Now it's her turn. After a quarter century of standing by Bill Clinton—and rising to power with him—the First Lady is ready for a run of her own. Where will she make her mark? In the Senate or on the world stage? The road ahead is risky, but at the moment Mrs. Clinton is the hottest commodity in American public life.
The idea first occurred to Charlie Rangel, the powerful 14-term congressman from Harlem, as he listened to the crowds screaming for Hillary Clinton at a rally in Chicago last fall. ""If you run for the Senate, you should run in New York,'' he told the First Lady afterward. He was surprised when she didn't dismiss the notion. So the congressman brought it up again when he saw her at the president's State of the Union address in January. Mrs. Clinton had obviously been pondering her future. She replied that she was ""serious'' about running for the Senate, but insisted, ""I can't think about it until the impeachment trial is over.''
She waited, maybe, 10 minutes. As the gavel fell on the acquittal of President Clinton on Friday, Feb. 12, Hillary was sitting down to lunch with former White House aide Harold Ickes, an old hand at New York politics. Just a social lunch, said a White House spokesperson, but knowledgeable sources say the main item on the menu was whether the First Lady should make a run to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who is retiring in January 2001. By the next day, Mrs. Clinton was working the phones, polling friends and advisers. Last Friday she met with Moynihan for a county-by-county discussion of New York state politics. With more politicos, lawyers and labor leaders on the First Lady's schedule in coming weeks, her friends were making even odds that Hillary Clinton will seek to become Senator Clinton.
It's her turn now. After a quarter century of standing by Bill Clinton—and rising to power with him—the woman who got him through moot court at Yale Law is emerging as the hottest commodity in American public life. She weathered years of scandal—some of her own making, some of her husband's—and has earned widespread public approval. (In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 56 percent view her favorably and only 26 percent unfavorably.) The public knows more than it ever wanted to about her husband, but is only just beginning to learn about her. Enigmatic and stoic, at once a familiar face and yet little understood, Mrs. Clinton could find herself in new territory—for herself and for the country.
The talk of her running for office is just one possible next chapter. She could be a highly paid author, an ambassador or a foundation head; there are any number of places or ways for her to make her own mark. ""It Takes a Village,'' her major policy book, was a best seller; publishing observers think she could get as much as $5 million for her next volume. If she took to the speaking circuit, she could make up to $60,000 per appearance. She could do both while serving on corporate boards and running a foundation. But money is not the only object: each of these options would give her a voice and let her set her own agenda—one independent, at long last, from her husband's.
The press, suffering from Monica withdrawal, gave the Hillary-for-Senate story enormous play. The First Lady, seemingly elated by the change of subject, signaled that she was in no rush to make up her mind. As one friend said, she had to enjoy ""the delicious irony'' that so many people were clamoring for her to run for office so soon after her husband had narrowly avoided being kicked out of his. ""For a year, it's been, "she's the victim, how could she stand by her man, poor pitiful Hillary','' said a former White House official. ""Now it's "Of course she'd win!' Why should she want that to stop?'' President Clinton appeared happy to let his wife bask in the glow. At his first press conference since the impeachment trial, the questions were largely about Hillary—not Monica or ""Jane Doe No. 5.'' Indeed, the headlines were so positive that veteran Clinton watchers immediately suspected a ploy to distract from any lingering questions about the Lewinsky scandal.
But there is a deeper story behind Hillary's senatorial ambitions and the strong public reaction they arouse. (In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 78 percent think Hillary would make an effective senator.) In part, people are curious about the latest act in the complex and mysterious melodrama of the Clinton marriage. In the celebrity culture, Hillary ranks somewhere between Gwyneth Paltrow and the late Princess Diana; she can create a buzz by just changing her haircut. But millions of women and not a few men are also fascinated by Hillary's personal struggle and its resonance for the postfeminist age. She has never liked the role of dependent, much less victim. She has always searched, not always successfully, for a way to keep her dignity and preserve her family while earning power in her own right.
The First Lady can find any number of reasons not to run for office. She would be passing up a chance to cash in—and pay off all those legal bills. She'd have to jump into the media snake pit of New York. And if she won, she'd be a low-ranking senator in an institution built on seniority. Once in office—still living in the Washington she's come to loathe—she'd have to spend as much time on ""pothole issues'' as she would on saving the world. Still, her friends say, all these negatives may be eclipsed by simple idealism. In an ironic, Washington-hating age, Hillary's sometimes self-righteous dutifulness may seem quaint or hokey, but to her, public service is still a real and urgent obligation. It has been since she shone in her Methodist youth group as an earnest teenager. She was always the policy person while Bill was the politician. She never showed much interest in running for office herself, though her friends wish she had and sometimes even wonder if the wrong Clinton wound up in the White House. It's not, they say, too late.
