive when he evaluates Hillary’s prospects. “In the Senate,” he explains, “if you work hard, and you get things done, nothing else matters. So in the end, it” – meaning Pardongate – “won’t matter. That’s the fairness of the system.”
And Hillary is nothing if not a hard worker. In fact, there has always been a tremendous gulf between Hillary the icon and Hillary the grind. Hillary the icon earned sixteen months of campaign coverage and attracted 50 reporters to her first coffee with the twelve other Senate women. But Hillary the grind went on a listening tour of New York, can dutifully list all the reasons why New York State should be in the Northeast Dairy Compact, and exited a high-speed-railway press conference last month exclaiming to a colleague, “Boy, wasn’t Kay Bailey” – Hutchison, Republican of Texas – “terrific? She knew all of those subsidies!”
No one in the Senate likes a show horse. But a workhorse can command admiration, if not warmth, from her colleagues. “I knew my colleagues in the Senate would like Mrs. Clinton once they got to know her,” explains Barbara Mikulski, dean of the Senate women and Democrat of Maryland, “because she’s crazy about homework and briefings.”
And a very fast learner, apparently. Hillary has already figured out how to cope with Strom. The next time she ran into Thurmond, notes Breaux, she gave him the “Clinton-Arafat handshake – that is, you take your left hand and grab his shoulder, so he won’t get any closer.” He demonstrates, his arm outstretched, like a mime desperate to keep a door closed. “She was very nice, very polite … and verrrrry cautious.”
So this is the weird, prep-school hothouse that Hillary has joined: A few weeks ago, I found myself in a senators only elevator, taking a ride down to the basement of the Capitol. Its other occupants were Paul Wellstone, the lefty professor turned senator from Minnesota; Sam Brownback, a conservative Christian who replaced Bob Dole; and Gramm. Wellstone, a full head shorter than either of his two colleagues, tugged at Brownback’s sleeve. “I wanted to ask you about your trip!”
“We said hello from a distance. Over the heads of the Secret Service. She’s like an aircraft carrier with a task force around her.”
– Judd Gregg
Brownback nodded, explaining to Gramm in haiku: “Thailand. Sex trafficking.”
Gramm raised his eyebrows suggestively. Wellstone lunged at him. “Phil, don’t say anything!” he said, shaking him by both his elbows. “We’re in an elevator with a reporter! I am protecting you, do you understand? I am saving you from yourself!”
Gramm, grinning, couldn’t resist. “Well,” he drawled, looking expectantly at Brownback, “how closely did you look into it?”
The official line among Senate Republicans is that Hillary had earned her rightful place in the Senate, and that she is therefore entitled to the benefit of the doubt. In Gramm’s words: “She’s Hillary Clinton, not Bill Clinton. Judging my wife based on me, that’s not fair.” He pronounces “wife” wahf.
But for the first month of the legislative session, some Republican senators couldn’t quite conceal their contempt. In late January, I asked Tim Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, whether his new colleague had disarmed him yet with her charm. He looked at me blankly. “No,” he said. “But I did have a colleague ask, ‘Does she ever smile?’ “
Two weeks later, I asked Judd Gregg, a boyish New Hampshire senator who serves on two of the same committees as Hillary, whether he’d spoken to the former First Lady yet. “Uh, we said hello from a distance.” Pause. “Over the heads of the Secret Service.” Another pause. “She’s surrounded by a cadre. She’s like an aircraft carrier with a task force around her.”
McCain, meanwhile, was appalled by the $8 million book deal and the $190,000 worth of gifts she’d made off with – “As the author of the gift ban, it doesn’t get her off on the right foot with me” – and Jeff Sessions, the spitfire former Alabama attorney general, was fuming about the pardons for the four crooked rabbis in New Square. “It is troubling,” he said. “Very, very troubling. To give a pardon for political votes is beneath contempt.”
You could really see the hostility on the Senate floor. There were a few moments when Hillary talked to virtually no one – she just stood by herself, awkwardly looking around. A few Republicans seemed to go out of their way to snub her. On the day of her third vote, Nickles spent a good three minutes standing directly in front of Clinton, waiting to approach the desks where votes are tallied. He kept his back to her the entire time.
