READT TO VOTE FOR HILARY CLINTON; she can fix obamaitis

Hillary Clinton’s History as First Lady: Powerful, but Not Always Deft

FAMILY Hillary Rodham Clinton with her daughter, Chelsea, as President Bill Clinton delivered remarks at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles in 2000. Credit Joyce Naltchayan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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WASHINGTON — As a young lawyer for the Watergate committee in the 1970s, Hillary Rodham caught a ride home one night with her boss, Bernard Nussbaum. Sitting in the car before going inside, she told him she wanted to introduce him to her boyfriend. “Bernie,” she said, “he’s going to be president of the United States.”

Mr. Nussbaum, stressed by the pressure of that tumultuous period, blew up at her audacious naïveté. “Hillary, that’s the most idiotic” thing, he screamed. She screamed back. “You don’t know a goddamn thing you’re talking about!” she said, and then called him a curse word. “God, she started bawling me out,” he recalled. “She walks out and slammed the door on me, and she storms into the building.”

It turned out she was right and he was wrong. Ms. Rodham, who later married that ambitious boyfriend, Bill Clinton, believed even then that life would take her to the White House and now may seek to return not as a spouse and partner, but on her own terms.



CAREER Bringing impeachment charges against President Richard Nixon in Washington in 1974. Credit David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

In recent months, as Mrs. Clinton has prepared for a likely 2016 presidential campaign, she has often framed those White House years as a period when, like many working mothers, she juggled the demands of raising a young daughter and having a career. She talks about championing women’s rights globally, supporting her husband during years of robust economic growth, and finding inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt to stay resolute in the midst of personal attacks.

What Mrs. Clinton leaves out about her time as first lady is her messy, sometimes explosive and often politically clumsy dealings with congressional Republicans and White House aides. Now, the release of roughly 6,000 pages of extraordinarily candid interviews with more than 60 veterans of the Clinton administration paints a more nuanced portrait of a first lady who was at once formidable and not always politically deft.

Her triumphs and setbacks are laid bare in the oral histories of Mr. Clinton’s presidency, released last month by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The center has conducted oral histories of every presidency going back to Jimmy Carter’s, interviewing key players and then sealing them for years to come. But more than any other, this set of interviews bears on the future as much as the past.

These were formative years for Mrs. Clinton, a time of daring and hubris, a time when she evolved from that headstrong young lawyer so impressed with the man she would marry into a political figure in her own right. She emerged from battles over health care and Whitewater a more seasoned yet profoundly scarred and cautious politician with a better grasp of how Washington works, but far more wary of ambitious projects that may be unpopular.

Now carefully controlled at 67, then she was fiery and unpredictable, lobbing sarcastic jabs in private meetings and congressional hearings. Now criticized as a centrist and challenged from the left, Mrs. Clinton then was considered the liberal whispering in her husband’s ear to resist the North American Free Trade Agreement and a welfare overhaul.

“She’s much more politically astute now than she was in early 1993,” said Alan Blinder, who was a White House economist. “I think she learned. She’s really smart. She learns, and she knows she made mistakes.”

An Independent Force

No president ever had a partner quite like Hillary Rodham Clinton. She attended campaign strategy meetings in Little Rock, Ark., and later became the first (and so far only) first lady with an office in the West Wing. She would bring his meandering meetings to a close. She plotted out his defense against scandal.

“The thing he lacks is discipline, both in his personal life and his intellectual or decision-making life, unless he’s rescued by somebody,” observed Alice M. Rivlin, who served as White House budget director. “I think for a good part of his career, he was probably rescued by Hillary by her being a more decisive, more disciplined kind of person who kept things moving.”



STUMPING With her husband, the Democratic presidential nominee, on the campaign trail in 1992. Credit Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

She was an independent force within the White House, single-handedly pushing health care onto the agenda and intimidating into silence those who thought she might be mishandling it. She was prone to bouts of anger and nursed deep resentment toward Washington. She endured a terribly complicated relationship with her philandering husband. And yet she was the one who often channeled his energies, steered him toward success and saved him from himself.

“She may have been critical from time to time with temper tantrums and things like that,” said Mr. Nussbaum, who went on to become Mr. Clinton’s first White House counsel. “But she was very strong, and he needed her desperately. He would not have been president, I don’t think, without her.”

Mrs. Clinton created her own team in the White House that came to be called Hillaryland, and “they were a little island unto themselves,” as Betty Currie, the president’s secretary, put it. She inspired more loyalty from them than the president did from his own team, said Roger Altman, who was deputy treasury secretary, probably because she was not as purely political. “She wears her heart on her sleeve much more than he does,” he said.

