The Woman in the Bubble

Photo: Andrew Eccles

She is free. For a few minutes, Hillary Rodham Clinton is not New York’s junior senator, or the former president’s emotionally traumatized wife, or the Democratic Party’s presumptive and in some precincts dreaded 2008 presidential nominee, or “Hitlary,” the demonic embodiment of everything the right wing hates and fears, or one of the most famous faces in the world. She is simply a suburban woman on a Greenwich Village jaunt, resplendent in a checked brown jacket and knit gold scarf, strolling unnoticed down Downing Street in the sun on a glorious fall Friday afternoon on her way to a quick chat and a hot cup of black tea.

She is walking because she’s late, the West Village traffic is terrible, and she doesn’t want to stand up an interviewer. Stalled at the corner of Bleecker and Carmine, Clinton had opened the door of her big black van and escaped, hopping down onto the pavement. Now she is suddenly, blissfully, out of the bubble. Her Secret Service agents are scrambling to keep up. Hillary isn’t supposed to be the spontaneous Clinton. “Don’t you believe it!” she says, grinning and turning onto Bedford and striding into the Blue Ribbon Bakery. “Oh!” she says with a delighted tone. “I’ve never been here before!”

Clinton settles into a corner table as the startled restaurant staff tries to act as if she drops in all the time. Yesterday afternoon, the Yankees lost Game 2 of their playoff series to the Tigers, so I ask Hill-Rod if she’s following the struggles of A-Rod. She is. And for the next five minutes, Clinton’s blue eyes dance and her laughter fills the room. She is funny, charming, bitter, clear, persuasive, and insightful, about both baseball and human nature.

She is also, depressingly, off the record. Clinton doesn’t say anything remotely controversial or derogatory. But even the Yankees are a complicated subject for Hillary. There’s the whole baseball-hat thing, and the authenticity thing, and the Giuliani thing. There’s the fact that anything she says, however innocuous, can and will be used against her by multiple enemies. So, best to be off the record. Best to play it safe.

The idle chitchat done, the conversation shifts to Clinton’s first term in the Senate. And the curtain immediately comes down. The gears start to whir. Clinton’s face sets. “One thing I’m really proud of is working in a bipartisan way to get the health care for the Guard and the Reserves,” she says. “I was shocked. When I got on the armed-services committee, and here we are sending these kids, these young men and women, off to Afghanistan and Iraq, and they don’t have any insurance. Their families don’t have any insurance. And it just seemed to me that it was just such an obvious problem that needed to be righted. And it took three years. But we finally got it done in this last couple of weeks.”

She’s still pleasant, still expansive. She clearly cares about the work she’s done for the state. And much of it is important work. But even Clinton seems bored with what she’s saying.

Inside the Blue Ribbon, the four other patrons are being studiously blasé about the celebrity in their midst. Outside, however, a crowd is gathering. The restaurant, right at the intersection of Bedford and Downing, is separated from the sidewalk only by floor-to-ceiling windows. People are staring through the windows. Cell-phone cameras are being aimed. The Secret Service agents are holding back traffic to create space for Clinton’s black van and trail cars to park.

Now her aides are telling Clinton it’s time to go. “My minders,” she says with a sigh. She is apologetic, but she’s late for a fund-raiser, the first of three tonight. The van is pulling into position for her getaway. She finishes the tea, hurriedly pops a couple of strawberries into her mouth. Then Hillary Clinton is out the door, waving and offering a chipper “How are you?” to the gawking pedestrians. Back to work. Back to the bubble.

This week, Hillary Clinton will be reelected as senator from New York. She’ll win by a landslide, all the more amazing when you think back to who she was six years ago: a carpetbagging First Lady who’d moved to New York to run for office for the first time, trailing Clinton-administration scandals. She and Bill owed millions to defense lawyers. At first, she stumbled as a candidate, was mocked for her “listening tour,” then got lucky as Rudy Giuliani self-destructed. But even winning the election was hardly a guarantee she’d succeed in the job: Bill burdened her with one final controversy by pardoning felons at the last minute, and Trent Lott cheerfully wondered if she’d be hit by lightning, underlining Clinton’s status as the most polarizing freshman ever to arrive in the U.S. Senate.

