The Once and Future President Clinton

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A speech given by Hillary Rodham Clinton just four days after George W. Bush’s second inauguration is never just a speech. On January 24, in an address notable for its elegant Clintonian geometry, Hillary told a room full of family-planning advocates that although she remained wholly committed to the freedom to choose, she also thought it was important for the pro-choice and anti-abortion movements to find common ground. The following day, her address got front-page coverage in the New York Times, and Harold Ickes, with characteristic eloquence, showed up in a Washington, D.C., restaurant to crow about it.

“I’m sorry, but when push comes to fucking shove—not to turn a pun—my belief is that life begins at conception,” he says, as he rips the tab of his tea bag into tiny little shreds. “And I think Hillary understands how hot-button this issue is for Democrats.”

For a man who was fired by the Clinton administration and then rewarded with 32 subpoenas for his service, Ickes remains surprisingly close to the former First Family. As treasurer of her reelection committee, he speaks regularly with Hillary, and during the 2004 presidential campaign, when he ran two 527 organizations devoted to defeating George W. Bush, he spoke to Bill roughly every other day. “The issue of choice is deeply, deeply felt,” he continues. “We progressives just can’t dismiss people who feel to the contrary. This is a helpful dialogue Hillary’s opened up.”

He asks the waitress for more hot water. He rips the tab of his tea bag into even smaller chads. Then he adds a richer layer to this story. Hillary, as it turns out, isn’t the only Clinton who believes the Democratic Party should soften its rhetoric on abortion. “During the presidential campaign,” he says, “Bill Clinton’s main plaint was that we Democrats, primarily Kerry, were ignoring the issues of abortion, guns, and gay marriage to our peril. He used to say, ‘Abortions went down during my presidency. They went up after Bush II. We need to talk about that’—basically what Hillary said in her speech today.”

So was the former president framing Hillary’s message? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “They’re very, very close, not just personally but politically. He’s not her only touchstone. But he’s very much a touchstone.”

He signals the waitress for the check.

“Her speech yesterday was a big speech,” he concludes. “It’s a positioning speech.”For president?

“She is the elephant in the living room.”
—Joe Biden, Senator (D)

“You can certainly argue that,” he says. “I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you.”

Most Democrats agree that Bill Clinton was the best thing to happen to their party in a generation. His wife may now be the best thing to happen to the next. How on earth did this happen? How did the reluctant cookie-baker, the socializer of health care, and the theorizer of a right-wing conspiracy become the presumptive nominee for the party in 2008?

“Well, unless someone can push you off the stage, you’re on the stage,” says John Breaux, the former Louisiana senator and confidant of Bill Clinton’s. “No one has pushed her off. Is anyone even capable? That’s the question.”

What isn’t the question is whether Hillary will run. In Washington, this fact is utterly taken for granted. Rather, the question is, who’ll have the nerve to wrestle the nomination away from her? At the dedication of the Clinton library last November, which the press corps framed as a debutante ball for Hillary, Wesley Clark openly contemplated another run; this January, as I roamed the halls of the Senate, I heard plenty of other names being tossed about, some from the prospective candidates themselves. “Look, I may run against her for the nomination,” said Joseph Biden, the Senate Democrat who’s become a Daily Show favorite for his sense of humor and candor (and who already made a stab at the 1988 primaries, before he was caught plagiarizing from a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock).

Really? I asked. Seriously?

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll do it, but I’m looking at it seriously. And she is, you know, the elephant in the living room. She’s the big deal.”

It’s hard to imagine how spectacularly weird a Hillary candidacy would be. It raises the prospect of Bill Clinton, at one point the most humiliated man in America, being back in the White House—but this time, it’d be Hillary in the Oval Office late at night, ordering pizza. It raises the prospect of alternating political dynasties, one composed of husband and wife, the other of father and son.

