The Fall and Rise of Hillary Clinton

Illustration by Laurent Fetis

The victor and the vanquished are standing in a cluttered hallway backstage at the Washington Convention Center, conducting a conversation short and sweet—for one of them, at least. It’s just around noon on June 4, less than twelve hours after Barack Obama crossed the finish line ahead of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination. Obama and Clinton are here to speak to the annual conference of the influential Jewish lobbying group AIPAC. I am here to meet Hillary for what will be the final interview of her campaign—and, apparently, to clock a little history in the making.

The scene unfolding in front of me is a semiotician’s fantasia. For months, Clinton and Obama have battled (and battered) each other more or less as equals. But now there is no longer even a faint pretense of parity. When they first spy each other in the corridor, Clinton hugs the wall deferentially to let Obama pass; their brief tête-à-tête only ensues at the latter’s instigation. When the chat is over and the nominee strides toward the freight elevator to make his exit, his Secret Service agents brusquely shoo away Clinton’s aides: “Stand aside for Senator Obama! Make way for Senator Obama!”

The question of the moment is whether Hillary herself will heed those directives. The night before, as the results of the Montana and South Dakota primaries rolled in, she’d delivered a speech in New York that the cable-news bloviators and even some of her supporters deemed an egregious, churlish attempt to stomp on Obama’s buzz. She hadn’t conceded, hadn’t endorsed, hadn’t so much as acknowledged her rival’s historic triumph. Her audience chanted, “Denver! Denver! Denver!” She seemed to revel in it. Was Clinton engaged in an ill-conceived effort to strong-arm Obama into putting her on the ticket? Was she being supremely Machiavellian? Or had she simply lost her mind?

The Hillary I encounter a few minutes after Obama leaves the building is somber, prideful, dark-humored, aggrieved, confused—and still high on the notion that she is leading an army, Napoleon in a navy pantsuit and gumball-size fake pearls. She is keenly aware of the weird dynamics in play as she contemplates her endgame: Albeit temporarily, the loser has more power than the winner. She, not Obama, is in a position to bring the party together or rip the thing to shreds. She, not he, has the capacity to orchestrate a merger of their warring factions of supporters.

“The real lesson of the campaign is that neither my base nor his base alone is sufficient for a general election,” she tells me. “That’s important to stress, because now we need to look to November and how we put together a winning majority. We’ve gotta get this coalition to work together, because clearly the Republicans have been more successful at picking off the people who voted for me, and that’s exactly who they’re going after again.”

But the situation is volatile. Her voters are angry, they feel dissed, they have to be coaxed along. The question is how to do it. She is hearing from countless allies, but much of their advice—as it has been all along through this marathon campaign—is useless. A war is raging inside her between rationality and denial. Maybe she should wait a week before doing anything. Or maybe two. Keep her options open. See what happens. You never know.

More than an hour later, Clinton, a clutch of her aides, and I set off in an informal mini-motorcade for her campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. She addresses her staff. There are tears and hugs. Then a come-to-Jesus phone call with Charlie Rangel, Barney Frank, and other Clinton-backing congressmen. The message is clear: The jig is up; she should go quickly and graciously. Three days later, Hillary does—and the gusher of postmortems begins.

This story is not one of them, however. The whys and wherefores of the collapse of Hillary Clinton’s campaign are already achingly familiar. The more interesting question is what Hillary achieved in spite of losing, and maybe even because of it.

The rapidly congealing conventional wisdom is that the answer is worse than nothing: Her legacy has been tarnished, her status degraded, and her reputation diminished by the brass-knuckle brawl she waged against Obama. But arguments can be made that, by historical standards, Clinton’s treatment of Obama wasn’t all that rough; that, far from weakening him for his tussle with John McCain, she made him appreciably stronger; that by fighting until the end, she helped gin up a fever-pitch level of engagement among Democrats that will redound to the party’s benefit this fall, rather than undermining it.