But Clinton worked assiduously at playing well with others, including Republicans who’d vilified her and Bill during the White House years. She stood in the back at photo ops. She fetched coffee for her senior colleagues. And she won New York a fair share of pork, especially considering the hostility of the Bush administration. “You can’t find anybody on either side of the aisle who would argue she hasn’t been an effective senator,” says a senior national Republican. “She has been.”

Ever since she left the White House, however, there’s been a background noise following Clinton, like a persistent hum in a pair of stereo speakers: Hillary ’08. Now, the formality of her reelection campaign out of the way, that noise will move to the foreground. The timing couldn’t be more fascinating. For the past month, Clinton has watched as the Barack Obama boomlet has swelled. Part of the hype is media infatuation. Part is book-tour manipulation. But beneath the buzz lies a genuine public hunger for change, a fresh face, authenticity. Also feeding Obamamania, on the Democratic left, is a rabid desire for an antiwar 2008 presidential candidate.

These qualities are exactly Clinton’s weaknesses. The complaint most often heard about Hillary, even from supporters, is that she has no principles other than ambition, that it’s impossible to say what she stands for anymore.

There will never be a single, simple Hillary. But in her six years as New York senator, a genuine, multifaceted Hillary has been on display, in plainer sight than at any other time in her political life. She’s less ideologically rigid than her caricature, more obsessed with the details of policy than the media has the attention span for, and true to her faith in government as protector, instigator, and moral force. If Clinton now goes national, the challenge for the candidate and her massive organization will be to turn the unscripted Hillary loose now and then, to trust the human Hillary who’s turned up in every remote corner of New York.

Professionally and personally, Clinton has come a vast distance in six years. She’s widely hailed as a successful senator, with the potential for greatness. She’s a major influence on the philosophical direction of the Democratic Party. At 59, for the first time in her life, Clinton is rich, thanks to her best-selling autobiography. Her daughter is gainfully employed and miraculously sane. And, as best anyone can tell, she’s enjoying a period of hard-earned marital peace.

The great mystery isn’t who Hillary Clinton is or what she believes. It’s why she’d risk giving up the best time of her life to run for president.

She’s become senator Hillary pothole, having developed the crucial retail-politics skills that seemed alien to her in the First Lady years —the warm handshake, the casual banter.

The senator is in Harlem, visiting a gleaming charter high school three days before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The students of Promise Academy are baking bread for a neighborhood senior citizens’ residence, an act of kindness organized by a foundation that spreads good deeds in memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks. Clinton plunges right in, kneading dough and decorating the brown paper bags that will hold the loaves. When a sample is finished, Clinton walks around the room offering a taste to everyone, students, teachers, reporters. She is wearing an apron.

This sets off a riot of images and associations in my head: Hillary’s infamous “cookie baking” comment on 60 Minutes. Bill Clinton’s campaign visit to a Harlem library when he was first running for the White House. Jack Stanton’s campaign visit to Harlem in Primary Colors and his dalliance with a fictional librarian. Headband Hillary. Third World microcredit wonk Hillary. Hillary as doting mother to Chelsea.

It’s impossible to look at Clinton with anything approaching a clear mind. Some of her political choices have seemed foolish—like refusing to compromise on universal health care—and some transparently cunning, like her support for an anti-flag-burning bill. And some of her private decisions, like staying in her bizarre marriage, have struck me as downright brave. She certainly didn’t seem like much fun. But it’s strange that Hillary hasn’t been able to make my blood boil or heart leap, given the passion she provokes in friends (“She’s like a pitcher with a great fastball who insists on nibbling around the corners of the plate,” says one frustrated sports-minded pal) and colleagues (“I hope you rip her good”). Maybe it’s because I’m not a child of the sixties, but I’ve never felt she was worth the emotional investment, pro or con.

I’ve also never seen her in action as senator. One morning in September, two dozen executives of upstate New York credit unions are gathered in the gargantuan marble hallway outside Clinton’s Washington office, waiting to pose for pictures with the senator. Suddenly, she pops out of a side door, chewing some kind of lozenge, casual as can be. She sees the assembled bankers, strides over briskly, and begins directing the photos.

