Letting Hillary Be Hillary

The Rev. Herman Bing is a popular man. Pastor of the red-brick Carpentersville Baptist Church in North Augusta, S.C.—a town of barbershops, strip malls and churches on the northern bank of the Savannah River—Bing, who was the late James Brown's minister, has been taking calls from the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of which are anxious for the 53-year-old preacher's endorsement before the state's Democratic primary on Jan. 26. The courtship between campaigns and African-American ministers is an ancient political rite, but for Bing, who is also a friend of Al Sharpton's, this is no ordinary time. Like many Democrats, he has been waiting a lifetime for a viable female presidential candidate or a viable black one. Now he and his party have one of each, and in the aftermath of Iowa and New Hampshire, the two camps are fighting over a great deal more than just Bing's endorsement. "I really hate that they had to run at the same time in the same election," says Bing. "It just makes what should be a wonderful situation very stressful for folk like me. I never imagined you could have too much of a good thing."

A continent away last Friday, in an empty classroom inside the sprawling Electrical Training Institute of IBEW Local 11 in Commerce City, Calif., I read Bing's words to Clinton, who, while she listened, took a sip of water and nodded knowingly, a look of recognition in her eyes. She had heard this before. "I understand that," she said. "What a good problem to have. Two leading candidates for president, a woman and an African-American, who are being viewed, I hope, on our merits, our qualifications, our records, our plans, our vision. I don't think it's easy for either of us. And I really commend Senator Obama for the very graceful way that he has navigated this campaign. I wish it didn't have to be a choice. I think a lot of people who are torn between us feel that way."

She pauses for the briefest of beats. "But it is a contest," she says, "and the contrasts have to be drawn and the questions have to be asked because, obviously, I wouldn't be in this race and working as hard as I am unless I thought I am uniquely qualified at this moment in our history to be the president we need starting in 2009. And I think it is informed by my deep experience over the last 35 years, my firsthand knowledge of what goes on inside a White House."

Torn is a tough word, but Clinton is right: it aptly captures how many Americans, and not just Democrats, already feel about 2008. Some women are nursing guilt over supporting Obama; some African-Americans worry they are doing the wrong thing by voting for Clinton. And these are early days: we are only just beginning to grapple with the questions of race and gender that the campaign will raise again and again through November. Sometimes the grand statement has the virtue, as Henry Kissinger is said to have remarked, of being true. This is one of those times: every election changes the country in some way, but the campaign now moving out of the largely white states of Iowa and New Hampshire to the rest of the country will soon mean that the politically engaged across America will be presented with the likelihood that a woman or an African-American will be the Democratic nominee and perhaps the president. And, as Clinton says, it's a good "problem" to have.

Journalists (and politicians) have a weakness for breaking things down into overly simplistic dichotomies, but here are a few of the contending forces at play, particularly within the Democratic Party, in the aftermath of Obama's victory in Iowa and Clinton's surprising win in New Hampshire: race vs. gender, youth vs. experience, novelty vs. familiarity. Until last week, race and youth and novelty seemed to be carrying the day. Then, on the morning of the day before the voting, in a Portsmouth, N.H., diner, a female questioner asked Clinton how she kept going through it all. The mask of command slipping, Clinton spoke honestly, her voice cracking, saying, "I just don't want to see us go backwards." The moment was about her main opponent, too, when she added: "Some of us are right and some of us are wrong, some of us are ready and some of us are not." This moment and her subsequent 2-percentage-point win brought an odd truth to light: though Hillary Rodham Clinton has been on the periphery or in the middle of national life for decades (from being featured in Life as Wellesley's commencement speaker in 1969 to serving as First Lady and the junior senator from New York), she is one of the most recognizable but least understood figures in American politics.

