How She Would Govern

Hillary Clinton has been in politics long enough to know the value of the word "change." In 1992, her husband's political guru, James Carville, hung a white sign in the Clinton campaign war room that read CHANGE VS. MORE OF THE SAME. Bill Clinton won the presidency that year with 370 electoral votes.

Over the course of the summer, she watched her rivals for the Democratic nomination try again and again to define themselves as change and Clinton as the status quo. ("We're more interested in looking forward, not backward," Barack Obama told reporters. "And the American people feel the same way.") But she would not cede the change mantle, no matter how large her lead in national polls, not in an election where the voters were fed up and angry, not when Obama was saying "change" was what he was all about and John Edwards was running a tough populist bid. "The campaign was watching Obama and Edwards peddling this false choice of change versus experience," says someone close to the campaign who did not want to be identified discussing internal matters. "They realized, wow, this is a great opportunity to emphasize one of her strengths"—or, more precisely, it was an opportunity to argue that her years in the capital gave her the experience to make change happen. Triangulation, anyone?

And so through the month of August, Clinton's aides drafted new language that could expand the definition of change to include a woman who'd been in Washington, D.C., for 15 years. "You bring change by working within the system," Clinton finally declared on Labor Day weekend. "You can't pretend the system doesn't exist."

Hillary Clinton has always put great faith in The System. Hugh Rodham's dutiful daughter stayed up late finishing homework assignments and kept Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative" on her bookshelf. While others in her generation were turning on, tuning in and dropping out, she was running for student-body president at Wellesley College and applying to law school at Yale. As a young First Lady charged with getting her husband's health-care plan through Congress, her attempts to circumvent The System nearly cost both Clintons their political lives. She found redemption in the Senate by keeping her head down and playing by the rules. If she wins her party's nomination, the right may once more portray her as a radical leftist agitator. But in truth, a President Hillary Clinton would essentially be the same person she's always been: a serious-minded striver. She can be self-righteous in a righteous cause—health care is the primary example of that unfortunate, and unproductive, tendency—but as the years have passed she has also demonstrated the capacity to learn from her mistakes. (Her health-care plan, which will be announced in the coming weeks, is expected to be bold but hardly radical.) Compared with 1993, Clinton tells NEWSWEEK, "I am much more experienced in dealing with my own government and understanding both its potential and its limitations." The System, in other words, is where the action is, where the real possibilities for change are, and that is where Clinton wants to be.

President Hillary Clinton—words that many Americans have a hard time saying out loud. But she is ahead of Obama, her nearest competitor, by double digits in all the national polls and has closed the gap with Edwards in Iowa. She has outperformed her rivals in almost every debate and has presided over a remarkably disciplined and effective presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the post-George W. Bush Republican Party hardly seems formidable at the moment: Clinton's opponent would likely be either a Mormon from Massachusetts, a laconic actor from Tennessee or a former New York mayor who is strong and stubborn—not exactly a change message in an election to replace Bush. (Clinton leads each of the top Republican contenders in most head-to-head polls.) A year before the election, Clinton seems, astonishingly, like the safest money in the 2008 race.

How would she govern? In her 15 years in the arena, the woman who once talked of communing with Eleanor Roosevelt has shown a stylistic kinship with any number of past presidents. At times, she has displayed an ideological rigidity and insistence on loyalty reminiscent of the incumbent. At times, she has acted with near-Nixonian secrecy and seemed to fall victim to paranoia. But she has also shown a Bill Clinton-like capacity to adapt to her surroundings and accept that in politics, the perfect is always the enemy of the good. "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," Clinton tells NEWSWEEK. The story of her journey from prudish policy crusader and paranoid First Lady to centrist senator and leading presidential candidate sheds light on which Hillary Clinton could well end up serving as leader of the free world.