Clinton with Senators Pete Domenici, Barack Obama, Jack Reed, Dan Inouye, and Joe Lieberman this past summer.Photo: Lauren Victoria Burke/Corbis

When everyone moves around the corner to the Indian Treaty Room for a meeting, Clinton remains firmly in command. She loosens up the group with a joke, then takes questions. The credit-union executives want to talk about fighting legislation pushed by big banks that will make it tougher for credit unions to compete. Clinton listens sympathetically, but she returns, again and again, to asking why the credit unions can’t find ways to make more loans to upstate farmers.

This is the side of Clinton that the public rarely gets to see: decisive, analytical, working the angles on behalf of the state. The greatest triumph of her Senate term has been in forcing the Bush administration to live up to its promises of money for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Clinton has had to be determined and diplomatic, and occasionally confrontational, using both her cordial relations with Republicans who used to be enemies and her star power to keep the issue alive.

Six days later, after a weekend at home in Chappaqua, Clinton flies to Binghamton, for a conference on venture capitalism organized by New Jobs for New York.

Campaigning in 2000, Clinton talked of creating 200,000 new jobs for the region north and west of the Hudson. Her legislative proposals never made it out of committee, so instead Clinton has tried to become a rainmaker for the region. NJNY is her signature creation, a hybrid of private enterprise and government largesse, big-money insider connections and wonky policy notions that Clinton helped launch, with former Treasury secretary Roger Altman.

The great surprise of her first term as senator, however, is how Clinton has reveled in the Al D’Amato model of the job. She’s become Senator Hillary Pothole. But it isn’t just helping farmers hire enough pickers come harvest time. Clinton has developed the crucial retail-politics skills that seemed alien to her in the First Lady years—the warm handshake, the casual banter. Way back in 1993, Lawrence O’Donnell clashed with Clinton. He was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s top staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, which became an enormous roadblock to Clinton’s health-care proposal; she was the inflexible crusader who slammed any compromise health-care proposal as “incremental.” Today, O’Donnell is a TV writer (The West Wing) and a political pundit, and he looks at Senator Clinton with nothing but admiration. “In 2000, her polling got significantly better by Hillary Clinton campaigning,” O’Donnell says. “People think that’s the way it works; no, it isn’t, at all. This time, Hillary is going to win counties upstate that Democrats never win. She is the rare politician who has the ability to change minds. That’s the reason I look at her and think she could win a presidential election.”

While Clinton hits the pancake breakfasts and union halls upstate, her behind-the-scenes battleship plods onward, its destination far more glamorous than Utica or Lindenhurst. One March afternoon in midtown, Clinton’s city insiders assemble at a midtown law firm. Orin Kramer, Roger Altman, Lisa Perry, John Catsimatidis, Fred Hochberg, Robert Zimmerman, Alan Patricof, about 150 heavy hitters in all, gathered for what one of them calls “a pep rally.” This is a crowd of pros. They’re passionate about Hillary, but they’re cold-blooded about restoring Democratic power.

The timing of the meeting was both curious and brilliant. It was already clear that Clinton would be facing only token opposition in her reelection campaign, on both the left and the right. The stated purpose was to discuss her Senate reelection. The part of the program that sent ripples through the room came when Mark Penn, Clinton’s most trusted pollster and strategist, narrated a series of slides and charts. The story he told was of Clinton’s political strength—against other nationally prominent Democrats, people like John Kerry, John Edwards, and Al Gore. This was as close to an open discussion of the great public unmentionable, the Hillary Race That Must Not Be Named, as any of her prime advisers had ever come. “It struck me as peculiar, because she’s not running against any of those people,” says one person in attendance. “At least she wasn’t then.”

The meeting broke up on a short-term, keep-your-eyes-on-the-ball moment: Clinton’s staff distributed personalized folders to each donor. “Inside was a sheet tallying your donations and whether you had maxed out,” one contributor says. “It felt like getting your grades at the end of the school year! Fortunately I’d given all I could, so I got an A-plus!”

Every major candidate has similar gatherings. But Clinton’s organization is different, not just because it’s the most professional on the Democratic side. It’s the Clinton administration that never disbanded, the East Wing of the White House. Clinton’s six years as senator, particularly a senator from New York, have enabled her to broaden and deepen the structure so that it’s ready to serve whatever electoral needs may eventually occur to her. There are 32 full-time employees, plus 10 from her Senate office who receive part of their salary from Clinton’s political funds; 13 consultants; and a national direct-mail operation, a fierce, permanent campaign with a momentum of its own. Her team is frighteningly disciplined; no one talks out of turn or without prior approval, and even when they do, aides repeat the same anecdotes almost robotically.