Unlike Bush, though, who never seemed to wrestle with his political eligibility—that’s the marvelous thing about family wealth, how it lends the illusion you’ve earned your privileges—Hillary would be dogged by the same questions that dogged a whole generation of feminists about power and how it’s acquired. Sure, her candidacy would be the ultimate suffragette triumph, but it’d also send a complicated message: So this is how we get to the White House? On a flagstone path laid by our husbands? And what would Bill be, if she won? Co-president? Karl Rove? Just as her husband promised to end welfare as we knew it, Hillary, by definition, would have to end the office of the First Lady as we know it. Unless Bill were content to spend the next four years selecting china patterns.

THE CLINTONSHillary Under Attack
Wannabe Swift Boaters seek to “stop her now.” (February 14, 2004) Cool on the Hill
Hillary Clinton—team player after all—continues to gain the confidence of her Senate colleagues while deftly building a power base and lashing out against W.’s agenda. Now it’s time to do more. (February 3, 2003) Hill Climbing
One might think that Hillary Clinton would be about as reviled by her new colleagues as, say, her husband. But the Survivor world of the Senate makes for the strangest of bedfellows. Even Jesse Helms gets a kick out of her—though that doesn’t mean he likes her. (April 2, 2001)

The Clintons at the dedication of the Clinton library in Little Rock. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

In the meantime, there are the other contenders. Everyone assumes John Kerry is making another stab. (And a brief exchange with him seemed to bear this out: When I asked him how Hillary had become such an attractive option for 2008, he gave me a look that’d tarnish silver, then told me he had a health-care bill to go work on—as if legislating had suddenly become a priority for him for the first time in twenty years.) Ditto for John Edwards. There are the dark-horse governors, like New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, and Virginia’s Mark Warner. And then there’s Senator Evan Bayh, whom some regard as Bill Clinton’s true heir—telegenic, moderate, a former governor. And he comes from the bright-red state of Indiana, currently eleven electoral votes rich.

“Yeah, but I don’t know how you beat her for the Democratic nomination,” says Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, now the head of the New School. “She’s a rock star.” She’s also way ahead in the most recent nationwide poll of Democrats, conducted by CNN, Gallup, and USA Today: 40 percent cite her as their first choice in 2008.

The whole subject makes Democratic Washington a bit jumpy. How can the party gamble on yet another liberal brainiac who lacks a tactile sense of politics and flair for speaking in the public square? Especially someone as polarizing as she is? Then again, she is Hillary. Think about how much money she could raise. How energized the base would be. And she’d have the world’s best campaign strategist by her side, free of charge.

At the core of this debate, of course, is explaining the success of Bill Clinton. Was it his supernatural political gifts? Or was it his centrist politics? Though most Washington Democrats are having this argument now, no one seems to get anywhere with it. It’s not like you can string the two apart.

Absent an answer, some very influential Democrats have found their default solution: Pick the other Clinton. And tell everyone she’s just like Bill. “I think the philosophies of Bill and Hillary are close,” says Al From, head of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, who talks fairly often with Hillary.

“She’s not your classic New York Upper West Side liberal by any means,” says Ickes.

“I’m sorry, but when push comes to fucking shove— not to turn a pun— my belief is that life begins at conception. And Hillary understands how hot-button this issue is for Democrats.”
—Harold Ickes, Clinton Confidant (D)

“I don’t sit home and worry about how Hillary will reinvent herself,” says Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “She understands she can’t be pigeonholed. She won’t be defined.”

If you spend any time around Hillary’s fans, supporters, or brain trust, this is more or less the refrain you come away with. And these people aren’t necessarily being disingenuous. Since serving in public office, Hillary has scrupulously positioned herself as a centrist: She sits on the Armed Services Committee; she has spoken out in favor of the death penalty; she voted for the war in Iraq, then voted unambiguously for the $87 billion extra to sustain the troops (and without Kerry’s grammatical sleight of hand—she voted for it before voting for it again). She has always spoken credibly about the role of religion and faith in her life. There are no love beads in sight: She wears the pantsuits, she’s got the coif. And she’s the human equivalent of a Thermos bottle—you have absolutely no clue what the temperature is of the contents roiling within.