Hillary Clinton arrived in Washington with a sense of righteous purpose. Her husband would be the first baby-boomer president; like the Kennedys, Bill and Hillary were carrying the torch for a new generation of Americans. Five days after his arrival in the White House, the new president announced that his wife would lead an effort to provide government-funded health insurance for all. It was a massive undertaking for a First Couple so new to the ways of Washington. No president since Lyndon B. Johnson had forced a new entitlement program through Congress. The health industry had already marshaled millions of dollars to block any effort at reform. But the president's wife was confident that a near-perfect bill was possible. No problem was too big for the heirs of Camelot to solve.

In developing her policy, the First Lady was clinical and unflinching. "She was going to push it as hard as she could and was not willing to compromise," says Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton's director of the Office of Management and Budget at the time, "because she felt that if you compromise now you get very little at the other end." Charged with presenting a plan to Congress at the end of Clinton's first 100 days in office, she and her policy partner, Ira Magaziner, set up a shadow White House of outside advisers to hash out the policy details. Clinton's team was at once unwieldy (it consisted of some 500 consultants) and undemocratic (team members were forbidden to make photocopies of draft documents or bring writing instruments into some meetings).

No one but Clinton and Magaziner knew the full thrust of the president's plan, not even the congressional Democrats responsible for its passage. Early in the Clinton term, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior Democratic senator from New York, questioned whether the health-care system really required dramatic reform. Clinton's aides were unamused. "We'll roll right over him if we have to," one told NEWSWEEK at the time. As the powerful chairman of the Finance Committee, Moynihan was not the sort of man to be rolled over. Privately and publicly, he predicted that a massive reform bill could not pass the Senate without enough Republicans to garner a filibuster-proof 60 votes. To get that kind of margin, the Clintons had to be willing to compromise. The First Lady listened politely but did not heed the senator's advice. Moynihan, who'd had a hand in every major domestic-policy initiative since Nixon, simply didn't understand.

To many in Washington, Clinton's refusal to compromise reflected a broader, annoying moralistic streak. Early in her husband's term, she banned smoking from the White House and gave low-fat American recipes to the White House's French chef. She worried about a "spiritual vacuum" abroad in the land and expressed a hope that "the politics of meaning" might return. "The meaning of the politics of meaning," wrote the journalist Michael Kelly in The New York Times Magazine, "is hard to discern under the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon that blanket it."

The politics of politics were easier to sort out. The president presented his plan to Congress in the fall of 1993. The outlook was not promising. Press leaks suggested Clinton's own secretary of the Treasury and OMB director had major concerns about the First Lady's plan. Soon there was a huge insurance-industry ad blitz and cries of "socialized medicine." Hillary's plan was too big, too unwieldy. The centerpiece of the president's first-term agenda seemed doomed.

There was one remaining hope: strike a compromise with Tennessee Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper, who had proposed a more moderate, but still progressive, approach. But Hillary would not hear of it; Cooper represented more of the same to her. At the end of a meeting with key senators in the health-care fight, Clinton urged participants to publicly denounce Cooper. One participant in the meeting, who would not be identified for fear of alienating the Clintons, says Clinton had brought a political aide with a video camera so they could record their denunciations on the spot. Hillary "wanted to ruin my political career," Cooper recently recalled.

Soon, though, it was Hillary, and her husband, whose political careers seemed ruined. By the end of that summer, the president's health-care plan was officially dead; that fall, the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress. Hillary the purist had learned that in Washington, nothing is total except defeat. Some veterans of the health-care wars shudder at the notion of "President Hillary." One former Democratic senator who attended the meeting in which Clinton denounced Cooper and would speak only anonymously for fear of angering Clinton says he is still "astonished" by Hillary's conduct in the health-care drama. "Those instincts and impulses are just not the ones you want in the Oval office."

But Clinton had a more powerful instinct her critics couldn't yet see, that of self-preservation. Saving herself meant an honest accounting of her mistakes. In the darkest days after the failure of the plan, Clinton reflected on her errors in the health-care debacle with Panetta, who'd taken over as her husband's chief of staff. "Like a good lawyer, she learned why she had lost the case," Panetta says. "She herself said that she had become the lightning rod." Chastened and defeated, Clinton plotted a retreat from the front page.

