Hillary Clinton's Endgame: Out and Down

When does reality—not just the political, but the personal—finally penetrate the emotions of a losing presidential candidate? For Hillary Clinton, it was not last Tuesday night. She had just given a semi-defiant non-concession speech to Barack Obama and had repaired to the 14th floor at Baruch College in Manhattan, where the bar was open and her big money people were milling about, half-watching the cable talk shows on large flat-screen TVs. As CNN's Jeffrey Toobin described "the deranged narcissism of the Clintons," many of the Hillaryites muttered about the press. "A lot of the women, and not just the women, were very emotional about how she'd been treated during the campaign, the sexism, and wanted her not to yield," Clinton's national finance co-chair, Mark Aronchick, recalled to NEWSWEEK. Aronchick says he told the candidate that she needed to get on Obama's ticket. Hillary did not respond, but she seemed calm and grateful for all the support. "She was patting her heart, listening very closely, taking it in," says Aronchick. Hillary's husband "was walking around chewing on a cigar, chatting it up with people," says Aronchick. The ex-president appeared, to Aronchick at least, to be in a great mood.

It is not easy to deliver the bad news to a candidate. On a conference call the next day, several of her fellow senators shied away. "That call was basically: 'You have time to settle this. It's been a tough race, you must be exhausted, take your time'," says a participant of the call who declined to be identified discussing a private conversation. A short while later, however, with superdelegates swinging fast to Obama, some members of the House took a tougher line on a second call. Barney Frank, a veteran Massachusetts congressman with a sharp tongue, told Clinton that she should announce her support of Obama "as soon as possible," says someone who was on this call and asked to remain anonymous for the same reason. Clinton guardedly responded, "I'm moving in that direction." Someone asked, "When?" She replied, "Next week." That's when Charlie Rangel, the gravel-voiced New York congressman who is the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, spoke up and pressed—hard. Rangel would not reveal exactly what he told Clinton, but he later quipped to reporters that he and his fellow New York congressmen "are with her to the end. But we thought the end was the end." The candidate finally faced the political facts. "I'll do it Friday," she said. (She did it last Saturday. In a gracious concession speech at the National Building Museum in Washington, she endorsed Obama. "Today, as I suspend my campaign, I congratulate him," she told about 2,000 cheering supporters.)

Clinton betrayed no emotion on the phone call. "She's not a voice cracker," says a top adviser who did not wish to be identified talking about her personality. "She's good at the game face … It was very matter-of-fact." Indeed, on the plane down to Washington late Tuesday night, when she could have been up forward, "pretending to sleep," Hillary was wandering through the cabin, eating pizza, joking and telling her supporters "not to worry" about how she was doing, says longtime friend Susie Tompkins Buell, who was on the plane. Another aide, who also asked to not be identified, said: "She isn't going to crawl under the covers for the next six months. How many times have they danced on her grave?" The Clintons are accustomed to public humiliations. Though Bill Clinton lashed out at Vanity Fair reporter Todd Purdum as "sleazy," "slimy" and a "scumbag" for printing persistent rumors that Clinton has been misbehaving on the private jet of a billionaire friend, a Hillary strategist who did not want to be quoted says that she and her husband are resigned to prurient assaults. Theirs is a history of coming back from the sort of defeats that would mortify most people.

And yet history strongly suggests that Hillary Clinton is in for a tough time. Whether it is called "decompression" or, perhaps more honestly, depression, the crash is almost inevitable. "To run for the presidency, to come close and lose, you can be the most well-adjusted person on earth, but there is no one who is not going to find that an enormous shock," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. In retrospect, Hillary was beaten in early May, after she lost badly in North Carolina and won narrowly in Indiana. The campaign, in one of many blunders, had raised expectations for both states that were dashed. Yet, perhaps to convince herself, Hillary hung on to hope—indeed, she seemed fiercely, almost giddily resilient in the final month. "The campaign bubble is made up of fervent supporters and passionate crowds that want her to win, and whatever the pundits are saying, whatever the math is, there's still that thought that maybe we can pull this out," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of biographies about Lincoln, FDR and LBJ. "I also think that maybe a candidate intuitively knows, as in Hillary's case, that once she pulled out, the depression would really sink in."