She seems to get that at last. "I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice," she told New Hampshire voters. To say it is late in the game for a major politician to have found one's voice is too glib. Many public figures are works in progress, and they are all certainly human. Clinton's primary victory is a new chance for voters to get to know her beyond the caricatures, positive and negative, that have for so long defined her. "Everyone forgets she went to law school when women were not 50 percent of each law-school class, and certainly not seen as litigators," says Maria Echaveste, a senior adviser to Clinton's campaign. "When you were breaking down walls, it wasn't enough to be equally tough. You had to build a shell to protect yourself. That's what she did."

That shell cracked a bit in New Hampshire, and Clinton now believes it has to stay cracked. "What I realized is that the reason I do this, why I get up every day, why I believe in our country and the importance of leadership, was not getting across the way that I wanted it to," Clinton told NEWSWEEK about Iowa. She continued: "I get so focused on what I want to do as president that I get a little wonky, I get a little out there, with details, with five-point plans for this and 10-point plans for that, and I think that what I'm proposing really is both achievable and important, but it's not what gets me up, so why should it get voters excited? It sounds almost overly simplistic, but I had enough time in the Senate race for people to see me as a human being, they could see me in all of my dimensions, and they could draw their own conclusions. They could discover that I really mean what I say, that I come from a family and a faith tradition where I do think it's about what you do and not what you say, and they could put all that together. But in the presidential campaign I think I sort of pocketed too much of that. I thought, well, I've been in the public eye for so long now, and as a senator I first defied expectations to get elected and immediately went to work with Republicans, I did a lot to try to solve the problems we faced, so, obviously, people will [infer] that I'm doing it because I really care about the outcomes. I don't think that was a smart assumption for me to make, or for my campaign to make, very honestly."

This is not the year for making any assumptions. The decisions facing many Democrats can be found in the Berkeley, Calif., home of Echaveste and her husband, Christopher Edley, who met as Clinton White House staffers. Edley, a former member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission who chaired Bill Clinton's "mend it, don't end it" affirmative-action review, is supporting Obama. In any other year, Edley says, he would have been "thrilled" to back the nation's first viable female candidate for president. But this is not just any year. "Without diminishing the importance of electing a woman," Edley says, "I think electing an African-American would be even more extraordinary." And until now, no matter who emerged as the nominee, both Echaveste and Edley were savoring what he called a "season of hope."

That season has already been cut short. In a debate on the Saturday night between the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton was asked why more people seemed to like Obama than they did her. Her response was charmingly ironic: "Well, that hurts my feelings." Sitting a few feet away, fresh from his big win in Iowa, Obama made a crack that, if intended as a joke, failed badly: "You're likable enough, Hillary"—a moment many women found condescending and off-putting. He has also suggested that Clinton's years as First Lady do not count as experience, saying that she was not exactly the Treasury secretary. "There is a gender-related stereotype that worries me," says Edley. "I've cringed at the dismissive tone people have taken towards Hillary's service as First Lady. Dismissing the substantial informal role that she played—which everyone in the policy and political apparatus felt on occasion—mostly reflects ignorance of the behind-the-scenes details. But I worry that the dismissiveness also reflects, or feeds, stereotypes about the role of women. Then, in turn, [Clinton] is in a box because a full defense and explanation of her role could be misread either as self-aggrandizing or 'I'm-no-cookie-baker' redux."

On the morning after Iowa, Clinton was working on about an hour's sleep. On a bus heading to her first New Hampshire event, a staffer said, "This is a rally; you need to give them a rah-rah speech, leave them pumped up." Then: "We don't think you should take questions."

Clinton, who had seemed to be paying only half-attention, looked up. "Huh?" she said.

"We don't think you should take questions."

"Look, guys, I'm taking questions, as many as we can do." She had screwed up in Iowa, she was coming to believe, because she had been too removed, played it cool. It had been a mistake.