But it soon dawned on the Senate Republicans: How vindictive could they really afford to be? Most of them realize that tormenting Hillary Clinton – or any female senator, for that matter – usually backfires, because they come across as a bunch of bullying, overbearing husbands. Even Arlen Specter (known among Senate staffers as Mr. Burns) didn’t discuss Hillary’s brothers at his pardon hearings. “I don’t know if it was because she’s a fellow senator,” says Sessions, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, “or if it was because there was no evidence to show she did anything wrong. I suspect it was both.”
As a rule, alienating your Senate colleagues is a pretty bad idea, no matter how much you loathe them or their politics. “Because if one senator decides that there are people he or she won’t work with,” explains Dorgan, “at some point, somewhere down the road, that senator is going to have legislation. And it’s going to wind up in some subcommittee where those people he or she slighted have the opportunity to say, ‘Thanks a lot – here’s your payback.’ “
Getting along is especially important given the Republicans’ knife-thin margin. Though no GOP senator dares speak about this directly, Strom Thurmond’s health, once actually taken for granted, is now on all of their minds – remarkably, it looks like he may finally surrender to age. (“When Strom sneezes,” a top GOP aide ruefully told me a few weeks ago, “49 senators scramble to hand him a Kleenex.”) If Thurmond dies, the governor of South Carolina, a Democrat, gets to choose his successor, and the Democrats become the majority party. In the 2002 election, if the Republicans lose so much as one seat – and twenty of them are up for re-election, as opposed to fourteen Democrats – again, Democrats will win control of the chamber. And Hillary, within a couple years (even months!), could be just the subcommittee chairman Dorgan was talking about.
“So you see Republicans come up somewhat sheepishly and shakin’ hands with her, sayin’ hello,” says Breaux. “I saw Shelby” – first name Richard, an early and rather vocal foe of Bill Clinton – “talkin’ to her yesterday. I thought that was good.”
“Senator Lott has been gracious in the way he has talked to her personally,” adds Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader. “Far more gracious,” he ruefully notes, “than what his public comments would have anticipated.”
Gramm now brags about how he never personally attacked the First Lady. “If you ask people to list who killed her health-care bill,” he says, “they’d say me, but never did I call it anything but the president’s bill. Other people called it ‘Hillary Care.’ I never did that.”
A butcher could not slice baloney this thin. But a senator can.
The day the Starr Report came out, congressman Pete King saw Hillary. It should have been an excruciating experience. It wasn’t. Just a couple weeks before, the Long Island Republican had been on a trip to Ireland with the First Lady, and she happened to have met his mother – who at the time was in the middle of a logistical nightmare involving her plane ticket home. Now, as King sat awkwardly in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, his head aswarm in the strangeness of the moment, Hillary strolled right up to him. “Your mother ever catch that plane?” she asked.
“That’s Hillary,” King says. “You see her a month later, and she asks you an obscure question about your last conversation. Unlike her husband, who only listens to about maybe half of what you say to him, she really listens to everything. That has to disarm all but the most hard-assed senator. When she asks, ‘What happened to your grandson at Communion?’ – that’s gonna weaken some of that hatred.”
Her charm offensive has already begun. Almost the moment she set foot in the Senate, Hillary greeted Jesse Helms. “She came over to say hello,” he marvels, “and she had a hairdo just like everybody else! And I said, ‘I believe I read in the newspaper that you’re now a United States senator.’ She just laughed. I said, ‘I hope I see you.’ “
The 79-year-old senator, who now scoots around the Capitol on a motorized wheelchair, seems to bear her no grudge. “I always got a kick out of her,” he says. “She said I was the head of a vast right-wing conspiracy – on TV! A few weeks after, I was on the receiving line at a State Department dinner, and I said, ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy reporting for duty, ma’am.’ ” He salutes. “It didn’t faze her.”
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Senate’s only Native American (he has a long, frizzy ponytail and got special dispensation from the Rules Committee to wear his bolo ties on the Senate floor), offered Hillary a ride on his motorcycle. Chuck Hagel, a handsome, fiftysomething GOP maverick from Nebraska, had Hillary to lunch in the privacy of his office. He says he didn’t tell his colleagues. But he didn’t keep it a secret from them, either. “I think she, uh, has come into the Senate under a considerable glare,” he explains, “and that probably has put her in a bit of an awkward situation with her colleagues, so I figured she probably hasn’t had many invitations just to talk a little bit, and just to get acquainted. She certainly is very charming and very gracious and very lovely and very smart.”