But are we all supposed to believe this is the whole story? According to the National Journal, Hillary’s voting record has gotten increasingly liberal as her senatorial career has worn on: Though she started in the center of the Democratic pack, she was the twelfth most liberal voter by 2002, and by 2003, she wound up in a three-way tie for eighth. When Al Gore threw a clumsy sop to Miami Cubans (using, of all ghastly things, a child as currency), Hillary couldn’t bring herself to support legislation keeping Elián González in the country. There were the famous moments when the Wellesley feminist—“I’m no Tammy Wynette”—reared her head. And there’s always the health-care debacle. Most Republican senators called it “Hillarycare” before she became one of their colleagues.

So let’s say you were a Wellesley feminist. And let’s say you had spent your life committed to public service. What greater achievement could there possibly be than to become the first female president of the United States? Probably none. And you’d probably sacrifice quite a few of your ideals to achieve this goal. “Back when Hillary was trying to be Hillary Rodham,” recalls Joycelyn Elders, the former Clinton-administration surgeon general, “Arkansas almost destroyed her for speaking out. So if that meant shutting her mouth the next time, she was going to do that. It’s hard to get elected and be completely up front about what you really think. We create a hypocrisy in our politicians.”

Of course, many fine politicians contradict or reposition themselves. Bill Clinton did it all the time, and throughout Hillary’s career, one can see traces of Clintonian triangulation, her abortion speech being only the latest example. But what separates good politicians from bad ones isn’t their consistency. It’s whether the electorate notices their pivoting. Can Hillary give the electorate what John Kerry couldn’t—a coherent narrative about herself?

“I don’t have the slightest clue who Hillary really is,” says Charlie Rangel, the Harlem congressman who first encouraged Hillary to run for the Senate in 1999. “I don’t think you ever find out who the real person is. All I see is a gal who knew she was as good as anyone else, and she saw this guy she could make something of, so she forfeited Illinois and went to Arkansas. That’s a hell of a move to make for a redneck, which is all he was.”

He thinks. “I’ve found that the human mind is so fragile, you can believe what you’re doing is right if other people want you to do it,” he adds. “If I was going to confession, and I had to talk about what adjustments I’ve made in public life, I don’t know what I’d say. I don’t remember contradicting myself, though I assume hundreds of reporters would say otherwise. Life’s a changing thing.”

A full four years after his presidency, it’s still astounding how much hysteria a Bill Clinton appearance can generate. At Hamilton College in November, just a week after the election, I went to hear him speak, and the scene looked like a Stones concert: hordes lined up outside the door, smoking cigarettes to keep warm; buses from points far-flung; cops and checkpoints galore. The gym was packed to capacity (4,600), and the crowd, composed largely of undergraduates with unsettled skin and ski sweaters, was getting more unruly with every passing minute. The room burst into applause for the random fellow who flipped on the light over the lectern onstage, then groaned when the former president failed to materialize after a few moments. Women began shrieking. Men began stamping their feet. There were several unsuccessful attempts at a wave.

When Clinton finally arrived—late, of course—the crowd went nuts. There were howling, metronomic affirmations of his attractiveness (“Yeah, Bubba! Yeah, Bubba!”). But after the thunderous standing ovation, after the yelps and whoops died down, what his audience was left listening to was a rather conciliatory speech. He threw some red meat to the crowd—“every day, the United States of America borrows money from the central banks of China and Japan to cover my tax cut”—but he also gave Bush his due, noting his policies toward Israel have been “pretty good.” He even said the results of the last election were encouraging because so many people showed up to vote.

It wasn’t the speech many in the crowd had been expecting. Kerry had just lost the election, and Oneida County, Hamilton’s home turf, had gone to George W. Bush. Caroline Lewis, a young creative-writing professor, summed it up best. “I kind of wish I’d heard some anger,” she said. “Just a little. An edge. I almost forgot who I was watching. It was like Carter was up there. An elder statesman.”