This anecdote, which comes from a source close to the Clinton campaign who wants to remain anonymous discussing the candidate, is predictably self-serving. It does, however, speak to the issue Clinton faced coming out of Iowa, and still faces. Until New Hampshire, she campaigned for president as though everyone knew her, but many of them did not like the Clinton they thought they knew—or at least they liked Obama more. She assumed, she told NEWSWEEK, that voters knew the Hillary who had come to New York in 1999, introduced herself on her own terms, and had become a successful senator.

She was wrong, and has, by necessity, become suddenly accessible to voters and journalists. Whether she would be trying to humanize herself if she had won Iowa is an interesting but ultimately irrelevant question. She bears a lot of the responsibility for the negative narrative that has so long enveloped her, from her 1992 comments seeming to disparage stay-at-home mothers ("I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas") and stay-with-husband wives ("I'm not some little Tammy Wynette") to her resistance to compromise on health care and on Whitewater.

But most political figures who are in the arena for a long time—or even a short time—make mistakes, say things they should not, and whatever the merits, wind up caricatured and under siege; Thomas Jefferson faced the equivalent of attack ads in 1800, so we are not exactly in unexplored territory. Is she retooling in order to win? Do we even need to ask that? This is a campaign, and campaigns are about not only vision but votes.

In New Hampshire, Bill Clinton appeared to dismiss Obama's campaign as "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," a remark that infuriated many African-Americans. "When has 'black' and 'fairy tale' ever been mentioned in the same sentence?" asked Todd Boyd, professor of African-American and Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. "That was just insulting, and he needs to be very careful." Clinton called Al Sharpton's radio show to clarify, arguing that the "fairy tale" remark was limited to Obama's claim that he would have opposed the Iraq War if he had been in the Senate in 2002–03 despite expressing some doubts to The New York Times in 2004: "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made." And when Hillary Clinton noted that while Martin Luther King Jr. marched, it "took a president"—Lyndon Johnson—to get civil-rights legislation passed and signed, the comment prompted some Obama supporters to say that Clinton was minimizing King. By late last week, South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn felt compelled to issue a statement calling for a ceasefire: "I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use. This is an historic race for America to have such strong, diverse candidates vying for the Democratic nomination." John Lewis, the Georgia congressman, civil-rights veteran and perennial optimist, said, "I hope we will put these issues of gender and race to rest and return to the marketplace of politics."

But what if the experience of the post-Iowa presidential campaign proves true as the contest moves out of largely white states: that gender and race are inevitable forces in the political marketplace? Some Clinton supporters think they are at a disadvantage in this conversation; gender, they say, is fair game, but race is not. "How do I raise what I consider to be legitimate questions about his experience and record without appearing to play the race card?" asks Echaveste.

It's a good question, and one made even trickier by reserves of pro-Obama sentiment in the black community—a community often vital in Democratic primaries. Samuel Robinson, the mayor pro tem of Awendaw, S.C., a rural town between Charleston and Georgetown, says: "I kind of think that Ms. Clinton is relying on the fact that blacks have embraced and continue to embrace Mr. Clinton. In the black community, Mr. Clinton has been elevated to the status of honorary black brother. She can sort of ride on the coattails of that abiding affection. But there's a big, horrible split. Black folks love the Clintons, but they also see in Mr. Obama hope, to borrow Jesse Jackson's phrase: keeping hope alive. He's been able to do what no black, from Jesse Jackson to Al Sharpton or any other, has been able to do. He's been able not just to inspire hope but to incite it. I've had conversations with other blacks in my church and community who are saying, 'Sam, we've got to support him.' In spite of people saying he's not electable, in the final analysis, they're saying, 'We've got to make a statement'."