What strikes me as inarguable is that Hillary is today a more resonant, consequential, and potent figure than she has ever been before. No longer merely a political persona, she has been elevated to a rarefied plane in our cultural consciousness. With her back against the wall, she both found her groove and let loose her raging id, turning herself into a character at once awful and wonderful, confounding and inspiring—thus enlarging herself to the point where she became iconic. She is bigger now than any woman in the country. Certainly, she is bigger than her husband. And although in the end she may wind up being dwarfed by Obama, for the moment she is something he is not: fully, poignantly human.

Winning and Losing: Watching the election returns in Puerto Rico, June 1.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The sound system is blasting Ricky Martin as Hillary climbs down from the stage in the ballroom at the Condado Plaza Hotel & Casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Clinton has just given her victory speech after mashing Obama in the Isla del Encanto primary, and I’m standing at the foot of the podium, behind the Secret Service barricades, with one of her aides, Jamie Smith. Smith is dancing. I am not. Or, at least, not much.

As Clinton works the rope line, we get in close behind her so I can hear what her supporters are saying, get a sense of the frenzy she inspires. And a frenzy is exactly what it is. The crowd, ten deep, presses up against the barricades, thrusting their hands in her direction. Women are screaming, giggling, crying, brandishing countless items for her to autograph: posters, T-shirts, bumper stickers, books (Living History), boxing gloves, crumpled cocktail napkins. (One placard already bears the signature of her husband; but whereas he has scrawled out his full name, Bill Clinton, she writes only Hillary—like Madonna.) As I hover behind Clinton, Smith shows me her BlackBerry: Someone has sent her an e-mail saying CNN caught us dancing. “I wasn’t dancing,” I protest, a feeble rejoinder that Hillary somehow hears through the din. She whips around, faces me, and intones in her best mock–Mother Superior tone, “John, you were dancing. I saw you dancing. To Ricky Martin! And I’m gonna tell everyone!”

To say that the elements of this tableau—the craziness for Hillary, the pleasure she took in it, her casual charm with a reporter—were not exactly commonplace during most of Clinton’s run would be an understatement of epic proportions. Although Hillary was a formidable candidate from the start, she was never an electrifying one, nor one at ease with political performance. “She began this campaign,” one of her close friends and advisers tells me, “with people saying she’s terrific at policy, she’s unquestionably smart, but she doesn’t have the political skills. And I think she wouldn’t disagree.”

Clinton, in fact, makes no bones about the matter when we speak. “I’m not a very comfortable public figure,” she explains. “I don’t particularly like the attention. I like the work. I like the sense of forward movement and progress. At the end of the day, what I’m interested in is what we’ve done that actually moves the agenda forward.”

It was Clinton’s lack of faith in her political chops that caused her to be so deeply reliant on her chief strategist, Mark Penn. Penn, after all, had helped her win her Senate seat in 2000 when many said that it was impossible, just as he’d aided her husband in securing reelection in 1996 in less-than-promising circumstances. Penn was convinced that Hillary had to run as the candidate of strength; that she should focus relentlessly on her ruggedness and résumé, on her ready-from-day-one-ness. He argued strenuously that the most significant hurdle she would have to surmount was the doubt that a woman was capable of being commander-in-chief. Clinton came to agree, and spent more than a year talking of little else.

Back in January, Clinton told me that she made “a fundamental miscalculation” in fixating so obsessively on the commander-in-chief hurdle. “I frankly made a wrong assumption about how to present myself to the country,” she said. But looking back on it now, she has concluded that she had no other choice. “This seemed to me to be looming over everything,” she explains. “I knew if I couldn’t cross it, nothing else would matter.” That Clinton clearly did cross that threshold is an enormous source of pride for her, an accomplishment she expects will have lasting implications despite her loss to Obama. “I believe that I’ve succeeded certainly in diminishing if not eliminating the commander-in-chief barrier for women candidates in the future,” she says.

Nobody on Team Clinton disagreed that clearing the C-I-C barrier was necessary for their boss. But there were plenty of her advisers who feared it wouldn’t be sufficient. Prominent among them were her communications czar, Howard Wolfson; her media consultant, Mandy Grunwald; and senior adviser Harold Ickes, who argued that she should present herself as someone who had spent her life working on behalf of children and families. That she should be more empathic, more approachable—more human, in other words. Penn’s response? “Being human is overrated.”