Hillary really is the preeminent Clinton now. Bill’s still in the game, of course, but the dynamic has obviously shifted. She’s the one in the spotlight, looking as good as she ever has, shiny in her prime; he, on the other hand, looks as if he’s suddenly, violently capitulated to age, as if all the libidinal chaos—so central to his ambition, identity, and ultimate public unraveling—has drained right out of him. He still keeps a preposterous schedule (last week, an emerging-issues conference in North Carolina; two weeks before, Davos), but he tires in the afternoon, and he doesn’t quite fill out his suits. Open-heart surgery is kind to no one, not even former presidents.

By most accounts, Bill and Hillary speak on the phone every day. They see each other mainly on weekends, though only when their schedules align. They recently attended a Broadway performance of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, where they received a long standing ovation; they attended the Trump wedding reception; he followed her down to Florida three weekends ago while she spoke at a seminar and did a fund-raising loop. People can speculate all they want about their marriage, but it seems safe to say that something other than Chelsea keeps it together. Maybe it’s a shared affection and obsession with politics and policy-making; maybe it’s the fact that their lives are so utterly bizarre that they’re the only ones who can truly relate to each other. But to suggest that their marriage is solely one of political convenience seems to miss something essential about their bond.

“Unless someone can push you off the stage, you’re on the stage. No one has pushed her off. is anyone even capable?”
—John Breaux, Former Senator (D)

Most people assume that Bill Clinton, because he’s Bill Clinton, still has his grubby mitts in every political pie. And that’s partially true; his political instincts will never desert him. During this last election, Ickes recalls getting frustrated phone calls from Clinton, who’d tell him about ads he’d heard on black radio in Ohio. “They’re talking about gay marriage,” he’d fret. “We have to respond.” (And sure enough, Bush got 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio—an unusually high number for a Republican.) During the DNC race, people went nuts attempting to discern traces of behind-the-scenes machinations: James Carville had lunch with Wesley Clark and asked if he’d be interested in running the DNC—was that the work of the Clintons?

But the truth is, there’s only so much politicking Clinton can do, because to do so would erode the majesty of his position. Most of his public talks focus on sweeping themes: How the barons of this century will be the builders of a new energy economy, the way the barons of the last made their fortunes in petroleum. How important it is that everyone have access to clean water. How inescapable we all are from one another in an age of global interdependence. He’s also busy running his foundation—fighting AIDS, encouraging urban renewal. And he’s just accepted a job as the special U.N. envoy to regions devastated by the tsunami.

“Nobody will ever admit this,” says Ickes, “but people resent being called and told what to do and say. Like, let’s say someone’s in the middle of the fray: Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or any of the congressional leaders. And Bill Clinton calls. Their immediate reaction is: Great, he’ll have a lot to say. But there’s also a subliminal reaction: He’s not in the mix here. I’m in the mix. I know the pressures and the nuances. There’s a time-distance problem.”

Of all people, Ickes should know about this. Just days after our conversation, he endorsed Howard Dean for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, something he never would have done without the tacit approval of the Clintons. (And there are ancillary benefits: Dean’s aggressive antiwar posturing will only make Hillary’s hawkish voting record look moderate by comparison.)

“Bill Clinton has no bigger fish to fry than the overall welfare of this country,” says Ickes. “But he’s no longer president. So while I think he talks to a lot of Democratic leaders on a regular basis, ultimately, they have to be the vehicles, not him. Mrs. Clinton is a different kettle of fish. She’s the one to watch in terms of articulation.”