But the Clintons were fiercely protective of each other, acting at times as if it were just them against the world. “I remember one time in one of these meetings where she was blowing up about his staff and how we were all incompetent and he was having to be the mechanic and drive the car and do everything — that we weren’t capable of anything, why did he have to do it all himself,” said Joan N. Baggett, an assistant for political affairs.

Mr. Clinton had a similar temper when it came to the arrows hurled at her, and aides learned early on never to question her judgment in front of him. “He really reacts violently when people criticize Hillary,” said Mickey Kantor, the 1992 campaign chairman and later commerce secretary. “I mean he really gets angry — you can just see it. He literally gets red in the face.”

He depended on her more than any other figure in his world. It blinded him to trouble, some advisers concluded, most notably about her ill-fated drive to remake the health care system.

But he rarely overruled her, at least not in ways that staff members could detect. “I can’t think of any issue of any importance at all where they were in disagreement and she didn’t win out,” recalled Abner Mikva, who served as White House counsel.

Finding a Balance

Despite her boast to Mr. Nussbaum, Mrs. Clinton was unsentimental in her calculations about whether her husband was ready to run for president. As governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton evaluated a candidacy in 1988, when he would turn 42, and thought it might be in his interest even if he lost. Mrs. Clinton disagreed. “You run to win or you don’t at all,” Mr. Kantor remembered her saying a couple of years later.



AFTER A MEETING In 1993, with Donna Shalala, the health secretary, on Capitol Hill. Credit John Duricka/Associated Press

Her assessment was that 1988 was not his year. “I think she felt he wasn’t ready,” said Frank Greer, a media strategist.

There may have been other reasons, too. Mr. Clinton complained to his friend Peter Edelman that Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, who was mounting his own campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1988, was “spreading rumors that he was having extramarital affairs.”

Others had also heard reports. After meeting Mr. Clinton, Ms. Rivlin gushed about him to their mutual friend, Donna Shalala. Ms. Shalala agreed that Mr. Clinton was “terrific,” but added that “he’s never going to be president of the United States.” Ms. Rivlin asked why not. “He’s got a woman problem,” Ms. Rivlin remembered her answering.

By 1992, Mrs. Clinton was convinced that he was ready, and she confronted the “woman problem” directly in strategy sessions. “We had one meeting that was solely on this subject at which Hillary was present,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, their pollster. “It was an uncomfortable meeting, I can assure you, raising the issue,” he added. “I remember Hillary saying that, ‘Obviously, if I could say no to this question, we would say no, and therefore there is an issue.’ She spoke about this as much as he did.”

But if Mr. Clinton’s dalliances were a challenge, some of his aides worried that so was his wife. Some questioned whether he would look emasculated to have such a strong spouse. “They pigeonholed her,” said Susan Thomases, a close friend of Mrs. Clinton’s who worked on the campaign. “She was so strong a personality that there were people who felt that when they were together her strong personality made him seem weaker.”

Mrs. Clinton struggled with that, trying to find a balance. But she was integral to nearly every decision — from her husband’s ideological positioning down to his campaign song. “Every time we suggest something, Hillary vetoes it, and we just can’t get a song,” Mr. Clinton’s longtime consigliere, Bruce R. Lindsey, complained at one point, according to Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Finally, Mr. From suggested Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” and that passed muster.

More important, Mr. From pushed for Mr. Clinton to run to the middle, and ultimately she signed off on that too. She approached Mr. From at a party. “I thought about it and you’re right, and we’re going to be a different kind of Democrat by the convention,” he remembered her saying.

Once in the White House, Mrs. Clinton was a different kind of first lady. Put in charge of revamping health care, she recruited a bright and supremely confident adviser in Ira C. Magaziner and assembled a bold if elaborate plan.

She impressed Capitol Hill. “Hillary never turns her head when she’s talking to someone,” noticed former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, then the No. 2 Republican. “She is absolutely riveted. She doesn’t look around, like, ‘Oh, hi there, Tilly. How are you?’ or divert her attention from the person she’s talking to. That’s a gift.”



ADVOCACY Speaking out on women’s rights at a conference in 1995. Credit Doug Mills/Associated Press

Charles Robb, then a Democratic senator from Virginia, was among those who underestimated her. “I have to confess that I didn’t see the special qualities that she had,” he remembered. But “when she came over to give her first brief to a number of senators on health care, it was a tour de force. And I thought to myself, ‘How did you get so attracted to this Bill Clinton guy that you missed Hillary Rodham Clinton?’ ”

But the health care effort and its expansion of government involvement in the private sector proved politically toxic and generated deep internal division within the White House. Mr. Magaziner was seen as dismissive and few were willing to confront the president’s wife. “There were a lot of people who were intimidated,” said Leon E. Panetta, the chief of staff.