She would not get the chance. Just as Clinton was stepping off center stage, her husband's presidency was consumed with questions about the Clintons' involvement in the Whitewater scandal. The president felt distracted and put upon; his wife felt persecuted. In many senses, she was. Years before she would coin the phrase, an anti-Clinton right-wing conspiracy had already grown vast. The billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded dirt-digging expeditions into the private lives of both Clintons. A generation of blond conservative pundits was born on the cable airwaves, counting the ways in which Hillary did not speak for them. The scandals changed—Whitewater became Filegate became Monica Lewinsky became Impeachment—but Hillary was always near the center. (The Clintonites had a back-to-the-future moment last week when Norman Hsu, a bundler for Hillary's campaign, was arrested on a 15-year-old grand-theft charge.)

As First Lady, Clinton sometimes acted paranoid and saw enemies where they did not really exist. One eternal villain was the press. Washington reporters had it in for the Clintons, the First Lady told aides, in part because they resented the couple's success; permanent Washington, according to the view from the Clinton White House, thought of the Clintons as unsophisticated Arkansans who did not quite belong at the highest levels. Hoping to ease the tension, White House aides organized off-the record summits with editors and reporters where Hillary could show that she had nothing to hide in the Whitewater affair. When Len Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post, asked her if she had documents that proved the Clintons hadn't made money on the Whitewater deal, Hillary felt trapped. In his book "Spin Cycle," the Post's Howard Kurtz described the scene: "That was the day she knew she was screwed with The Post, she told a colleague afterward. To expect her to have all the documents at her fingertips was just unreasonable." (NEWSWEEK is owned by The Washington Post Company.)

The hunted Hillary put a high premium on loyalty. To the predominantly female coterie of aides who staffed the First Lady's office, Clinton was a giving, generous boss who always remembered birthdays, always wrote encouraging "job well done" notes, always called when a loved one died. Her husband's West Wing devolved into the petty jealousies of boys on the playground. But Hillary's aides in the East Wing kept their mouths shut. To this day, no close Hillary aide has written a tell-all memoir.

The protective cocoon around Hillary insulated her from her attackers, but it also cut her off from the world. The public soon came to accept a narrative of growth in Bill Clinton: chastened by the failure of health care and the election of the Republican Congress in 1994, Clinton had learned to believe in change through small-bore initiatives like midnight basketball programs for inner-city youth and school uniforms. With each new revelation of weakness, the president seemed more real. His wife, however, only seemed more remote. By the time her husband had been cleared of impeachment charges and she set out on her quest for the Senate from New York, it was unclear if Hillary had learned anything about the presidency, her husband or herself.

What no one could see was that the First Lady had been taking stock all along. Clinton launched her campaign for the Senate in July 1999 at Moynihan's farm in upstate New York. (The elder statesman was retiring from the Senate; he died in 2003.) The symbolism was clear: this new Hillary would work for common cause with reasonable people, whether they agreed with her entirely or not. Early in the campaign, some in New York's Democratic Party concluded that the candidate was too polarizing to make headway in conservative upstate New York and should focus solely on boosting her margins in New York City and its surrounding suburbs. But Clinton was eager to wade into unfriendly territory. Howard Wolfson, Clinton's senior communications adviser then and now, recalls her turning to him after a positive reaction from an audience on an early trip upstate. "We should be spending more time up here," she said. She was right; Clinton won her Senate seat with 55 percent of the vote, thanks in part to the long hours she'd spent talking about small issues upstate. Searching for Capitol Hill office space with Tamera Luzzatto, her new chief of staff, Clinton learned that a stately open suite in the Russell Senate Office Building had belonged to Moynihan. Luzzatto and Clinton looked at each other and said, "Karma—we've got to go for it."