Pete King—raconteur, sometime fiction writer, and one of two House Republicans with the nerve to vote against the impeachment of Bill Clinton—has a great story about the former First Couple. Last April, he got beeped by President Clinton’s office: Bill urgently needed to talk. It turned out the former president was starting the impeachment chapter of My Life, and he needed King to help reconstruct some of the details. Which was fine, of course, but King couldn’t help but be puzzled: “I’m reading in the papers that the galleys of his book are already in,” he says. “And here he is, talking to me—I can hear him going through papers, rustling through things, telling me, ‘Hold on, hold on,’ because he’s gotta go upstairs, he wants to find some note. I imagined him like some crazy professor, racing around his Chappaqua house.”

The conversation went perfectly well. Then, six weeks before the book came out, King got another phone call from the Clinton household—this time at six in the morning. “I’m sound asleep,” says King. “My wife answers. And she hears a voice: ‘This is the Capitol Hill operator. Are you ready to talk to Senator Clinton?’ I take the phone, and Hillary says, ‘I’m so sorry to wake you up, Pete, but Bill really had to speak to you.’ ” The next thing the congressman knew, the president was again on the line. “And he says, ‘Hey, Pete! How ya doing?’ ” says King. “No mention that it’s six in the morning. Nothing. And he’s like, ‘Hey, let me read you what I wrote about you, because if it’ll cause you problems, I’ll take it out.’ But of course it wasn’t going to cause me problems. It was basically about how I couldn’t be bought. And he’s like, ‘Isn’t it good? Isn’t it good?’ He was like a kid showing off a new Cadillac. Then, like a day or two later, Hillary called me at 8:30 in the morning. But that was prearranged. Official. Normal. Whatever.”These, perhaps, are the Clintons’ characterological differences in a nutshell: Bill, the bounding cocker spaniel, panting for praise and attention no matter what the hour; Hillary, the groomed Cheshire cat, shrewdly observing boundaries. Dogs often become presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton come to mind as recent examples—in part because their desperation to please, their sensitivity to human moods, makes them ravenously hungry for public approval. (And, as we unfortunately know, also a bit prone to acting like dogs.) But can a cat become a president?

“One thing I’ll say about being successful in politics: People have to like you before they consider voting for you.”

This is Breaux speaking again. Sly and good-natured, he retired from the Senate this January. He’s now sitting in his office at Patton Boggs, an upscale law and lobbying firm in Washington. “If they like you,” he continues, “they’ll excuse you for positions that they don’t agree with. Bill Clinton’s a classic example of that.”

And Hillary?

“I don’t have the slightest clue who Hillary is. All I see is a gal who knew she was as good as anyone else, and she saw this guy she could make something of, and went to Arkansas. That’s a hell of a move to make for a redneck.”
—Charlie Rangel, Congressman (D)

“Well, Hillary. I mean, she can charm a person very well. So she’ll have to use those skills to talk to housewives and farmers and small- businessmen and -women around the country and say, I’m the one who can represent your values and interests.”

The problem, he hastens to add, isn’t that Hillary isn’t likable. Quite the contrary. During the Democrats’ Tuesday caucus lunches, he says Hillary used to stun colleagues by popping up for coffee and asking if anyone else wanted a cup—not exactly the reflex they were expecting from a woman who’d just had a giant White House staff at her disposal. But it’s not like the rest of the world knows this.

“The problem is, when you’re running for the first time for an office, you can help create your image,” he says. “You can tell people who you are. But people already think they know who she is. So for a vast segment of the population, she’d have to change their opinion of her. And that’s really … ” he trails off. “She can keep the base, but that’s all she has. And that’s a real challenge. That’s tough.”

“Hillary’s a bit of an anomaly,” agrees Jay Timmons, former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “She’s an attractive candidate for both Democrats and Republicans. She’s raised more money as the subject of both committees than anyone else.”

In smaller settings, Hillary has proved she’s capable of charming the most uncharmable sorts. But 99 percent of presidential politics is mediated through the television set, and Hillary’s TV addresses are pure chloroform—they’re positively narcotizing. And senators make lousy candidates. Their speech is larded with facts, figures, mysterious verbs that’d be better off as nouns; because they cast hundreds of votes, they’re an opposition researcher’s dream—nearly all of their votes can be reinterpreted in some unbecoming fashion.

