Inside Hillary's D.C. Game

Rarely able to sleep in, Hillary Clinton got up early one February morning in 1995 and glanced at stories on the front page of The Washington Post. Nothing too exciting: a federal crackdown on telemarketers, a marathon swimmer setting a record. Then a headline caught Hillary's eye. The Defense Department was attempting to slash $150 million for breast-cancer research that had been tucked into the Pentagon budget. The First Lady was furious. For years she'd worked to raise awareness about the disease and fund efforts to find a cure. Now her own administration was cutting back. She quickly called her top staffers: this is wrong, she told them.

Hillaryland went into action. Her staff talked to White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. He wasn't surprised to hear from them. Panetta had already gotten an earful from the First Lady's husband. Panetta fired off a letter telling Defense Secretary William Perry that "the president was very disturbed" about the funding cuts. Before the sun set that day, the Pentagon was in retreat, with Perry vowing to protect the money.

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he offered the country a "two for one" deal: elect him and get Hillary free. Mrs. Clinton envisioned herself breaking from the mold of past First Ladies and promoting a far more sweeping policy agenda. Yet those expectations were crushed early on. Her first major undertaking--the elaborate plan to reform the nation's health-care system--was a painful failure, widely ridiculed as cumbersome and confusing. Wounded, she publicly retreated to less controversial issues--preserving the arts, preventing teen pregnancy, curbing school violence. Mrs. Clinton did little to counter a growing public view that she had become a more traditional First Lady. This was partly out of necessity. After health care, Hillary was a political pariah. Few in the Capitol or White House wanted her associated with their causes. "She became a sadder person," says one former administration aide. "Whatever sun she had in her view of Washington was erased."

Yet behind the scenes, Mrs. Clinton was anything but a retiring First Lady. Largely ignored by the press, she quietly continued working on the wide range of child and family issues she had long cared deeply about. Over the past seven years, she has forced through major initiatives on adoption, child care, welfare reform and foreign aid--and has even managed to salvage provisions from her health-care plan. Her public-approval ratings also have improved--slowly, at first, then rapidly when she played the loyal wife during the Lewinsky scandal. Hillary can often get bureaucratic wheels moving--or stop them dead--with a simple phone call, making her a critical resource for frustrated policy warriors.

Now, as she officially launches her New York campaign for the Senate, Hillary's aides have reversed their public-relations strategy and offered glimpses of the candidate as an aggressive and committed policymaker and strategist. Her supporters, who previously minimized Mrs. Clinton's policy role, are now being encouraged by the White House to describe every detail of her backstage dealings. That image may not match what Americans seek in a First Lady, but aides hope it's exactly what they want in a senator.

After the health-care debacle, Hillary vowed to take "smaller steps" toward her goals. Wary of the capital, she attended policy seminars and town-hall meetings around the country. She'd embarked on similar "listening tours" back in Arkansas (and has since revived the practice for her Senate campaign). Hillary would return full of ideas from her forays, lugging a crate packed with handscrawled notes, letters and newspaper articles. Staffers came to dread the sight of that crate, knowing they would be stuck listening to Hillary for hours as she sorted through the scraps of paper one by one, often reading them aloud. She prodded them to come up with solutions to the problems she'd encountered on the road. "I don't understand," she'd say. "Why can't we do this?" In the weeks after the marathon crate sessions, Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, and her policy team would scramble to answer their demanding boss's questions, meeting with White House policy staff and cabinet members and seeking the advice of professors and policy experts.

Mrs. Clinton often seemed most relaxed abroad, where she felt free to assert herself more boldly. At U.N. summits in Copenhagen and later Beijing, she had what one aide calls an "epiphany." She was surprised at how much even relatively small doses of foreign aid could improve the lives of children and families in developing countries. The word soon spread in policy circles that Hillary was passionate about protecting foreign-aid dollars. When the Republican Congress tried to slash those funds in 1995, the administration's foreign-aid chief, Brian Atwood, sought Mrs. Clinton's help. Hillary dispatched her staff to the White House to fight the cuts and instructed them to push the budget office for more money. The ploy worked. "Every single year she would convince them they had to go $500 million or $1 billion more," Atwood recalls. At one official luncheon, Atwood says, the president ribbed him about Hillary's cash grabs. "The First Lady called me this morning," Clinton told him. "Every time she travels she wants more money for your agency."

On road trips, Mrs. Clinton was also besieged by gulf-war vets complaining of mysterious ailments. She instructed her staff to look into it, and hired a former congressional aide to brief her on the issue. When the Pentagon was slow to act, Hillary prodded the president and wrote him a lengthy memo. Her husband eventually took up the cause. He delivered a major policy speech on gulf-war syndrome, and appointed a presidential commission to study it.

At times the First Lady has broken with her deliberate, staff-led approach and done the pushing herself. In late 1997 Hillary's long-sought efforts to speed up adoption procedures--another "listening tour" issue--finally came to the Senate floor. But there was a snag. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin tied an amendment to the bill, a plan to set up a national registry making it easier for adoptees and birthparents to find each other. The amendment threatened to kill the bill. Hillary invited Levin to the White House for a chat. The two talked alone for half an hour. When Levin emerged, he withdrew his plan. Yet Mrs. Clinton has been reluctant to make noise on Capitol Hill. "The majority up here has such a strong and negative reaction to her, it's often more productive for her to be sub rosa," says one senior Democratic Senate staffer.

Still, Hillary gained a reputation as a West Wing fixer. When former Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler prepared to resign in early 1997, he fretted about a piece of unfinished business: requiring drug companies to test their products for the safety of children as well as adults. Though he'd only met her a few times, Kessler went to see Mrs. Clinton. "I need you to help me see that this gets done," he said. Hillary agreed to shepherd the proposal and, by the end of 1998, the FDA had issued new rules.

Health care remains at the top of the First Lady's agenda, though she has embraced a more modest approach. In 1997 the White House planned to spend $24 billion to provide health-insurance coverage to low-income families. Hillary suggested a different strategy: focus only on insuring children--which would be hard for Republicans to oppose--and come back to parents later. The law passed; at Hillary's (and Al Gore's) urging, the president included coverage for parents in next year's budget. She also persuaded the White House to double federal funding for children's hospitals to $80 million, and fought to win Medicare coverage for annual mammograms.

In the better part of a year that Mrs. Clinton has spent "listening" to New York voters, she has collected dozens of new stories. The crate is once again full, this time with tales of falling milk prices and high electricity rates, crime and school overcrowding--just the sort of worthy, wonky issues to quicken Hillary's heart. But this time she hopes that taking her causes public will get another Clinton elected to office.

Inside Hillary's D.C. Game | News