Ms. Shalala, who had been named secretary of health and human services, was one of the few who tried. “I told Hillary that this thing is just headed for disaster, and she told me I was just jealous that I wasn’t in charge and that was why I was complaining,” Mr. Edelman, who served as Ms. Shalala’s assistant secretary, remembered Ms. Shalala telling him.

Some of the White House economists were dubious and privately called Mrs. Clinton’s health care team “the Bolsheviks.” In return, according to Ms. Rivlin, the economists were “sometimes treated like the enemy.” Their suggested changes were ignored. “We could have beaten Ira alone,” said Mr. Blinder. “But we couldn’t beat Hillary.”

Indeed, the conflict left the president in a bind. “You can’t fire your wife,” Mr. Kantor observed.

In the end, the Clintons were stunned by the collapse of the effort in Congress, a defeat that helped lead to the Republican takeover in 1994. “They may be an irresistible force,” said William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser, “but they met an immovable object.”

Shifting Gears

After the health care debacle, Mrs. Clinton “retreated for a while and licked her wounds,” as Mr. Galston put it. She was seen in the West Wing less and less, while traveling abroad more and more.

She asserted her influence in less visible ways. She persuaded her husband to make Madeleine Albright the first woman to serve as secretary of state. She put the brutal treatment of women by the Taliban in Afghanistan on the administration’s agenda.



FORWARD Preparing for a possible 2016 presidential campaign, Mrs. Clinton addressed supporters at a steak fry in Iowa in September. Credit Daniel Acker for The New York Times

She overcame State Department resistance to make a trip to Beijing, where she forcefully argued that women’s rights were human rights. She exulted so much afterward that she telephoned Samuel Berger, the deputy national security adviser, catching him at a Baltimore Orioles game, to thank him for making the trip possible.

But scandal was stalking the Clinton White House. She had resisted releasing files on the couple’s investment in a failed Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater and berated aides who pressed her to do so. “She just let everybody have it,” Mr. Panetta recalled. But she and her husband acceded to aides who, over Mr. Nussbaum’s objections, pushed to allow the appointment of an independent counsel.

It was a decision she would regret. “When is it going to end, Bernie?” Mr. Nussbaum remembered her asking years later.

That was before the independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, began investigating whether Mr. Clinton lied under oath about an affair with a former intern named Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Clinton denied the affair for months, and Mrs. Clinton publicly said she believed him. But not all of their confidants were so sure.

Ms. Shalala recalled a meeting with Mrs. Clinton with friends from California buzzing around. “Hillary said, ‘Thanks for supporting the president,’ ” Ms. Shalala said. “I don’t know whether she knew or not, but that was the moment in which I thought, there’s something here.”

Ms. Shalala was personally offended. “It was that it was an intern,” she said. “I just couldn’t tolerate that.” After Mr. Clinton later admitted that he had not told the truth, Ms. Shalala chastised him during a private cabinet meeting, a scolding that later made the newspapers. “No one at the White House seemed mad at me,” she said. “Hillary certainly wasn’t.”

Ms. Thomases said Mrs. Clinton was furious with her husband but never contemplated a split. “She would have hit him with a frying pan if one had been handed to her, but I don’t think she ever in her mind imagined leaving him or divorcing him,” she said.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton went up to Capitol Hill to rally Democrats against impeachment. “She was absolutely great,” recalled Lawrence Stein, the White House lobbyist. “They loved her. She called it a coup.”

Without her public support, Democrats might have abandoned the president, leading to pressure to resign or even a conviction in the Senate. Once again, Mrs. Clinton had rescued him.

And the Starr crisis transformed Mrs. Clinton’s public standing. With her poll numbers now sky high, she set her eyes on a Senate seat from New York, an idea that seemed so improbable that the White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, denied it publicly until one day she sidled up to him, noted that he was from New York and started grilling him about voting patterns.

For both Clintons, the Senate race in 2000 became a way to purge the toxins of the scandal. Mr. Gore, now the vice president, wanted nothing to do with Mr. Clinton as he mounted his own White House bid. So the departing president focused his energy on his wife’s campaign.

“Given the fact that the vice president wasn’t interested in his political counsel, if he had not had Hillary running, it could have been a very difficult time for him,” Mr. Lockhart said.

And it began a new Clinton political career that, a decade and a half later, now seems aimed once again at the White House. Imagine what Mr. Nussbaum would have thought of that in the 1970s.

Brophy Saturday 06 December 2014 - 11:05 am | | Brophy Blog

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