Nor does the argument that Hillary has seduced the red parts of New York seem particularly convincing. Chuck Schumer has seduced red New York, too, and no one’s suggesting for even five seconds that he run for president, or that his appeal will translate in Muncie, Indiana. Nor is it clear whether the American electorate will feel comfortable choosing a woman to run a country during a time of war, assuming the world feels as perilous in 2008 as it does now.

What if Hillary found her own wedge issue, her own Sister Souljah? I ask Breaux. Would it work?

“It has to happen.”

But would it work? What does your gut tell you?

“It can work,” he says. “But it’s a helluva challenge.”

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the other politician with the name of Clinton couldn’t triangulate?

“That’s the challenge she has,” he repeats for the third time, clearly straining under his own ambivalence—Breaux’s very close to both Clintons, but he’s also a moderate, and he’s a blunt-spoken guy. It’s what made him so popular both in his state and among his colleagues. He gives me a pained, sheepish look. “I’m being nice. But it’s true.” He struggles for the right way to frame it. “Hillary’s the most exciting thing we have,” he says. “The question is whether that excitement can transform people who have a built-in opposition to her. The question is whether it’s enough.”

Here’s the grand irony about Hillary: She’s already turned around her own worst enemies. She gets along famously with her GOP colleagues, is astoundingly well liked; it’s almost a joke how popular she’s become in the Senate. “This is the way I’d describe it,” says Lindsey Graham, a puppy-eyed, mildly goofy Republican senator from South Carolina. “Hillary comes into an ego-driven body with a slew of bodyguards, which makes you different. If she changes her hairstyle, it makes news—in a body where everybody would like to make news. Yet there’s a level of trust with her that’s very real. When she does something with you, she makes sure that you’re getting as much credit—or more—than she is. Which is politically smart, sure. But I also think it comes easy to her.”

Graham is perhaps Hillary’s most unlikely fan. In 1998, he was one of the twelve congressmen who managed her husband’s impeachment.

“I think she could win every state John Kerry won. And she’d probably be a better candidate in the swing states.”
—Lindsey Graham, Senator (R)

“On the Armed Services Committee, Hillary has been anything but an ideologue,” he continues. “Anything but that. When I’ve got a new piece of legislation, and I’m looking for an ally on the other side, she’s one of the first people I call.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for senators to build all sorts of bizarre alliances. The rules of the place foster interdependence and compromise; it’s an ecosystem where the donkey really does lie down with the elephant. Yet even by Senate standards, Hillary has demonstrated a stunning flair for bipartisanship. In just four years, she’s managed to co-sponsor a bill with nearly every legislator who, at one time or another, professed to hate her guts. With Tom DeLay—that gerrymanderer of Texas, the House’s very own Ichabod Crane—she collaborated on an initiative concerning foster children. With Don Nickles, the former Oklahoma senator who breezily speculated in 1996 that Hillary would be indicted, she worked on a bill to extend jobless benefits. With Mississippi senator Trent Lott, who wondered aloud whether lightning might strike her before she arrived at the Senate, she worked on legislation to help low-income pregnant women. A Reuters story from April 2003 noted she’d already sponsored bills with more than 36 Republican senators.

“And she’s a lot of fun,” adds Graham. “That’s the thing that shocked me. We’ve traveled a lot. I mean, we went, let’s see … we went to Norway and Iceland and to the Arctic Circle. Estonia—”

Wait. She’s fun?

“A lot of fun! She’s got a great sense of humor.”Can he give an example?

He gives me a cross look. “Hey, you’re either funny or you’re not, okay? And she’s funny.”

I ask what he thinks of Hillary as a presidential contender in ’08.

“Some people would work morning, noon, and night to beat her,” he says. “And some people would sell their firstborn for her to win. But I think there’s also a sizable part in the middle that’d sit and listen to what she has to say. People are fair. I think she could win every state John Kerry won. And she’d probably be a better candidate in the swing states.”