The Clintons after Hillary's debate with Senate-race opponent John Spencer last month.Photo: Keith Bedford/Reuters/Corbis

The cornerstone of Clinton’s empire is called Friends of Hillary. In January 2001—after she’d been elected to the Senate but before she’d been sworn in—Clinton signed papers permitting it to raise money for any future campaign, and in the past six years it’s reeled in $48 million (though Clinton will end her romp of a reelection with less in the bank, about $15 million, than many expected). FOH has two headquarters: one in Washington, on the K Street power corridor, and one in the Graybar Building, on Lexington Avenue at 43rd Street. Both are commanded by Patti Solis Doyle, the first person Hillary Clinton hired during the 1992 presidential campaign. But Hillaryland, the playful nickname hung on the predominantly female staff during Clinton’s years as First Lady, sprawls far beyond any set of office suites, and includes key New Yorkers like political consultant Howard Wolfson, media guru Mandy Grunwald, and Maureen White, former finance chair of the DNC and wife of investment banker Steve Rattner.

Big as it is, so far the Hillary machine has been impressively quick, efficient, and relentless. The flip side is that Clinton’s superstructure also is at the core of her authenticity problems. Everything she does seems stage-managed. Netroots giving Clinton unmitigated grief? Wolfson sees to it that Friends of Hillary hires one of the political blogosphere’s sharpest practitioners, Peter Daou. Chattering-class talk that Hillary can’t win growing ever louder? James Carville and Mark Penn write an op-ed for the Washington Post laying out why she can. Not that she’s running for president, mind you.

This is a team of tough, resourceful fighters—and they’re a necessity when beating back the Republican attack machine. Yet Hillary’s troops give off a pervasive sense of embattlement that contributes to their leader’s reputation for coldness. They’ve nicknamed her “the Warrior,” and they mean it as a compliment. But that image, that surface reality, is what turns many people off; there’s a great deal more going on inside Clinton.

The most important Friend of Hillary, the one who provides her remarkable story line and much of her considerable momentum in the Democratic Party, is also the most approachable. And, as if Hillary needs it, he’s also a Technicolor warning about the perils of life in the White House.

Hillary want some of this grub?”

Yesterday Bill Clinton was in Africa, Germany, and Switzerland. Today he’s in the skybox of Ralph Wilson, the owner of the Buffalo Bills, to catch a game against the Minnesota Vikings. The former president’s stepfather is a big Bills fan, one motivation for today’s trip.

Bill Clinton is wearing a powder-blue sports jacket and a garish orange tie, and he looks exhausted—and also, somehow, regal. Maybe it’s the snow-white hair, but the slimmed-down Clinton is still a commanding presence, even as he scans the skybox steam table, helping himself to some sliced turkey, mixed green salad, avocado, and sausage. He drawls out the question about his wife’s appetite to an aide, who scurries into the other half of the stadium suite. Moments later, Hillary is piling up her own plate. The two of them look thrilled to be relaxing in each other’s company, screaming like any other wealthy NFL fans at the behemoths crashing into one another on the field below.

Not that politics is ever far from the conversation. “I’m her Westchester caseworker,” Bill says, his eyes twinkling. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Where’s my Social Security check?’ ”

Hillary Clinton has become her own person these past six years. Bill certainly hasn’t been invisible during her Senate term, traveling the globe to fight AIDS, among other good works; more ominously, there was his recent blowup on Fox over who lost Osama bin Laden. If Hillary runs, however, there’s no way Bill can stay in the background, quietly offering sage advice, even if he’s in Botswana. The marquee would be rearranged, but the Hill and Bill Show would be back in town. The prospect of a wife’s following her husband into the Oval Office would take on historical and soap-operatic dimensions. A Republican strategist calls Bill a “net asset,” pointing to recent approval ratings near 70 percent for the ex-prez. Yet Bill causes Hillary some political problems. He is the face of the Democratic Party, its biggest fund-raising draw. Would she be running to improve on his record, or reinstall him in power? One moment from Hillary’s 59th birthday party/fund-raiser at Tavern on the Green last month was emblematic: After a rock band played, Bill and Hillary climbed onstage to shake the musicians’ hands and pose for photos. It was Hillary’s night, but Bill was the one who grabbed a guitar and stood at the center of the group. Hillary was behind his left shoulder, looking like a backup singer.

