Hillary’s Hidden Hand

At a recent campaign stop at an Iowa livestock auction, Hillary Rodham Clinton told voters, "I know you're going to inspect me. You can look inside my mouth if you want." It's not often that a candidate for president issues such an invitation, but Clinton is doing whatever she can to emphasize that she can withstand scrutiny of her long experience in politics. For months she has been saying that her years as First Lady give her an edge over the other candidates, making her "ready to lead from day one."

Is Hillary Clinton truly as "experienced" as she makes herself out to be—and is the experience she gained as First Lady the kind that matters in choosing a president? The answer is not to be found by looking inside her mouth. But it is worth taking another look inside the eight years she spent in the White House.

Hillary Clinton was no spectator at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In campaign speeches, she often talks about what "we" thought and achieved—an acknowledgment that she and her husband have operated jointly for decades. And indeed she was uniquely immersed in the policies and politics of Bill Clinton's administration. Hillary was the first presidential spouse to have an office in the West Wing rather than the traditional First Lady's domain of the East Wing. She had no official position or specified duties, yet she was so involved in decision making that the president's staff called her "the Supreme Court" because they knew she was the last person he consulted before making up his mind.

"She was the absolutely necessary person he had to have to bounce things up against, and he was that for her," said White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum. "They would talk continually every day." For all the strain and heartache in other areas of their lives, the Clintons have a long history of working together privately on issues and political strategy. Hillary enjoyed operating as a hidden hand. While giving instructions as First Lady, she was known to tell her staff, "Don't leave any fingerprints." White House adviser George Stephanopoulos recalled her explaining, "You have to be much craftier behind the scenes."

Because she had no clear place in the White House hierarchy, Hillary left staff members to wonder whether she was freelancing or acting on her husband's authority. She would routinely turn up at West Wing meetings, and her confrontational style "had a real chilling effect," said a senior presidential aide who—like several other officials and friends quoted in this article—spoke freely about private matters on condition of anonymity. "People were scared of her," said Clinton aide Robert Boorstin. "You did not cross Hillary." Even the president "would try to avoid fighting with her if he could, deflecting her if he could," said Nussbaum. Her dissatisfaction with the White House Travel Office staff led to their abrupt dismissal in May 1993, causing a furor over allegations of cronyism and the absence of due process. Testifying under oath, Hillary said she had "no role in the decision" to fire the employees. Yet the Office of Independent Counsel later concluded that "overwhelming evidence" showed she had played a role and that her "statement to the contrary" was "factually false."

Hillary oversaw the hiring of White House staffers and pressed her husband to fill half the top positions with women. In particular, she insisted he choose a woman as attorney general, which led to the derailed nominations of corporate lawyer Zoe Baird and federal Judge Kimba Wood. The president finally settled on Janet Reno, who had been recommended by Hillary's brother Hugh Rodham. "I don't think Clinton believed he had a choice," recalled Dee Dee Myers, his press secretary. "He had painted himself into a corner, and he had to appoint a woman." Hillary was equally adamant that the president appoint her friend Madeleine Albright as secretary of State.

The First Lady also participated in screening nominees for the federal bench through her chief of staff Melanne Verveer, who met each week with representatives from the Justice Department, the president's staff and the White House Counsel's Office. She interviewed cabinet nominees and prospective senior presidential advisers. Hillary tracked down and interviewed Robert Rubin, her husband's choice to head the National Economic Council, while he was on vacation in the Virgin Islands.

Hillary's most visible job was leading a major overhaul of the nation's health-care system in 1993 and 1994. She has spoken of the "scars" she bears from her failure to enact the reforms she wanted, but she hasn't conceded the plan's substantive or structural defects, or the way her temperament and leadership style affected the outcome. Nor has she touched on the most sensitive topic of all: how the Clintons' marital tensions complicated the health-care debate at crucial moments.

Hillary was widely criticized for making the health task-force deliberations secret, insisting on pushing her proposal as an all-or-nothing package and targeting the health-care establishment as "the enemy" to be fought with a "war room." When Bill tried to make the plan more flexible, he had to defer to her, in part because of their implicit marital bargain, in which Bill ceded her power as a trade-off for his history of infidelity. In July 1994, he was urged to accept a compromise plan with less than the universal coverage that Hillary wanted. When he unexpectedly told a group of governors in Boston that he would be willing to take 95 percent, Hillary immediately called her husband. "What the f––– are you doing up there?" she screamed, according to a West Wing adviser who was in her office at the time. "I want to see you as soon as you get back." The next morning the president not only recanted his statement but apologized.

At other times Hillary showed a willingness to yield. In the summer of 1993, she tried to sink the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Bush administration had negotiated. Hillary opposed the treaty because she believed it would take jobs away from American workers. She also worried that a campaign for the treaty's passage could divert the nation's attention from her health-care-reform efforts. Yet she relented after Mickey Kantor, the Clinton administration's trade representative, described NAFTA's political advantages. "I said, 'If you want to drop NAFTA, we can kill it, but we shouldn't'," Kantor recalled. The treaty's ratification that November became the major bipartisan success of the first Clinton term.

Her influence over foreign policy is less clear. When asked in a debate in early December whether she had advised her husband on foreign matters, Hillary replied, "I certainly did." Recently Bill Clinton said that in 1994 Hillary urged him to send U.S. troops to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. He never did, and still regrets it. Yet if she did exhort him privately, she evidently failed to persuade him.

On other important foreign-policy decisions he took her advice, particularly when her suggestions focused on practical politics. In May 1993 the president wanted to intervene to stop the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. He initially agreed to bomb Serbian military positions and help the Muslims arm themselves, but quickly reversed himself when NATO allies balked. The key factor in the president's shift was Hillary. She viewed the situation as "a Vietnam," recalled a Hillary friend. But two years later, after more than 250,000 deaths, Hillary became "an advocate for the use of force in Bosnia," according to one of the president's advisers. Her change of heart was partly political. A senior State Department official convinced her that the bloodshed overseas could grow worse and become an issue for the president in his run for re-election in 1996. That summer, Bill Clinton finally took action, combining airstrikes against Serbian military targets with intense diplomacy that led to a ceasefire and the partition of Bosnia.

The First Lady kept a close eye on shifts in public opinion. In 1996 she pressed her husband to veto two Republican welfare reform bills for being too punitive. She then helped persuade him to sign a slightly modified third version when she recognized that the public overwhelmingly favored welfare reform in an election year. "It was pure politics over substance," recalled Donna Shalala, Clinton's secretary of Health and Human Services. "Hillary was not torn. She saw the political reality without the human dimension. If Hillary had opposed the bill, we would have gotten another veto."

There is no doubt that Hillary's proximity to the Oval Office has given her a familiarity with the presidency that is unsurpassed by any of her rivals. She knows the mechanics of the White House and the demands of the job. She also has plenty of firsthand experience managing political crises. Would that make her a better president? The answer to that may turn on larger concerns—whether her vision suits the times, whether she can handle the pressure when the buck truly stops with her and whether she has learned to learn from her mistakes.

Smith is the author of For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years, published in 2007 by Random House.