The tangled issues seem to arise daily, even hourly. I asked a colleague of mine, an African-American woman who lives in neither Iowa nor New Hampshire, to write me a note describing her private feelings about the campaign. "I was a Hillary supporter going into the primaries," she said. "When Barack won in Iowa, I felt like a traitor to my race. What if this really is a moment where a black president is possible and I was going to vote for the woman! I felt awful. I constructed this whole complicated theory that I was resistant to the election of Barack because, if he won, then I and every other black person in the world was going to have to accept a new paradigm in American race relations—namely racism is not as pervasive and encompassing as we might like to believe and that the victim stance was going to be pretty hard to claim in the future. So then I became really excited and imagined how inspirational a black president would be, especially to the young black men who feel hopeless. Then came the 'You're likable enough, Hillary' moment, and I swung sharply back to Hillary. I thought: 'Great, another man who resents strong women and therefore resorts to personal insults to demean her'." In sum: from Clinton to Obama then back to Clinton—in the space of about four days.

Presidential candidates usually find themselves starring in at least two different versions of the same movie—one dark and tragic, the other sunlit and sweeping. The Ronald Reagan of 1980 was either a forgetful nuclear cowboy or a welcome figure of strength in an age of drift. The George W. Bush of 1999 was either a legacy hire who had blown the first four decades of his life and could not name the president of Pakistan, or he was likable and engaging and seemed warmer and looser than Al Gore. This year Barack Obama is either a smooth but insubstantial media-created savior, or he is the embodiment of hope and change whose election would transform America, redeeming us from our racial sins. And Hillary Clinton is either the boomer Daisy Buchanan who has ruthlessly plotted her way to power so that she can bring about a liberal utopia, or she is the hardworking, experienced policymaker and advocate who knows how to fight the good fight in Washington.

Like so many politicians, and so many of us, neither Obama nor Clinton is as perfect or as flawed as their devotees and detractors believe. Clinton knows more about this dynamic than nearly anyone else in contemporary politics; for 16 years, since she moved into the White House as First Lady, she has been lionized and vilified, hailed and hunted. As she reintroduces herself to the voters she hopes will make her president, she will be drawing on a lifetime of being alternately calculating and idealistic, arrogant and vulnerable, hopeful and fatalistic. She is driven by the conviction that politics can make the world, if not perfect, at least better, and by the confidence that she is innately suited to exercising power in the pursuit of the good. With his two memoirs and rapid national rise, Obama has successfully made his personal narrative more widely known than Clinton's pre-Arkansas, pre-White House story. Neither her vision of the world nor her belief in herself is rooted in the five days between the 2008 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, but much farther back, in her childhood and in her church.

She was always, it seems, in charge, seeking out roles that conferred both responsibility and power. Her fifth-grade teacher tasked her and her female classmates with keeping unruly boys in line. "I got a reputation for being able to stand up to them," she recalled. She was president of the Fabian fan club in Park Ridge, Ill., even if there were only two other members; her father did not give her an allowance ("I feed you, don't I?" asked the conservative Republican Hugh Rodham), which led her to find a summer job "supervising a small park a few miles from my house." It was not easy—Hillary had to pull a wagon of balls, bats and jump-ropes those few miles—but at 13, about the time Obama was born, she was learning that life required resilience. When she was 4, she was afraid of playing with a neighbor, Suzy O'Callaghan, who, Hillary recalled, "was always pushing me around." Running inside one day, afraid, Hillary found an unsympathetic Dorothy Rodham awaiting. "Go back out there," Hillary's mother told her, "and if Suzy hits you, you have my permission to hit her back. You have to stand up for yourself. There's no room in this house for cowards." Hillary absorbed the lesson, squared her shoulders and sallied forth. Mrs. Rodham's hawkish counsel worked. "I can play with the boys now!" Hillary announced on her return. "And Suzy will be my friend!" An early lesson that has proved useful: hit back when you get hit, and then try to win over your foes.