The new Hillary even found ways to make use of her old nemesis, the press. As she geared up her Senate campaign in the summer of 1999, a persistent and uncomfortable question hung over the First Lady's candidacy: Why had she stayed with Bill? Manhattan journalist Lucinda Franks would soon tell the world the answer. Franks knew Hillary from Martha's Vineyard, where they both spent summer vacations; they'd clicked at dinner parties, and Clinton told Franks to let her know if she ever wanted an interview. Following the Lewinsky impeachment drama, Franks approached Clinton's press handlers with a request to interview the First Lady. After numerous rejections from Clinton's staff, Franks tried her luck with a friend of the First Lady's. Soon enough, she was invited to join Clinton on a trip to the Middle East. She was crammed in with the rest of the press corps, and barely caught a glimpse of her subject. Finally, on the last leg of the trip, she got her moment alone with Hillary, who'd just woken up from a nap. "She dragged herself out of bed, circles under her eyes," Franks recalls. "I think it was another reason she was so open."

Open indeed. Franks published her conversation with Clinton in the debut issue of the glossy magazine Talk. In it, Clinton described the president's transgressions as "sins of weakness." His actions had their roots in childhood, where Bill had lived through "terrible conflict" between his mother and grandmother. "A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of two women is the worst possible situation," Clinton was quoted as saying. "There is always the desire to please each one."

The article, published in the run-up to Clinton's campaign announcement, caused a stir—and then some. But Clinton herself said nothing. Walking on a desolate Vineyard beach later that summer, Franks saw a familiar face coming out of the fog. Her heart raced; it was Hillary. But the First Lady was laughing: "Well, we certainly made headlines." The Franks piece helped Clinton transform her public image from The Woman Scorned to The Woman Who Forgave. "I'm convinced she knew what she was doing," says Franks. "She wanted to explain this somehow."

Life as a senator set Hillary free. Days spent in the upper chamber of Congress are often arduous and dull; senators sit through endless committee meetings and staff briefings on small pieces of legislation, many of which will never make it into law. Other executive-branch veterans who'd found second homes in the Senate, like Robert Kennedy, had quickly tired of all the drudgery and quaint traditions. Clinton loved it. Having paid the price for acting too boldly and quickly, she was eager to dive into the small-detail stuff.

Just how minute the detail sometimes surprised her staff. From her first days in the Senate, Clinton told her staff she wanted to be kept abreast of matters big and small. Each weekend she pores over "weekly reports" prepared by her legislative office in Washington and her constituent office in New York. The reports are eight to 40 pages and range from updates on pending legislation to responses to Clinton's "Dear Colleague" letters to the names of New Yorkers killed that week in Afghanistan or Iraq. Reading the reports on airplanes or at home in Washington or Chappaqua, N.Y., Clinton marks up the margins with comments: "Great work," or "Let's discuss," or "Is it resolvable?" Once Clinton has finished marking up the reports, she gives the completed copies to her executive assistant, who makes a PDF and distributes it to the senior staff. Aides view the musings in the margins as windows on the senator's mind.

But success in the Senate was about more than controlling the paper flow; Clinton had to convince people who didn't agree with her, or even like her. The conversion narratives are by now clichéd: how Trent Lott, who wondered if "maybe lightning will strike" before Clinton could take her Senate seat, came to admire her low-key manner. How Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who'd served as a manager of the impeachment case against Clinton's husband, worked closely with Clinton on veterans issues on the Armed Services Committee. Clinton is quick to believe her own bipartisan hype. Asked if she has an easier time trusting Republicans as senator than she did as First Lady, she instead talks about how easy it's been for Republicans to trust her: "If you had said to me eight or nine years ago that I'd be working with Trent or Lindsey or a lot of these folks," she tells NEWSWEEK, "I would think you're probably a little cross-eyed."

Clinton's critics note that for all the bipartisan back-patting she gives herself, she has no transformative piece of legislation to show for it. Then again, who has produced transformative legislation in the past 10 years? While it is nearly impossible to find examples of Clinton's consciously putting her personal popularity at risk in order to work with the other side, it is indisputable that she is a more pragmatic thinker than the obstinate Hillary of health-care days. "Incremental steps can be very big," Luzzatto says.