He smiles. “There are Republicans who are saying, ‘Bring her on,’ ” he says. “But my counsel to them is, Watch what you wish for. Because I’ve worked with her. She’s intelligent, she’s classy, and she’s comfortable with who she is and what she believes. The Hillary Clinton who’s the subject of Republican campaign mail-outs and the Hillary Clinton who’s the senator from New York are vastly different people.”

Here’s how the argument in favor of a Hillary candidacy goes: She has already been through two winning presidential campaigns. She has unrestricted access to the best Democratic strategist on planet Earth. As soon as she declared her candidacy, an infrastructure would immediately shuffle into place around her. And she can raise more money than God. “Can you imagine what Bill Clinton would have done in the Internet age?” asks Joe Trippi, architect of Dean’s grassroots presidential-primary campaign. “Would it have been a quarter of a billion, a half a billion dollars? It’d have put Howard Dean and me to shame. So if you ask who out there would benefit most from this great sea change of grassroots mobilization, it’s Hillary.”

And sure, Hillary’s polarizing, but according to a nationwide Quinnipiac University poll conducted on December 16, George Bush’s negatives are even worse than hers—by six points. According to Opinion Research Associates, a Little Rock polling firm, her approval ratings in the recently red state of Arkansas remained well above 50 percent throughout some of her toughest years in the White House. (In 1998, they were at 65 percent.) In Florida, whose electoral significance need not be explained here, a Quinnipiac poll from December 7 revealed that 45 percent of all respondents wanted to see her run for president—a number that’s ten points ahead of John Kerry, nine points ahead of John Edwards, one point ahead of John McCain (!), 25 points ahead of Arnold Schwarzenegger (assuming the Constitution were changed on his behalf), and only three points behind Rudolph Giuliani (who couldn’t win the Republican nomination anyway, though he’ll probably be so rich by 2008 that he could finance his own race as an independent).

And in New York, Hillary is certainly no longer Nurse Ratched. She has managed to transform her approval ratings from 36 percent (April 2000) to 65 percent (last week). Among married women, her most surprising problem-constituency in 2000, her numbers are now at 64 percent. The latest Quinnipiac polls even show she’d beat Rudy if he ran against her for Senate in 2006. Rope lines don’t bother her now; she’s more relaxed around the press. Pete King remembers going to a new-firehouse dedication with her not long after September 11. “I’m sure most of those guys voted for Bush,” he says. “But by the time the event was over, there were more flashbulbs going off … One on one, she’s very engaging.”

“The truth is it is different running against a woman. the language is not the same. I’ve seen folks run against women as if there’s no difference. And it comes off bad.”
—George Allen, Senator (R)

It’s also important to remember: In 1980, Democrats were praying Reagan would run in the Republican primary, believing he was too conservative. They were wrong. In 2000, they were thrilled that a man as seemingly vacuous and inexperienced as George W. Bush was on the ticket. That didn’t work out so well either.

“A lot of my colleagues dream of running against her,” says Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “I’m not one of them. I still think we beat her, but she’s very smart, and she’d be a viable woman candidate for president, and that’s a different dynamic—a lot of women and small-business owners who’d be inclined toward the Republican nominee could take a second look and say, ‘Maybe we should have a woman president.’ ”

Campaigning against a woman can also be an interesting exercise in minefield-walking. Just ask Rick Lazio. Or George Allen, the Virginia governor turned senator who has twice run against female candidates (and just stepped down as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee). “The truth is, it is different running against a woman,” he says. “The phraseology is not the same, the language is not the same. You need to be a gentleman, but you can’t just let them flat run over you either. I’ve seen folks run against women as if there’s no difference. And it comes off bad.”