But Iowa proved otherwise, to Clinton’s lasting chagrin. All along in the Hawkeye State, she’d come across as remote and guarded, mirthless and mildly paranoid. Although she was rock-solid in debates, she was awkward in living rooms and uninspiring on the stump, her speeches either wooden or shrieky. As the caucuses drew closer, her affect alternated between chillingly astringent and sickeningly saccharine (please recall her infamous “likability tour”).

Famous Last Words: Bill and Chelsea watch Hillary's last speech in New York on June 3.Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Then came New Hampshire and her apparent breakthrough: the brimming tear ducts, Obama’s “you’re likable enough, Hillary,” the sense that the media was trying to declare the game over in the second inning. The combination of vulnerability and tenacity was new for her. It seemed to spark something, not just in her, but among the voters, even those who’d never felt an ounce of admiration or affection for her.

But the lesson was immediately lost: In the contests that followed, from Nevada and South Carolina to Super Tuesday to the eleven consecutive losses at Obama’s hands in February, Clinton reverted to her old, bad form. Or maybe the lesson was never actually grasped in the first place. “She didn’t understand what happened in New Hampshire,” says one of her top advisers. “It was like, ‘What did I do?’ ”

Hillary’s weaknesses on the stump would have been problematic on their own. But they were exacerbated by the strategy that Penn had concocted for her. It was conventional, safe, inherently conservative, and not obviously wrong. It played to what he and many others, including Bill Clinton, perceived as Hillary’s advantages. As the architects of her campaign, they believed they were designing a well-appointed estate in which the candidate would be comfortable—but instead it turned out to be a prison, where the iron bars were the leaden rhetoric of “35 years of experience, “ready to lead,” yadda yadda yadda. And although it took Hillary some time to realize that she’d allowed herself to be thus incarcerated, realize it she eventually did. The jailbreak she staged came too late to save her from defeat. But not too late to keep her from emerging as a hell of a politician.

Ed Rendell remembers vividly the moment when he saw the transformation with his own two eyes. It was the first Saturday that Clinton spent campaigning in Pennsylvania, the state over which Rendell presides as governor. “We went to a Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Scranton, and the women were treating her like she was Brad Pitt,” Rendell recalls. “She was connecting with voters who were never considered part of her base—working-class folks, poorer folks—with fairly complex and sophisticated ideas that she put into good, simple, emotion-producing terms.” To Rendell, a retail politician par excellence, the difference from the Clinton on display a year earlier was astonishing. “Back then, it seemed like she was afraid of making a mistake; she was on tenterhooks all the time. But by Pennsylvania, she was much more comfortable in her skin. She was so good, so up, having so much fun, she almost reminded me of Hubert Humphrey—a happy warrior.”

The new Hillary had first emerged, in fact, in Ohio and Texas. After Obama’s eleven-state streak, it wasn’t just the media who were telling her to cash in her chips. The Obamans were claiming it was now mathematically impossible for her to secure the nomination. Some big-name Democrats were starting to grumble that her continuing would fatally wound the party. On the night she pulled off her unlikely twofer, she opened her victory speech with this refrain: “For everyone here in Ohio and across America who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you.”

With that speech, Clinton had finally found a theme: the resilient fighter, the underdog, the victim. And with each successive contest, as the calls for her to fold grew louder even as she continued winning (nine of the final fifteen primaries, for the record) that theme only became sharper. Having abandoned her corporate, Establishment campaign, she seemed more than liberated; she seemed intoxicated. Suddenly, she was giving terrific, well-modulated Election Night speeches—speeches that were every bit as good, in their way, as Obama’s more-celebrated orations. Suddenly, she was loving the rope lines, working them feverishly, hungrily, as if … well, as if she were her husband. Suddenly, the hustings were no longer for her a royal pain in the ass but instead a source of sustenance, vitality, and even joy.

What changed? What turned her from someone roundly dismissed as an automaton into a campaigner whose skills were routinely given props by the likes of Pat Buchanan?