Hillary could put off the day of emotional reckoning by becoming Obama's running mate. But she may have wrecked whatever small chance she had of winning a place on the ticket by her stubborn performance last Tuesday night when she asked, "What does Hillary want?" One thing she wants is to be back in the White House, at least as No. 2. Some of her own top aides cringed a bit at her performance—"too strident," says one of them, asking to remain anonymous as he described last-second wrangling over the tone of the speech. Senator Clinton ran the risk that Obama would see her bid as bullying, staging a shakedown that would make him seem weak. She later tried to tamp down speculation, but the damage was done. (Obama said he planned on taking his time with his veep choice.)

Hillary's political life is hardly over. She can go back to the Senate and perhaps play a leading role in winning a massive health-care bill for a possible Obama administration. Sen. Ted Kennedy returned to the Senate after losing to Jimmy Carter in 1980 and became, arguably, one of the greatest lawmakers since Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. But Kennedy had seniority after serving 18 years in the Senate, notes Goodwin, while Hillary is 36th in seniority out of 49 Democratic senators—many of whom backed Obama. Kennedy was able to become a key member of several important committees, and "he had also loved the Senate all along. He always felt that it was his home," says Goodwin. Some suggest Hillary could be Senate majority leader, but that seems doubtful. The current majority leader, Harry Reid, is popular with colleagues. She might run for governor of New York in 2010 against incumbent David Paterson, but "if he were to run again, and he was considered a popular governor, I think it would be very hard to run against him, another African-American in a Democratic primary," says Goodwin.

The real question is probably not whether Hillary Clinton will crash, but how hard and for how long. In 1984 Democratic nominee Walter Mondale lost every state but one. The story goes that, after the shellacking, he spoke to George McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat who had suffered a similar defeat 12 years earlier, in 1972. "George, when does it stop hurting?" Mondale asked. "Fritz, when it happens, I'll let you know," said McGovern.

The pain can be intense. In his memoirs, Richard Nixon described his rather lonely life after losing the 1960 election to JFK. Nixon recalled heating up a TV dinner in a small apartment on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and "eating it alone while reading a book or magazine." In 1977, journalist David Frost asked Nixon whether resigning the presidency was worse than death. "In some ways," Nixon replied, adding later in the interview, "and, to a certain extent, it still is."

Gerald Ford went to bed on election night in 1976 thinking he could still win and woke up to find out that he had lost. He disappeared, incommunicado, to Palm Springs, Calif., for eight days. "I don't think anybody took it harder than he did," recalled his former aide, Jim Cannon, to NEWSWEEK. After George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, he wrote in a memoir: "It's hard to describe the emotions of something like this … But it's hurt, hurt, hurt." In 2000, Al Gore grew a beard and went silent for weeks. "We were roadkill," recalled his wife, Tipper, to Vanity Fair.

The most forthright about the pain of loss may be Jimmy Carter. Just how blunt is revealed by Richard Fisher, who ran a losing campaign for the U.S. Senate from Texas against Kay Bailey Hutchinson in 1994. Shortly before the election, Carter came through Dallas and summoned Fisher, who is a friend. "You are going to lose," Carter announced. Fisher was a little taken aback and asked Carter why he was being so direct. "Because I want you and your family to be prepared: when you lose you will get depressed. I mean seriously depressed. Campaigning is like going to war. You put every ounce of your body and soul into it. If you lose, you feel lost." Fisher asked Carter if he had suffered depression. "I did," he replied. "As did Rosalynn." Fisher asked Carter if his faith had helped him get out of it. "Hell, no," Carter replied. "We were bankrupt. I had to get to work." (Fisher lost, got depressed and went back to work; he is now head of the Federal Reserve bank in Dallas.)

The first president to lose a re-election battle, John Adams, offers a lesson in coping. "It was a terrible trauma for him to be defeated in 1800 and go back to Massachusetts as a loser," says Beschloss. "But, once he got over the shock, he said, 'I have this wonderful marriage and I love my children and I love my farm and my books and my friends.' Because there were other things in his life, he was able to survive and prosper." Gore got back on his feet as the Paul Revere of climate change. Hillary seems more likely to stay in politics, to keep aiming for the White House. In her last weeks on the campaign trail, "she had a lot more fun, in a weird way," recalls an adviser who did not wish to be named describing the candidate behind the scenes. "She found herself. She was true to herself; she had much more fun; people responded to that. Although she was getting crapped on in the media and everyone was writing her off, it emboldened her, it evoked this amazing emotion." She may find that high again. But first, in all likelihood, will come the low.