Charming, gracious, lovely, smart? Good Lord – didn’t this man get the memo?
Dorgan is right: These people need each other – sort of like the contestants on Survivor, another narcissistic group of strangers thrown together under artificial circumstances. So even as the pardon hearings were coming to a boil, and even as he was lamenting Bill Clinton’s ethics on TV, Jeff Sessions, perhaps the Clinton family’s most rabid Senate foe, was discussing his bankruptcy bill with Hillary, hoping she’d support it.
Does this mean he’d work with her? “Sure,” he says.
So he won’t filibuster a Clinton bill, just for sport? Or stall it in the cloakroom?
“Oh, no,” he says. Beat. “Unless it’s a bad bill.”
It’s nearly noon, and Clinton is sitting in a dull-as-nails Budget Committee hearing on agriculture and energy deregulation, trying valiantly to look interested in what the witnesses are saying. Because she’s the most junior Democrat on the committee, she sits all the way at the end of the horseshoe-shaped table. She writes things down in a spiral notebook occasionally. She cradles her head in her hand.
Because Democrats do not control the Senate, they do not control the agenda at committee hearings, and they can choose few of the witnesses. Yet Clinton still sits through these meetings almost in their entirety, because she knows everyone in the Senate is watching her, wondering how serious she is, wondering whether she’s going to be a prima donna or roll up her sleeves and work.
Pete Domenici, the committee chairman, is speaking. He’s a friendly man, an old-timer who actually remembers when members stayed in Washington on weekends and had dinner with one another’s families. “And then you,” he’s saying. “Senator Hillary – you’re next.”
Senator Hillary? Domenici seems to realize he’s made a gaffe. He leaps up to whisper something in her ear, throwing his arm around her as he speaks. Whatever he says, it makes both of them grin. She puts her hands to her face, smiles, and stifles a laugh.
I ask him later that week what he whispered to her. Was it to apologize for calling her Senator Hillary? He grins. “I caught that mistake,” he says. “It wasn’t about that. It was about something else. And I’m not telling you.”
The hearing began at 10:30. Senator Hillary got her first chance to speak at 12:20.
Democrats care for Hillary both more and less than Republicans do. A number have always found her more reliable than her husband, who embarrassed them with his lying, lost control of Congress for them with his overreaching, and then, once Republicans took over, habitually betrayed them with his triangulating. She, they believe, is the real deal.
“She came over to say hello, and she had a hairdo just like everybody else.”
– Jesse Helms
Then along came Pardongate. “A lot of people were concerned that so much of the discussion after the election was about Clinton’s last few days in office,” concedes Breaux. “It was a distraction, clearly, and, um, I think most people wish it hadn’t occurred. But look – I’m sure he wishes the same thing! I mean, I’ve talked to him since, and he wishes it hadn’t all happened, but it did.”
So what was Clinton thinking?
“To some extent, he wasn’t.”
Even before Marc and Denise Rich became household names, though, plenty of Democrats were toting their own satchel of resentments toward Hillary. “She’s like what happened when the astronaut John Glenn got elected – cubed,” explains Joe Biden, the Delaware Democrat. “And there’s a lot of egos in this place. So when any senator walks into a meeting, into a room, into a crowd, with Hillary, all of you in the press are going to immediately go to her, no matter how much more clout or significance the other senator has. And that’s obviously going to generate some difficulty with her colleagues.”
Like Chuck Schumer – who, at least technically, is still the senior senator from New York. They say the most dangerous place in the Capitol is between Chuck Schumer and a camera, and if Hillary wanted to, she could occupy that place all the time. Though Schumer undeniably campaigned hard for the First Lady, her presence in the Senate, on some level, must kill him. (“I’m sure he finds it galling,” says one of his New York colleagues. “Don’t get me started,” says another. “They’ll eat each other up,” says a third.)
Of course, many senators from the same state and the same party wind up disliking, if not outright loathing, each other. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Thad Cochran and Trent Lott. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Robert Torricelli and Frank Lautenberg, when the two were still serving together. (Two years ago, at a Democratic retreat at the Library of Congress, the former famously snarled to the latter: “I’m going to cut your balls off.”)
Chuck and Hillary will probably get along better than that.