“First of all, I think a lot of the stereotypes were never true to begin with,” she says. “But I don’t think that I’ve ever been a particularly effective television persona. It’s probably the most common thing that people say to me when they actually meet me. So the chance I had to connect with so many people, and then for those people, through the ripple effect—saying, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s really nice, she’s really warm, she really cares, I really liked her’—things really took off. But I’m sure I got better.” Clinton pauses, then begins to laugh. “Look, I believe in experience! So the more experience you have, the better you will be! And therefore I got better!”

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

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.

But with his antics in South Carolina, the Y-chromosome Clinton rendered those assumptions inoperative. His comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson was interpreted by many people, and certainly most black leaders, as an instance of gratuitous race-baiting. And from that point on, Hillary’s support among African-Americans, which last fall had been competitive with Obama’s, diminished to the vanishing point, seldom registering above single digits. Now, part of that swing is undoubtedly attributable to her rival’s having proved himself a plausible nominee with his victory in Iowa. But all of it? Not likely.

For Hillary, her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior was obviously a problem. But it was also a kind of opportunity: It allowed her to put some needed distance between them, both literally and metaphorically. On the one hand, there was no one whose political advice she valued more than his. On the other, his incursions into her campaign all too often devolved into exercises in solipsism. About halfway through his infamous, finger-wagging “fairy tale” tirade against Obama in New Hampshire, Clinton suddenly wandered off into a self-pitying denunciation of Ken Starr—who “spent $70 million and indicted innocent people to find out I wouldn’t take a nickel to see the cow jump over the moon”—which had exactly what to do with helping Hillary win? She had to wonder.

So as the campaign wore on, Bill was dispatched to small-town America—to “places that have never seen a president,” as the campaign liked to put it—where he was less likely to step on her headlines. At the same time, Hillary began to carve out for herself a substantive and political identity distinct from his. “The truth is, she is to the left of him on domestic-policy issues,” one of her top lieutenants says. “The health-care mandate. Freezing foreclosures and interest rates. Renegotiating nafta. And then she’s to the right of him on foreign policy. I’m not sure we knew that—I’m not even sure that she knew that—before this race started.”

Nor did anyone know in advance to what extent Hillary’s support was truly hers or the product of residual affection for her husband. But from South Carolina on, it would be hard to make the case that she benefited much, if at all, from Bill. “Actually, from that point on,” says one longtime friend of hers, “I think you’d have to say that people were voting for her in spite of him, rather than because of him.”

And vote for her they did—in numbers that mark one of great accomplishments of her campaign or any other. Forget her operation’s dubious argument that she “won” the popular vote (a claim only true if you count her lopsided victory in Michigan, where Obama’s name was not on the ballot). As her adviser Ann Lewis points out, “After March 1, she got 500,000 more votes, at a time when she was being outspent by two to one. She’s got a significant nationwide following that is unusual in that it is both broad and deep.”

Clinton’s coalition was indeed both of those things. And if it had been just a tiny bit broader, she not only would have beaten Obama but put herself in a position to become a kind of female reincarnation of Bobby Kennedy, odd as that may sound.

By the time I sat down with Clinton, RFK had been on my mind for more than a month, since I traveled with her in Indiana, a state in which Kennedy won one of his fabled primary victories almost exactly 40 years earlier. The day before the vote there this year, the Times ran a front-page story headlined “Seeing Grit and Ruthlessness in Clinton’s Love of the Fight.” It occurred to me that many of the same traits attributed by the Times to Clinton—the cutthroatness, the grudge-holding, the scrappiness, the battler’s stance—had also been applied to Kennedy, so I offered this observation in an e-mail to Wolfson. “Funny—I just finished reading a book on RFK and the Indiana campaign,” he wrote back. “I am obsessed with RFK.”

Wolfson’s obsession was understandable, for the coalition Kennedy was engaged in assembling in 1968 before Sirhan Sirhan took his life was a fusion of white working-class voters, Catholics, Latinos, and African-Americans. By the time of this year’s contest in Indiana, it was clear that Clinton had succeeded in bringing together a remarkably similar coalition—except, of course, for the last voting bloc on the list, whose overwhelming allegiance to Obama arguably proved decisive.

