Lessons Learned From Last Time

The campaign staff was furious. The candidate's spouse had spouted off again, making intemperate remarks and drawing attention away from the person actually running for president. The spouse was a "loose cannon," one staffer fretted. Control had to be exerted—or the campaign likely could be derailed.

It was 1992, and Hillary Rodham Clinton had just uttered her "cookies and tea" remarks after a reporter pressed her about her work at the Rose Law Firm while First Lady of Arkansas—as in "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies, and had teas. But what I decided to do," she said, "was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life."

The many, often contradictory public narratives of Hillary Clinton were first set in 1992. She was Madame Mao in a headband, a cold careerist bent on winning power at any cost. Or, to some feminists, she was a disappointment, a woman subsuming her persona in service of her husband. Her friends constantly fretted that the true Hillary—the one who remembers your birthday or is the first to call when personal tragedy strikes—was rarely seen outside her close circle. "In focus groups," Stan Greenberg, the 1992 Clinton campaign pollster, wrote in a memo early in the contest, "people think of her as being in the race 'for herself' and as 'going for the power.' More than Nancy Reagan she is seen as running the show."

How little has changed, even as she is now a two-term senator running for president.

I first met Hillary Clinton in the fall of 1991 when I covered her husband's campaign for NEWSWEEK's post-election issue. Reporters for this project promise candidates that nothing we learn will be revealed until after the election in exchange for close-up access to their campaigns. (A separate team of reporters covers the campaigns for Newsweek.com and the weekly magazine.) Bill Clinton cooperated extensively, giving me an intimate vantage point from which to observe. I thought then and believe today that Hillary Clinton is such a vexing public figure largely because she is a woman in the transitional generation that dramatically challenged gender roles and assumptions that led to the post-feminist world in which we now live.

The result is that she is both caricatured and complicit. Sometimes she stokes the gender issue, whining that she gets all the tough first questions in her debates with Barack Obama. Or, convinced—with some justification—that the press will always judge her by a shifting set of standards, she retreats into a cocoon of trusted friends who reinforce her self-pity. (When The New York Times ran its first article on the Whitewater land deal just days before the 1992 Super Tuesday elections, a difficult period for Bill, who was already fighting accusations of adultery and draft dodging, Hillary complained to me that "what's really terrible is finding out that things your father told you are true. He used to tell me, 'Hillary, don't forget two things about the establishment: it hates change and it will always protect its prerogatives'." How bizarre it must seem to her that she is now the establishment candidate and Obama is the insurgent.)

The truth is that she is an enormously complicated person, as most interesting people are, and the fact that she remains a figure of some mystery 16 years after she first emerged on the national stage is both her fault and ours in the press. Life in that insular bubble nearly killed her presidential campaign. She has, perhaps too late, become more accessible. The question is whether she and the media—and by extension the rest of the country—can ever move past the tired narratives that first emerged in 1992.

Still, Barack Obama and John McCain should study that campaign. For much of 1992, the campaign's internal polling showed Hillary had significantly high negatives. Then a remarkable thing happened—the Republican National Convention. As would be expected, Bill Clinton took much of the Republican assault. But a special scorn, shrill and almost comically over the top, was reserved for Hillary. Almost overnight her negatives dropped, and for the rest of that campaign most voters viewed her favorably. It happened again during the impeachment saga of her husband, and we have since seen it more than once. Nothing helps her more than to be attacked by her enemies (think of the phenomenon as a slightly bizarre twist on FDR's maxim about an unsavory Latin American potentate: "He may be an S.O.B., but he's our S.O.B."). For Hillary Clinton, the gender debate cuts both ways. And she knows it.