The day she got sworn in, Biden recalls, Hillary addressed her new colleagues in the old Senate chamber and asked them to forgive her for all the media attention she was going to attract, at least initially. “And she’s not speaking up in the caucuses,” he adds. “Other freshmen are talking a lot more than Hillary is. A whole lot more. At least three freshmen have talked ten times as much as she has. Hillary listens.”
But her potential for refracting the limelight requires constant monitoring. Recently, I called the office of a New York Democrat, and his staff had just completed a legislative meeting, going through their bills one-by-one, trying to determine whether Hillary’s involvement would help or hurt their boss. At her first coffee with the Senate women, Hillary’s colleagues writhed as the cameras focused almost exclusively on her. The first day the freshmen Democrats gave a press conference, Daschle, who introduced them, told the media each senator was only allowed one question. “Of course, she took the first question,” deadpans Tom Carper, formerly the governor of Delaware and easily the funniest guy in the Democratic caucus. He pauses. “And then all the other questions were, ‘So, Senator, what do you think about Hillary?’ “
Perhaps no Democrat needed to be more persuaded of Hillary’s virtues than Robert Byrd. Byrd is one of the Senate’s living legends. He’s a master of parliamentary procedure and an avid history buff, and on a good afternoon, he can work in references to both Socrates and Pliny the Elder in a floor speech. Byrd may be the only sitting senator to speak in standard written English. He wears three-piece suits to work every day. And at 83, he has supposedly shaken the hand of one of every three constituents in the state of West Virginia.
Byrd wields awesome power within the Democratic caucus, most notably because he’s the top member of the Appropriations Committee, which determines how much money gets spent on all sorts of federal projects.
This year, Hillary wanted very much to be on the Appropriations Committee. She was turned down. Byrd did not care for her husband in the slightest.
So the first week of Congress, Hillary went to see Robert Byrd. She spent an hour in his gilded Senate office, with its heavy chandelier and silk-lined sofa and giant oil painting of his wife, and asked him how to be a good senator. And he gave her a disquisition worthy of Polonius.
“I told her: ‘To be a good senator, you’ve got to do your committee work and become an expert in legislation,’ ” he recalls. ” ‘Don’t talk too often; you will have plenty of chances to speak. Make yourself a workhorse, not a show horse. And remember, behind every curtain and every drapery there is a monster called envy. Don’t expect any favors; you start at the bottom, just like any other new senator.’
“And she said, ‘I don’t.’ ” He nods approvingly. “I was very favorably impressed. I didn’t expect her to have this kind of attitude. I expected that she would come in here and she would expect a lot of special treatment. But there was none of that. She even took notes.”
The day of Hillary’s first vote, she again approached Byrd, this time on the Senate floor. She told him she was supposed to preside over the Senate that day – to whom should she turn for a quick briefing on Senate procedure? He told her about the parliamentarian, Robert Dove. Then she asked if she could round up the other freshmen later that week so that Byrd himself could give them a little lecture on the Senate rules. “Now, wasn’t that something?” he marvels, with a breathy twang. “I thought that was exceptional.”
I predict: In two years, Hillary will be on the Appropriations Committee.
“There have been any number of people who’ve come into the Senate over the decades with a strike against them,” muses Congressman Jerry Nadler, the Democrat who represents the West Side from Zabar’s to Nathan’s. “And hard work changed the opinion. Ted Kennedy is the obvious example. When he came in, everybody knew he didn’t deserve to be there. And yet he turned out to be one of the best senators of the century.”
Actually, Kennedy thinks Hillary’s more qualified than he ever was. “She comes in, really, in a different situation,” he says. “Because she was already very much involved in many of these issues – like health and education – as First Lady.” While he, the implication is, was not. He was merely a Kennedy.
Back at that budget committee hearing, Hillary finally has a chance to speak. She thanks the chairman, Domenici, for having this panel – “and the future panels that are planned, including a panel on coal, Senator Byrd, because I do think it is extremely helpful in forming our decisions when it comes to the budget issues we face.”
Byrd smiles, pleased as punch.
“The colloquy between Mr. Simmons and Dr. Penner was of particular interest to me,” she continues, and then speaks for about five minutes in a surprisingly relaxed, impassioned way, sounding nothing like she does at her heavily scripted press conferences. Her questions are sharp. The witnesses are impressed. If policy-speak were an aphrodisiac, she’d probably be the most seductive person alive.