When I ask Clinton if it pains her that she’d been unable to stitch together the coalition RFK promised (and that her husband, to a degree, delivered in 1992 and 1996), she slowly shakes her head. “We came close,” she says quietly. “The fact that I received so many votes overall with such a minuscule amount of African-American votes demonstrates the power of the coalition I did put together. But I respect those who voted for Senator Obama for all kinds of reasons. You know, with me, it was a much broader base, but he had a very deep base in places where he needed it—either a deep African-American base or an activist liberal base. That’s why it ended up in a virtual tie.”

By groping her way toward a message that put the blue-collar concerns at the center of the Democratic race, and by fashioning herself into what Rendell describes as an “intelligent, sophisticated populist,” Clinton achieved something both substantial and almost entirely unexpected. Who would have thought a year ago that we would talking today (with a straight face) about the possibility that the term Reagan Democrats would be supplanted by the moniker Hillary Democrats?

This achievement would have been impossible had Clinton left the race as early as many Democrats wished. Though the outlines of hers and Obama’s coalitions began to come clear on Super-Duper Tuesday, it was only after Ohio and Texas that the depth and severity of the fault lines running through the party became so glaringly apparent. For Obama and his people, Clinton’s bloody-minded persistence was unwelcome, yet another sign that she cared more about herself than the fate of the party this fall. But it also served, or should have served, as a blaring alarm about the scale of the challenge the presumptive nominee will confront in the general election.

“I certainly hope so,” Clinton replies when I suggest this to her. “Because we have been unsuccessful when we’ve failed to bring these two coalitions together. They are largely but not completely demographic coalitions, but there are certain themes in common that have to be sounded in order to bridge that divide. John Kerry basically lost because he didn’t do well enough with women and Hispanics. And Bill Clinton won because he cobbled the coalition together. And it is always a challenge for Democrats: You could go back and look at the arc from the New Deal coalition to its slow but steady erosion in the sixties to the mantle that Reagan grabbed that my husband began to try to wrest back and which neither Al Gore nor John Kerry could figure out how to bridge. So it’s perhaps more apparent in this race because it was such a long one and more people had a chance to vote. The pattern has become abundantly clear, but it’s always been there for the past 70-plus years.”

Clinton’s history lesson will no doubt strike many Obamans as self-serving. They will point out that she did more than lay bare the schism in the Democrat ranks; she at times seemed intent on exacerbating, rather than healing, it. Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But it’s equally true, and certainly more important, that if Democrats want not only to win this November but also to build a lasting and stable majority for the future, grappling with the divisions that cleave the party will be essential. And before that can happen, they must first admit those divisions exist—a process that Clinton, though it wasn’t her intention, has made unavoidable.

It would be hard to overstate the private pessimism that Hillary and Bill Clinton feel about Obama’s general-election prospects. Or the irritation they feel about the dismissive attitudes of some of his advisers toward her coalition, as evinced by the words of Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, after the Pennsylvania primary: “The white working class has gone to the Republican nominee for many elections … This is not new that Democratic candidates don’t rely solely on those votes.”

But the Clintons’ frustration with Obama’s people pales beside the simmering anger they harbor toward the media. And in this they are not alone. For months now, my e-mail box has been full of messages from women across the country, explaining what Hillary’s run meant to them, why it was so important. The reasons vary depending on age and race and region, but the one element almost all my correspondents express in common is a furious resentment at the press for what they see as blatant misogyny in the coverage of Clinton.

When I mention this to Hillary, she laughs and exclaims, “I’d love to get a look at your e-mail!” And then, more soberly, she goes on, “There’s a reason for the resentment. The level of dismissive and condescending comments, not just about me—what do I care?—but about the people who support me and in particular the women who support me, has been shocking. Shocking to women and to fair-minded men. But what has really been more disappointing to me is how few voices that have a platform have spoken out against it. And that’s really why you seen this enormous grassroots outrage. There is no outlet. It is rare that you have anybody on these shows or in a position of responsibility at major publications who really says, ‘Wait a minute! What are we talking about here? I have a wife! I have a daughter! I want the best for them.’ ”

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.

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Additional reporting by Michelle Dubert

The Fall and Rise of Hillary Clinton