THE SAME OLD (NEW) HILLARY

In 1992 I spent part of the day with the wife of the putative Democratic candidate for president. We covered the issues, the campaign and her husband's plans for the future. And we talked about faith, about how both of us believed our religion had led us toward a heightened interest in various social-welfare issues.

That's the real Hillary Rodham Clinton. A lifelong Methodist, she's as reticent about her faith as a Sunday-school teacher--and she once did teach an adult class, back in Arkansas. Yet recently when she's mentioned God, knowing snickers have erupted. Ultraconservative pooh-bah Gary Bauer was quoted as saying it was "the ultimate makeover."

Actually, a makeover has been underway since the former First Lady went to Washington under her own steam as a senator. It's just not the one Bauer means. People are finally seeing past the stereotypes and fabrications. In New York state her approval rating is just shy of 70 percent. After years of free-floating propaganda, her colleagues in the Senate are astonished to discover she is collaborative and congenial. "Those people wanted to hate Hillary so bad," Harry Reid said when she visited Nevada. How disappointing: she's likable, not to mention smart and hardworking.

The so-called Hillary truth squad is ratcheting up again for her re-election race in 2006 and the widely rumored run for the presidency in 2008, suggesting that on all kinds of issues the senator is changing her tune to a hummable version of "Hail to the Chief." The truth is that she is now who she has always been. The suggestion that common ground needs to be found on abortion, common ground around better access to contraception, is nothing new. Her concern that the culture is deadening our kids to sex and violence has been one that she has discussed before.

Consider these sentiments:

"Our ancestors did not have to think about many of the issues we are now confronted with. When does life start, when does life end? Who makes those decisions? How do we dare to infringe upon these areas of such delicate, difficult questions? And yet, every day in hospitals and homes and hospices all over this country, people are struggling with those very profound issues."

If the senator had made those comments last week, every story about them would suggest positioning for the presidency. But they are taken from a speech delivered 12 years ago, a speech in which she spoke of a "spiritual vacuum" that government cannot begin to answer, of the thirst to "feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves."

A stroll down the memory lane of news clippings shows pundits didn't know what to make of that speech. It conflicted with the chilly-Hillary iconography that reporters reflexively adopted, big government combined with the ever-popular secular humanism and a healthy dose of dragon lady. Occasionally there was the obligatory counterstory--She's warm! She's funny! She prays!--culminating after her election in the breathless report that her Senate colleagues liked her. Now, however, the monorail is back on track. No matter what she says, no matter how long she's been saying it, everything will be refracted through the lens of a run for the White House.

Like most complex and intelligent people, the senator is difficult to categorize neatly: idealist and pragmatist both, a person who believes in personal freedom and personal responsibility, a moderate described as a liberal and reviled as a radical. This makes her like so many who reject either/or, who believe in both strong families and good day care, both prenatal care and the morning-after pill. It has also made it easy to demonize her by those who prefer black and white to gray (and any man to a strong woman). An article she wrote about the rights of children in fractious families was twisted into the allegation that she thought kids should be able to divorce their parents. The suicide of her friend Vince Foster was wreathed in fringe-group suggestions of murder. If the woman cured cancer, there would be complaints that she'd ignored heart disease. And not just from the right. Within her own party, power brokers suggest that she is too polarizing, too hated, to run for president. You could say exactly the same about George W. Bush, but no one said he shouldn't stay in the race because he was reviled or divisive.

Here's a sense of what happens when people pay attention to the real Hillary Rodham Clinton. In New York state, which consists not only of the city but also of a whole lot of upstate counties not so different from Nebraska, close to one out of three residents had a negative opinion of her three years ago; today that figure is down to almost one in five. If she can't become the first female president, it ought to be because voters reject what she really believes, what she really stands for, what her real plans for the future may be, not because they got suckered by a smear machine or easy oversimplification. In that 1993 speech she spoke of changing the national ethos to the golden rule, so Americans "truly begin to try to see other people as they wish to be seen and to treat them as they wish to be treated." Perhaps there she was being prescient.