To many in her party, however, Clinton is often too afraid of political risk. Their most compelling piece of evidence: Iraq. It is hard to remember now, but in her early days in the Senate, it was taken for granted that Clinton's greatest political imperative was to boost her hawk credentials. As a woman, and a Clinton, she had to prove that she could be as tough as any man if she ever wanted to run for the presidency. After joining the Senate Armed Services Committee, she immersed herself in details of force structure and military preparedness. She reached out to generals and formed a close bond with Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, an Army ranger and paratrooper. In October 2002, she joined 28 other Democrats in voting to authorize the Iraq War.

Clinton says the Iraq War vote was without "any doubt" the most important one she's made as senator, the product of a "difficult, painful, painstaking" decision-making process. Over and over in the campaign, she and her aides have said that her vote was one of principle, not expediency, that she sincerely believed her "yea" would give Colin Powell the leverage he needed to persuade the administration to wait to invade until it had the support of the United Nations. This is hard for many in either party to believe. "Everyone knew that was in fact a war resolution," says one former Clinton administration official, who now supports Obama and did not want to criticize Clinton on the record. "The overwhelming sense among the Dems then was that this was a politically sensitive vote. They didn't want to be on the wrong side of a winning war, and a popular president. Political calculations were pre-eminent in the decision." Indeed, in her persistent refusal to acknowledge that political realities played any role in her decision, she seems most like the old Hillary—incapable of admitting a flaw.

The young Clinton presidential campaign has, to date, been classic Hillary: disciplined, efficient and loyalty-obsessed. Her closest aides are veterans of her two runs for Senate in New York. In staffing the campaign, these senior loyalists had two criteria: find the best of the best and the brightest and find people who wanted to work for Hillary. "You would interview people and some people would say, 'I really want to do a presidential'," says a senior adviser who would speak about the campaign process only anonymously. 'That was the wrong answer. The right answer was, 'I really want to work for her'."

Clinton and her aides are smart enough to know that a reputation for loyalty enforcement may not be helpful after six and a half years of George W. Bush. She and her staff are quick to talk about the vigorous debate behind closed doors and how in meeting after meeting Clinton can be counted on to ask silent participants what they think. In the early days of the Obama campaign, Washington, New York and Los Angeles twittered with stories of Clinton staffers arm-twisting waffling Democrats, stories the Clinton campaign vigorously denied. Still, the message seems to have gotten through. "Every dinner I go to there's someone who starts all their conversations with, 'Well, I support Hillary'," says a Democratic donor who has given money to Clinton, Obama and Edwards, and would not even say which city he lived in on the record for fear of retribution from the Clintons. "It's 'The Hills Have Eyes'."

Candidate Clinton, of course, is above doing loyalty enforcement herself. It is clear to anyone who watches her that Clinton has a strong sense of what a president should and should not do. At the CNN-YouTube debate earlier this summer, she artfully chided Obama for putting the country's prestige at risk when he said he would be willing to talk to dictators. In prepping for the debate, her advisers reviewed countless YouTube submissions, but missed the dictators question. Clinton's answer, they say, was simply her own instinct.

But the real evidence about what kind of president Hillary would be may lie in the things she isn't saying—or isn't saying yet. Friends and advisers say that the current Iraq debate obscures a simple truth about Hillary Clinton: 15 years inside The System have made her a fervent believer in the strong, smart management of American power. "At this stage of the '91 campaign, Bill Clinton didn't know anything about the use of power and only a limited amount about international affairs," says a top aide who was aware he was deviating from campaign script and would discuss Clinton's thinking only anonymously. "She's tougher than he is. She's not going to advertise that during the primary process. But everyone who knows her knows that."

Or at least those who think they know her. It is a curious fact of the 2008 campaign that Hillary Clinton has been part of American life for so long and yet the details of her thinking, and the ways in which she makes decisions, are so little understood. To get the chance to change the country, she will have to make the case that she herself has changed.