She brings up Senator Byrd’s pet project again. (“It’s always struck me as rather unfortunate that we didn’t make even greater investments in helping the market respond to clean coal demands …”) Domenici thanks her. Then he asks whether everyone’s finished with his or her statements and questions. The Democrats say they’d love just a few quick follow-ups, but Hillary has a lunch appointment. Domenici asks Byrd whether he minds if she goes before him.
“Well, actually, I’d wait for Senator Byrd, Mr. Chairman,” says Hillary.
Byrd beams like a proud father. “I would suggest that the distinguished senator from New York proceed,” he says. “I’d like to hear her, and I know she has a luncheon.”
There was talk for a long time of Hillary’s being a super-senator – the next Ted Kennedy, taking to the floor whenever Republicans crossed some unthinkable Rubicon – or perhaps even the next president. But for the moment, she has no choice but to focus her energies on New York, not just because of her recent pardon troubles but because her colleagues and constituents are closely, warily watching her to make sure she doesn’t use the Senate floor as a glorified launching pad for another Clinton presidency. At least not immediately.
Besides, New York will need her full attention. With the recent departures of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato, the state has lost two seats on the Finance Committee, arguably the most powerful in the Senate. In the House, we’re better off. “But if I have to fight and scratch for New York and not feel that I have anyone on the Finance Committee or the leadership over there,” says Charles Rangel, Harlem Democrat and ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee, “it would be a problem.”
There’s another problem, too. “Maybe I’m being paranoid,” says Nadler. But in Congress, “I suspect that there’s a lot of anti-New York hostility, and that Hillary’ll come across it from time to time, in addition to the hostility to her. You know, it’s partly anti-Semitic, though I think that’s fading. And I think New York also personifies, like Massachusetts, liberal Democrats. I mean, Newt Gingrich used to delight in picking on New York as the image of everything that was wrong.”
Unfortunately, this anti-New York sentiment has a way of asserting itself legislatively. Nadler remembers when Dan Burton walked out on the House floor and railed against New York’s and Los Angeles’s generous helping of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“So I got up,” says Nadler, “and said I was shocked, shocked to discover the prejudice against New York – that we didn’t get a penny of the wheat subsidy! And how much went to Indiana!” He bangs his fist on his desk for emphasis. “Never mind that we don’t grow any wheat.”
Outside Clinton’s Senate office, a sweaty bike messenger suddenly appears. “I just, like, wanted to meet her,” he tells one of her aides, who happens to be walking by. “Do you, like, need an appointment or can you just walk in?” The aide graciously explains that the senator is talking with her staff, but he can probably catch her when she leaves to go to a meeting. Inside, a cute kid with floppy hair is working one of the phones. “I will definitely make a note of it,” he’s saying. “Where are you from … ?”
Clinton’s three receptionists estimate that they take more than 1,000 calls per day. Her interns open more than 2,000 pieces of mail per week. And the foot traffic outside her suite, located on the fourth floor of the Russell Building, rivals Disney World’s.
Hillary might be a celebrity. But this new job of hers is by no means glamorous. And it is perhaps this humdrum dimension of the job – the grueling, tiresome, quotidian details that go into helping constituents and making policy – that her colleagues say will be the hardest adjustment for her to make. First Ladies browse for china patterns, choose a few pet issues, and travel all over the world. Senators spend their days raising money, commuting, listening to unhappy constituents, racing to meetings, sitting through four-hour hearings, going to parades in far-flung towns, and raising more money. This time three years ago, Hillary was off on an eleven-day tour of Africa. These days, she’s spending her weekends in Schenectady.
“I told her: ‘Remember, behind every curtain and every drapery there is a monster called envy. Don’t expect any favors; you start at the bottom.’”
– Robert Byrd
“She’ll find out how tedious it is,” says Pete King. “I don’t know if she’s prepared for that.” He thinks. “I’m also wondering how the disorder will affect her,” he says after a moment. “There’s no orderly life as a member of Congress. One hundred constituents arrive you have to meet with. Committee meetings abruptly adjourn. You’re scheduled for a talk in Syracuse, and suddenly Trent Lott doesn’t let the Senate go home.
