The interview had just begun when Hillary Clinton got to the heart of the matter. For our cover on how a new President Clinton might govern, Jonathan Darman asked her: "As someone who's watched a president up close, what do you understand that the rest of us can't know?" Clinton's answer was straightforward. She spoke of seeking a diversity of views, of weighing all options—but, she said, "at the end of the day, I have to make decisions. I feel very comfortable, once I have decided, taking responsibility for that decision. It's not anybody else's decision once I've made it. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong."
Her plain speaking on the subject is reminiscent of Andrew Jackson (who loved to say, "I take the responsibility!" when he was under siege), Harry Truman ("The buck stops here") and, in a way, of George W. Bush (who has referred to himself as "the decider"). As with so much else about Clinton, her views on decision making are likely to be interpreted differently depending on where one stands. Her admirers will detect conviction and maturity; her detractors may see her words as further evidence of her purported elitism and hunger for power.
The likeliest truth, our reporting suggests, is that Clinton is a first-rate American politician who, like many other first-rate American politicians, is a work in progress. Life would be much easier if we could clinically identify and neatly judge the elements of leadership, but we cannot. People change, circumstances shift, yesterday's vice becomes tomorrow's virtue. With reporting from Susannah Meadows, Eleanor Clift, Karen Breslau, Michael Hirsh, Kurt Soller, Jessica Ramirez and Katie Connolly, our piece explores Clinton's journey from the inflexible (and thus defeated) health-care warrior of the first half of her husband's first presidential term to her six years in the Senate learning that politics is about the possible, not the perfect.
Does Clinton have what it takes to win and then lead well? In an essay linking Robert Draper's new book on Bush, "Dead Certain," and Bill Clinton's latest, "Giving," Evan Thomas looks at how character always will out, from 43's stubbornness to 42's self-absorption. Looking ahead, then, what traits should voters assess in judging Hillary Clinton as a possible president? Her openness to compromise and to argument (in contrasting herself to the incumbent, she told us that she makes her decisions empirically, not ideologically) or her occasional tendency to see those who disagree with her as fatally flawed? Politicians do not like to admit they are wrong any more than the rest of us do—it can be painful to acknowledge error—but as we have seen anew in Iraq in recent years, a willingness to revisit decisions in the context of changing facts is essential. The best "deciders" take responsibility not only for the sweeping decisions but for the daily realities that follow; not only for going to war but for the course of battle.
When Clinton was asked about the biggest difference between the Clinton of 2007 and the Clinton of 1993, she said, "I am much more experienced in dealing with my own government and understanding both its potential and its limitations … My commitment and understanding of the process that has to be pursued in order to make change in America is just much greater than it would have been in the past." Soon the voters will decide whether to give her a chance to put that newfound understanding to work.