She has never lacked for confidence. At 13, she used a pay phone at school during lunch hour to call Mayor Richard Daley's office to register her unease about reports of pro-Kennedy voter fraud, which she and a friend then investigated on the South Side of Chicago with unhappy Republicans one Saturday morning. (They did not tell their parents where they were going.) What was the source of the confidence? "I think it came from both of my parents," she says. She adds: "My father was raised with brothers, he was a football player and a boxer, he was a chief petty officer in the Navy, he was a man of his times. He didn't really know what to do with a daughter, so he just pretty much said, let's throw the football, let's learn how to switch-hit. It was his way of relating to me, and it was all about sports and doing well in school, and it was really a strong spur to me to earn his support and his approval. But it also built my confidence at the same time. Going out and playing football or baseball with the boys, when I was a tomboy, was a great way to learn about winning and losing, and most girls didn't have that experience … [A lot of research about postwar women shows that] most young women who became successful in the outer world did have a father who either ignored the barriers or explicitly said they are not there for you." Her mother taught self-reliance: "My mother, who had had to make her own way in life, believed that she would do everything she could to give us a good start in life and protect us and prepare us, but at the end of the day, life was unpredictable, you never knew what was going to happen, you had to be prepared to take care of yourself, you had to be willing to stand up for yourself. So I had not just one but two really powerful messages, each coming out of my parents' very different experiences, but combining to give me that confidence, to give me the feeling that I should do what I thought was right for my life and make the decisions that would be best for me."

Her mother was uninterested in conformity. "You're unique," Dorothy Rodham would tell her daughter. "You can think for yourself. I don't care if everybody's doing it. We're not everybody. You're not everybody." At Maine Township High School South, Hillary ran for student-government president in an otherwise all-male field. In her memoir, "Living History," she says the loss "hurt," particularly when one of her opponents remarked that she was "really stupid if I thought a girl could be elected President." Inspired by JFK's vision of a moon landing, the teenage Hillary wrote to NASA to volunteer for astronaut training, only to be told that girls were not being considered for the program. "It was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn't overcome with hard work and determination," Clinton recalls in her memoir, "and I was outraged."

She heard different voices growing up. "The gender gap started in families like mine," she recalls, with her quietly Democratic mother and her overtly Republican father. Her ninth-grade history teacher liked to play recordings of Douglas MacArthur's farewell address to the Congress for his class, and he would offer his own peroration: "Better dead than red!" In April 1962, she went with her Methodist Youth Fellowship group to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, where King delivered a speech titled "Remaining Awake Through a Revolution." (That was also the title of his final Sunday sermon, delivered at Washington's National Cathedral on March 31, 1968.) In 1964, she was supporting Goldwater (whom she went to see campaigning) and a classmate was backing LBJ; to mix things up in a mock debate, a teacher had Hillary make the case for Johnson and the LBJ fan was assigned the Goldwater cause. "So I immersed myself—for the first time—in President Johnson's Democratic positions on civil rights, health care, poverty and foreign policy," Clinton says in her book. "I resented every hour spent in the library reading the Democrats' platform and White House statements. But as I prepared for the debate, I found myself arguing with more than dramatic fervor."

Father and mother, MacArthur and King, Goldwater and Johnson: quite a chorus. John Wesley was an influential voice, too. The founder of Methodism, his creed was demanding but straightforward: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." Her religion is not showy, but it is substantial. "In my family, we were Americans, we were Republicans and we were Methodists," Hillary says. "It all kind of combined in me to motivate me in my faith life, in love of my country, in my work in politics. 'Do all the good you can'—how do you do that? Well, I was raising money for the United Way when I was 10 years old. I was running little summer Olympics that kids would contribute a penny or a dime to so that we could give the money then to the poor people. And I was baby-sitting the children of migrant workers through my church—I mean, it was just who I was. It gave me a perspective at a young age, growing up in an all-white suburb, being given all of those advantages in that post-World War II era by that generation of my father's who bought those homes, and raised the kids and paid for public schools and all the rest. But it was constantly a reminder to me that this is not all there is to life. You can't get comfortable."

Hillary entered a larger, more diverse world at Wellesley College from 1965 to 1969. In her book, she recalls walking across campus with a new black friend, "self-conscious about my motives and hyperaware that I was moving away from my past." She worked for Eugene McCarthy against LBJ in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, and attended a march of mourning at Post Office Square in Boston when King was murdered in April of that year.