“That stuff wouldn’t bother Bill Clinton,” he continues, “because – and I mean this as a compliment – his life is total confusion all the time. But she’s more like an appellate lawyer, having structured arguments in structured ways. Which is fine in normal life. But not in the Senate.”
Clinton is bending over backward to make it clear that she doesn’t expect any special treatment. In spite of what Judd Gregg says, she has taken pains to wear her three-man Secret Service entourage as unostentatiously as possible: They don’t accompany her on the Senate floor; they don’t cling too closely in the halls. She chats easily with her colleagues. (On the floor, she’s a furious gesticulator.) And already, she has a reputation for being one of the best female senators to work for. (Though the competition isn’t stiff. They’re a difficult lot.)
But some of Hillary’s peers, like Ben Nighthorse Campbell, still can’t help wondering how certain questions of protocol will be resolved. Campbell is on the Helsinki Commission with Hillary. The other day, he realized he had no idea what’ll happen when they take their first trip overseas.
“Usually, there’s a special section of the plane, a private stateroom, for the chairman,” he explains. “And then another section with reserved seats for senior senators – it has tables and headphones and even cots for sleeping. And then the freshmen sit in the back, in regular coach seats, with the staff.”
He throws up his hands. “The old bulls, they’re not used to being upstaged. But if she gets special seating with her Secret Service people, I don’t know how they’ll take to it. Then again … ” He hesitates. “Well, it’s a little awkward to have the ex-First Lady in the back, with her knees up by her chin, all cramped up, after traveling on Air Force One. Don’tcha think?”
Back in the White House, Clinton could also keep the media at arm’s length. But the Capitol provides its press corps with uncommon access to elected officials. Reporters can trap Hillary outside her office in the Russell Building, in the private subway that takes her from Russell to the Capitol, and even right off the Senate floor. The public has almost as much access, and people pretty much stop her every ten feet or so – to take pictures, to say hello, to talk about issues of concern to them.
In one of its cattier moments, the Washington Times recently conjectured that Hillary looks worse in photographs these days because she lost her stylist when she left the White House. But I doubt that’s the case. I think the reason is because her time is less stage-managed now than it was in the past. Today, there are plenty of random opportunities to catch Clinton staring unbecomingly into space or looking harried as she flies through the halls.
“She’s gotta get used to bags under her eyes, her makeup coming off,” sighs Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the Democrat who represents the East Side. “My constituents have seen me that way. Because I tell you, you spend four hours at these hearings, you have eighteen-hour days, you’re running to meetings … that’s how you look.”
Two weeks ago, I revisited some of Hillary’s biggest skeptics. Predictably, they were singing a different tune. Pardon hearings seem much less interesting to them, for one thing. “Senator Clinton’s on my subcommittee,” said Hutchinson, who doubtless has seen her smile by now. “I’ve got to work with her every day. There’s just … ” He stammered. “I’m with President Bush: Just let it go away.”
Gregg, presumably, found a way to approach her, in spite of her Secret Service cadre. “This is a person I deal with,” he said. “Because when I do business on the Senate floor, I need 51 votes, or 61 votes, and she’s certainly one of them. We’re negotiating on a couple things right now – I hope to have her join myself and Senator Carper on the charter-school bill.”
“Getting to know somebody on a human level can eliminate a lot of misconceptions.” That’s Hillary herself talking. I caught up with her that day, too, briefly, as she was making her way back to her office after a vote. “I feel that a lot of my colleagues are really – not only polite, but interested in what I really believe in and what kind of senator I’ll be. And I think that’s good.” As we headed toward the subway, four teenage girls stopped her and started to squeal.
“Oh, Mrs. Clinton! Can we take your picture?”
“Sure, though I’m late – “
One nestled herself under the senator’s arm. Flash.
“Bye, girls. Thanks, thanks.” We missed the subway.
“Shoot.” We started to walk down the long, underground corridor toward her office building.
“You know what’s surprising?” she continued. “How much goes on at one time.” She started recounting a harrowing day when she had to attend two committee markups simultaneously.
“But there’s a lot of humorous asides that kind of cut the tension and keep people from taking any of this personally,” she said. “Senator Lott came up to me on the floor the other day and said, ‘What is it about our hair? Why is it that your hair and my hair draw all this attention?’ ” She gave a weary smile. Lightning didn’t strike; she’s a senator now. “I suggested we start a hair caucus.”