“Hill-a-reee! Hill-a-reee!”

“Run for president! We love you!”

The chant follows her the entire route of the Columbus Day parade, all the way up Fifth Avenue, bouncing off the front of Gucci and Abercrombie & Fitch and that giant tilted mirror. Inside the Redken hair salon, stylists have dropped their blow-dryers and customers, dripping mid-shampoo, are lining the second-story picture windows to chant and wave.


No one calls out the names of the other New York Democratic stars, past and present, even though they’re all here, marching together, waving with one hand and gripping a City Council banner with the other: Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, Christine Quinn. The perceived inevitability of her presidential nomination puts other New York politicians in her shadow. Some take it better than others.

Marching about 50 paces behind this show of party unity, flanked by aides carrying red-and-blue-lettered signs shouting MEET CHUCK SCHUMER!, is the state’s senior senator. Schumer dashes from one sidewalk to the other, shaking hands, posing for pictures. He’s not up for election this year, which doesn’t mean Schumer isn’t running.

And now, at 61st Street, Schumer is zipping past his fellow Dems, along the west side of the avenue, trailed by his black limo, which pulls into the middle of the reviewing stand’s red carpet and blocks the rest of the parade. Spitzer shakes his head and chuckles. “Don’t get in Chuck’s way!” he says to Clinton.

“You’re telling me!” she hollers back, laughing.

Clinton and Schumer dismiss any talk of tension and lavish each other with praise. “She’s done a great job, because she’s a great listener and she’s a great learner,” Schumer says. “I think the biggest lesson she learned from the White House years is that you’ve got to bury the hatchet whenever you can and work together with whoever you can work with. She’s accused of having no principles, but I don’t buy that. Max Weber had a great quote: ‘You can’t save your soul and save the city.’ I think she’s found a very good balance there.”

After the parade, Clinton hops into her black van for a short trip to East 73rd Street and Via Quadronno, a sliver of an Italian restaurant, where she sits at a table in the back corner beneath a painting of a flying pig and next to three thrilled British tourists. After ordering a bowl of lentil soup and a glass of fresh grapefruit juice mixed with carbonated water, the senator takes a bite out of the Republicans. “This administration is populated by people who’ve spent their careers bashing government. They’re not just small-government conservatives—they’re Grover Norquist, strangle-it-in-the-bathtub conservatives,” Clinton says. “It’s a cognitive disconnect for them to be able to do something well in an arena that they have so derided and reviled all these years.”

“I’m always interested in what other people think I should do. It’s like watching this movie that I’m in that I had nothing to do with. But ultimately, I’ll decide what I think is the best thing for me to do.”

Yet even in the wake of two catastrophes of active neglect—the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—doesn’t it remain hugely difficult for Democrats to win by arguing for themselves as the party of competent government? For the only time in our conversations, Clinton shows real heat. “It’s not so long ago that FEMA actually worked!” she says, setting aside her soup. “This is not ancient history! It actually worked in the nineties! It’s not so long ago that the VA was a disaster, and it was turned around in the nineties because the right decisions were made. So you can point to two parts of the government that deal with emergencies and take care of our veterans, which most Americans can relate to, and say, ‘We know how to do this. We did it before; we can do it again. And so don’t be misled.’ ”

The nineties we, of course, weren’t just generic Democrats; it was Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, and the Veterans Affairs bureau was one of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s primary causes after the universal-health-care debacle. But the senator is rolling now. “Let’s take the two areas where they claim to be better than Democrats: in foreign policy and national security,” Clinton says. “And what do they have to show for it? Even there, they’ve been an abject failure, putting our country in greater danger and more at risk. So I think you can make a very strong case. Now, you’ve got to make it, and you have to be quite aggressive in making it.”