Now, 40 years on, she must bridge another uncomfortable divide—seeking to defeat a black man without antagonizing black voters. "I think it's going to be so interesting to see how the Clintons attempt to attack a black man when black people have been in their back pocket all these years," says the Rev. Al Sharpton. "As much as black people love them, they won't take too well to Bill or Hillary attacking another black person too strongly."

As always in politics, though, Obama has his own issues when it comes to dealing with traditional interest-group agendas. "In our talks, I've made it clear that more focus has to be on issues important to blacks," says Sharpton, who has spoken with both Michelle and Barack Obama. "I don't think there is a way around him addressing some of the issues blacks are interested in. Otherwise the Clintons can just stroll off with that vote."

Obama knows the terrain, and works it quietly. Forty-eight hours after New Hampshire, he was in Charleston, S.C., and invited 35 pastors and religious leaders to a private session after a huge College of Charleston rally. "He wanted to speak clearly to our historical role as a voice—particularly the African-American churches," the Rev. Charles Heyward, an influential minister in suburban Charleston, tells NEWSWEEK. "But he was also clear to acknowledge that even in that room there could be folks supporting other candidates. He didn't take it for granted, and I thought that was very professional and appropriate."

Perhaps because he does not have to—his very appearance says "change" loudly enough—Obama speaks of race as part of a broader American narrative. In conceding defeat in New Hampshire (in what he had expected to be a victory speech), he evoked civil rights in the gentlest and, to whites, least threatening of ways. Speaking of an American spirit of "Yes, we can," Obama said: "It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes, we can. It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness. Yes, we can. It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our New Frontier and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land. Yes, we can, to justice and equality."

When he speaks more extensively about civil rights, he tells the story from the perspective of black and white Freedom Riders, not simply from the viewpoint of southern African-Americans. Rebutting the criticism that "hope" is not enough, he says: "That's what those young people did as they traveled down South and marched and sat in at lunch counters and suffered fire hoses and beatings and attack dogs and some gave up their life for freedom's cause. That's what hope is." And, as voting begins to play out in the West, he—like Clinton—will have to speak even more extensively to address the concerns of Hispanics, who in large measure have been greatly alienated by the debate over illegal immigration.

Obama has implicitly mocked Clinton's critique of his gospel of hope. Cynics, he says—meaning Clinton—would have dismissed going to the moon as naive. In her post-New Hampshire mode, Clinton is honing a two-pronged approach: telling more of her own story, but always connecting, in campaign-speak, rhetoric to reality. No matter how bad things have been or may get again—and they usually do with the Clintons—Hillary says: "I always find those moments of grace, and I always see something that makes it important enough to keep going. When somebody says that if it hadn't been for me they aren't sure their son would have survived because I fought with some insurance company to get them health care, I think, well, that's what politics is supposed to be about. I love that, and that's why I do what I do. And after President Bush, it's maybe more important than ever because a lot of people made a decision to vote for him that was not connected to any political narrative. It was a totally personal narrative. I have always been a little suspicious, to be honest, with a personal narrative … There were some of the demagogues, Huey Long and others. For their time, they were unbelievable communicators and they gave people such a feeling of, on the one hand, hitting back against the forces that had undermined their futures or, on the other hand, that it was going to be automatically better if we elected that person. I have always been suspicious of that. How do we find a space in our politics for someone who, as I am, is committed to being a workhorse, not a show horse? I love saying that faith without works is dead, but works without faith is too hard." She mentions no names. She does not have to, and one suspects that such subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle—exercises in what Clinton calls "contrasts" will come with ever-greater speed and force in the days and weeks ahead.

With that, she is soon gone, out into the California sunshine. She has money to raise, then, ultimately, a flight to South Carolina, where folk like the Reverend Bing are waiting.