I’ll admit it. When I began writing this story, I dismissed Hillary-in-’08 supporters as utterly deranged. I chalked up their enthusiasm as sheer liberal folly—the folly of a party that never learns, the folly of a party that manages to self-immolate quadrennially. But I’ve since come to understand their enthusiasm. You can see how Hillary could thread the needle of the Electoral College, pulling along just enough people to carry Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico. She’s astoundingly disciplined. She knows how to deflect the bad and the ugly. And she’s one of those people who (like her colleague Chuck Schumer) are so hell-bent on getting what they want that it’s hard to imagine them failing.

Here’s how one could imagine it playing out: Hillary runs a Senate campaign in 2006 that focuses on how she helped rebuild New York after September 11. The topic, while of local importance, also allows her room to discuss her national-security bona fides, to mention her support for the Iraq war. She stakes out a few positions in opposition to Bush, like Social Security, that New Yorkers would relate to, yet she also stresses her various collaborations with colleagues from across the aisle, subtly suggesting that she’s the true uniter, not a divider. The race gets covered as if it were a national race—this is Hillary, after all.

And at some point, the conventional wisdom tips. To a great many people, Hillary remains Eva Perón, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whoever. But to just enough people, she’s the Eleanor Roosevelt who finally found herself in the right generation—a woman who decided to commit herself to public service and found a life-partner who wanted to do the same. When he’d exhausted all his possibilities, she carried on in the same tradition, and she became the first First Lady ever to hold elected office.

It’s a long shot, for sure. Even as I write, I’m not sure I buy it. But one thing I do know: No two people are more adept at writing their own story than the Clintons.

“Bill Clinton didn’t just roll out of the crib with this talent,” says Bob Kerrey. “He worked very, very hard at it. He knew the details of every congressional district in America, and he took great care with each one of his speeches—I debated this guy on several occasions, so I can tell you. We’d all be sitting there before the debates, joking around. Not him. He had his head down, his lips moving, rehearsing his answers. Then the camera went on. And he appeared relaxed, sure. But he was prepared.

“I don’t know how you beat her for the Democratic nomination. She’s a Rock star.”
—Bob Kerrey, Former Senator (D)

“So it’s not all magic,” says Kerrey. “And Hillary’s working on it. She’s practicing and paying attention. And if you think oratory’s important and body language is important, she’s living with the best.”

At the dedication of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, the big joke was how much the library looked like a trailer park, rather than a bridge to the 21st century. But up close, it really doesn’t look like either. Cantilevered over a river, its moorings far off to one end, the building looks more like a gangplank than anything else. The metaphor seems painfully apt. Clinton, the only two-term Democratic president since FDR, can’t seem to shore up his legacy. Everyone who follows in his footsteps keeps taking a header off a narrow walkway.

The day was depressingly rich in symbolism and all-too-obvious metaphors. It was pouring—pouring in a wrathful, almost biblical way—and the rain drowned out everyone’s words, once again making it impossible for Democrats to get their message out, and prompting one of my colleagues to note that this day, of all days, should have been the one for Democrats to find themselves a big tent. That evening, the original Clinton team threw a party in the original War Room—a space, it turns out, that’s now vacant.

There was something bittersweet about that party. Kerry had just been defeated and the Senate Republican majority had just shot up, yet there were the architects, foot soldiers, and stalwarts of the Last Big Win—Stephanopoulos, Begala, Grunwald—nibbling on spinach dip, trying to figure out what next. A lot of them were passing around photos of their kids, though photos of their younger, ’92 selves lined the wall, as well as pictures of the candidate they served, many of which only a die-hard fan of Bubba could love: Bill playing the saxophone. Bill fans holding up an Elvis poster. Bill flopped out on the sofa, belly hanging out, his head in his wife’s lap, remnants of a ravaged pastry by his side. Hillary looks a lot more presidential in that photo—though maybe they’re just playing their parts, in the end. And they certainly look like partners. Is this the new Camelot? A Wellesley feminist in a headband, a Big Mac addict from a trailer park?

Bridges to the presidency have been paved with stranger stuff.

The Once and Future President Clinton