The Clintons in Defeat

Hillary Clinton has always been the woman who doesn't quit. Her supporters testify to her stamina—how at an endless upstate meeting on agriculture subsidies, she asked penetrating questions when everyone else was asleep; how after umpteen drafts of an important policy address, she wrote the thing herself. Then there's her marriage, how after Bill embarrassed her in front of the world, she stuck by him. She thrives by outlasting everyone. The no-good husband and the cloying press corps, the boring pantsuits and the bad campaign food—all these would bring down most candidates. Not Hillary. She waits and works and wins.

Except when she and her husband lose. In their 35 years in public life, Bill and Hillary Clinton's list of Election Day losses is impressively short—a congressional race in 1974, a re-election for Arkansas governor in 1980 and the disastrous midterm elections of 1994. These setbacks brought out the dark side in both Clintons—his moodiness and self-pity, her paranoia and desire for revenge. But the Clintons have also shown a remarkable capacity to learn from their mistakes, to reinvent themselves and live for another day. After Barack Obama's string of 11 straight primary wins, a Clinton comeback seems improbable, but is far from impossible. The remaining days of the race may well be shaped by lessons learned in past moments of electoral despair.

Losing an election hits Bill Clinton hard. In "First in His Class," the definitive biography of the early Bill Clinton, David Maraniss describes a young Bill putting on a brave face after losing his student council-president election at Georgetown, while inside he is secretly crushed. "That one really hurt," Kit Ashby, a close Georgetown friend, recalled to Maraniss. "He hurts very badly when someone says, 'I don't like you, you're no damn good'." After the 1980 loss, an unexpected blow, Clinton sank into a deep funk. Wandering the streets of Little Rock, he'd stop to question strangers: "Why do you think I lost?"

For Hillary, defeat sometimes brings on paranoia. In August 1974, Hillary Rodham moved to Arkansas, where her boyfriend, Bill Clinton, was running for Congress. (The Clintons were married in 1975.) It was an improbable quest: the 28-year-old Clinton, fresh from Oxford and Yale, was running against an Arkansas institution, the incumbent Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt. But by election night, early word suggested a Clinton upset. When the late returns pushed Hammerschmidt over the top by just 6,000 votes, Clinton headquarters hummed with rumors of foul play. Ron Addington, a campaign aide, tells NEWSWEEK that Hillary was enraged and eager to take action. "You call the U.S. Attorney's Office," Addington recalls Hillary commanding. "We've got to make sure they don't steal this election." Both Clintons, Addington says, traveled to a courthouse in Ft. Smith, Ark., to watch votes being counted in the dead of night.

Hillary may have been fighting the good fight—questions persist about the legitimacy of Hammerschmidt's win—but Addington says Hillary's "overbearing" approach was too "by the book" for a laid-back Arkansas political campaign: "In Arkansas, you don't go and challenge the legality of the county courthouse counting the vote." Bill Clinton understood the broader political reality—he conceded in a friendly telegram to Hammerschmidt: "If I can ever be of service to you in your attempts to help the people of the Third Congressional District, please call on me."

It is in such moments of defeat that the Clintons display their remarkable ability to pick up the pieces. After the 1980 loss, they set about reinventing themselves as centrists. An early makeover target was their image as a couple. Hillary dropped her last name, Rodham, and became a public cheerleader for her husband's policies. A decade later, when the couple's White House agenda was rejected in the midterm elections of 1994, they took a similar approach, ending their "co-presidency" and diminishing Hillary's public role. "She viewed '94 as a rejection of her," says one Clinton administration official who declined to discuss the Clinton marriage on the record. "She knew she had to disappear for a while."

Losing, in other words, has taught Hillary that sometimes she must sacrifice herself for the Clintons' greater good. It is a lesson that may be worth remembering if she fails to reverse Obama's momentum on March 4. A protracted, nasty fight for the nomination would tarnish the Clinton name and might endanger the party Bill and Hillary have spent three decades trying to build. The Clintons' place in history is too valuable to them for Hillary to take that risk. In the history books, after all, she can be the woman who conceded gracefully—and the woman who never quit.