Government works. At bottom, after all these years in public life, that is the core principle to which Hillary Clinton clings: her faith in government to actively spread justice and opportunity, and to reward responsible behavior. That faith has been refined over time. The incrementalism she’s practiced for six years—Mark Penn–style government—isn’t merely a product of Clinton’s place in the minority; she’s now a believer in small steps. But the goals remain steady.

Does she still believe in universal health care? “Absolutely,” she says, stretching out the syllables. “In fact, I think the argument for it is even stronger today than it was thirteen years ago. So I think it’s gonna come back as a very big issue. I’m not offering an alternative—right now.”

Ask about any specifics and she remains exasperatingly hard to pin down. “If we take back one or both houses of Congress, we can begin to set an agenda again,” Clinton says. “And we can determine how we can create a majority around those agendas. In the ’08 elections, no matter who runs, it will be a great time to paint a broader vision of where the country should be. People will either vote for it or they won’t. But we can’t do any of that right now.”

Then I asked her about her vote to allow Bush to invade Iraq. Despite all of her success on her small-bore, Senator Pothole issues, it’s liable to be the vote for which she’s best remembered. She’s elaborated her elaborate reasoning many times—that, at its essence, her yes vote was in favor of presidential authority, and that she believed Bush’s promise to allow weapons inspectors to do their job.

What Clinton hasn’t discussed much is how she thinks her vote represented her New York constituents, as consistently and vociferously an antiwar state as exists. “Well, I think if you go back and look, [my vote] was not unpopular,” Clinton says. “It was unpopular among many of my constituents and supporters, which was very painful. But I think I’m hired to make decisions based on the best information I have at the time.”

Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam War vet, former Democratic senator, and current president of the New School, praises Clinton for having learned to play Realpolitik.

“I don’t want martyrs who are constantly going to vote their conscience and become ineffective as a consequence,” Kerrey says. “Sam Rayburn had this wonderful quote: ‘There’s two kinds of people in Washington: Those who can count, and those who lose.’ Hillary is in the group of people who can count.”

Clinton’s war vote, agree with it or not, is the most principled stand she’s taken as senator. But because it was driven as much by calculation as conviction, it’s also the prime example of why many people find it so hard to love her. And why her strongest challenge in 2008 would come from the left.

When Mark Penn did his slide show for donors in March, there was a name missing from his encouraging comparisons between Clinton and other national Democrats: Barack Obama. Of course, back in March Illinois’s junior senator was barely on anyone’s presidential radar.

Obama’s threat to Clinton in 2008 isn’t simply stylistic. He’d be a major tactical headache as well, cutting into her popularity with black voters in particular.

Clinton insiders shrug off the idea that a 45-year-old with two years in the Senate under his belt, a man with no foreign-policy experience who’d be running at a time when the country is fighting a disastrous war, makes them nervous. “It will be another person in the race,” says Patricof, the New York investment banker and veteran FOH who chairs her Senate campaign’s finance committee. “He’s new on the scene, he hasn’t had much experience in the political world, and she’s had a lot more, besides having been in office for six years. We’ll have to see. That’s what primaries are about. If they happen.”

Yet the prospect of an Obama presidential candidacy is one more reason that Clinton ’08 isn’t the sure thing that conventional wisdom, and the Republicans, like to believe. Lately, there’s been increasing Washington talk that what Clinton really should do is stick around and eventually become majority leader. Perhaps the chatter is meant as a compliment. It’s fueled in part by anxious Democrats who think Clinton will win the ’08 presidential nomination and lose the general election. Clinton’s top aides, particularly the women, consider the majority-leader buzz patronizing: You stay here, Mrs. Clinton, and let the men handle the big job.

Clinton smiles thinly. “No, I don’t consider it patronizing,” she says. “I’m always interested in what people think I should do. It’s like watching this movie that I’m in that I had nothing to do with. I’ve got my life, and then I’ve got everybody else’s opinion of my life.” She shakes her head slowly. “But ultimately, I’ll decide what I think is the best thing for me to do.”

It’s Hillary’s choice. Perhaps she will calculate she can’t win the White House. Or maybe Bill will do something egregious that limits her options. But the strongest reason to believe Hillary won’t run for president, or at least hasn’t truly made up her mind, is that she loves being a senator. “It’s going to be a huge factor in her thinking,” says a longtime friend and adviser.

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.

The Woman in the Bubble