For the past six years, Hillary has tried, with grinding determination and mixed results, to redefine the role of First Lady. Many, indeed most, modern First Ladies have wielded influence behind the scenes (Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush). Hillary sought to bring that power into the open. Too many people, however, saw her as Lady Macbeth. Her great cause—health-care reform—foundered in part because it was ill-conceived, but also because it was regarded as a palace conspiracy. Reactions were surprisingly violent; in Kentucky, Hillary was burned in effigy. Still, she did not sulk. Instead, she went abroad, spreading her ""It Takes a Village'' gospel and standing up for oppressed women. She inveighed against bride burning in India, female genital mutilation in Africa, forced abortions in China. She became an icon, drawing adoring throngs—and boosting her poll ratings back home.
They climbed higher when the Monica story broke and Hillary became the Woman Wronged. She lashed back at first, decrying the ""vast right-wing conspiracy,'' but then became quiet and loyal. In time, she achieved a kind of serenity; by December she was posing for Vogue and was hailed for her dignity in the face of betrayal. There was one problem: she hated what she calls ""the pity press,'' the mawkish tributes to her chin-up stoicism. Running for the Senate offers Hillary the chance to earn her status—to owe the voters, not her husband. Winning a high elective office would make her a power in her own right.
She would not find the Senate warm and welcoming, especially if the Republicans stay in control. Many of her colleagues will have voted to convict her husband of high crimes. Much of the Washington media establishment would be all too ready to see her fail. In the beginning, she would have little clout on her committees or on the floor. No matter, say her more optimistic advisers. Coming of age at the time of the Great Society and the debates over civil rights, she has a nostalgic view of the Senate. Her model would be Robert F. Kennedy, who was not so much the junior senator from New York as a global crusader. Like RFK, she could make camera lights shine in dark places of neglect. Unlike RFK, Hillary actually likes the minutiae of policy wonkery. She could fight over the fine print of that federal transportation grant to Utica.
Of course, to represent Utica (or Buffalo or Brooklyn), she'd have to go there, early and often. The carpetbagger charge would probably not stick in a state with a traditionally cosmopolitan view of its senators. She wouldn't have to actually declare her residency until Election Day, and a hotel room would legally suffice (RFK rented an estate in Glen Cove and stayed at the Carlyle). Even so, she'd be on the campaign trail and away from the White House for weeks at a time. The snickering is inevitable: was the president glad to have her out of the house?
More likely, a Senate run by the First Lady would strengthen the Clintons' marriage. Running for office is what the Clintons do together—10 campaigns since 1974. With the exception of raising Chelsea, politics has always been their favorite shared pastime. Though Hillary is sometimes seen as more liberal than Bill, in fact they are both middle-of-the-roaders. Hillary sees a Senate campaign as a way to keep her husband's ""third way'' legacy alive. The president is more than eager to help. Indeed, Clinton has been toying with a Hillary-for-Senate run since at least last August, when the Lewinsky story was taking an ominous turn with the discovery of the semen-stained dress. At a tony East Hampton fund-raiser at the home of actor Alec Baldwin, the applause for Hillary was loud and incessant. Leaning over to Democratic Party chair Judith Hope, Clinton whispered, ""They love her in New York.'' Hope agreed, ""She owns New York.'' Clinton mused, ""Maybe she should run for office from here.''
In a Senate race, ""he'll be her Carville,'' said a friend (meaning that he'd be her top strategist, not the attack dog). Clinton could pay Hillary back for all those years she schlepped along as helpmate on the campaign trail. The role reversal would also no doubt assuage some guilt. The president would have to take on another Hillary role as well—that of chief breadwinner. As a lawyer in Arkansas, Hillary earned more money than her husband the $35,000-a-year governor. When it came time to settle the Paula Jones claim with an $850,000 payment, a lot of the money had to come from Hillary's blind trust. As a senator, Mrs. Clinton could accept no honoraria—no fat speaking fees. So the burden would be on Bill to pay off an estimated $10 million in legal bills.
Hillary's friends say that money is not really an issue. The Clintons don't want to be rich, just comfortable. Still, it may not be so simple. Being ""comfortable'' for a former First Couple in New York City probably requires a million-dollar co-op (Vineyard summer home not included). Money for a Senate campaign has to be raised in $1,000 and $5,000 chunks, and Hillary would have to place many of the calls herself (though not from the White House). When the First Lady/candidate travels with her Secret Service entourage, her campaign would have to pick up a big part of the bill. She would have to sacrifice most of her duties as First Lady and her last shred of privacy.
Then there is the biggest downside: what if she loses? True, in most early polls, including NEWSWEEK'S, she leads her putative opponent, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, by about 10 percentage points. But Giuliani is a gut fighter with presidential ambitions of his own. Slaying Hillary could be an irresistible challenge. Then there are the New York tabloids, which will hound Hillary mercilessly. That may be enough for her to ask if there isn't a better, or at least easier, way to do good in the world. ""She's getting flooded with all kinds of offers,'' says Mandy Grunwald, a media consultant who has advised Senator Moynihan and the Clintons. Perhaps the most tempting model to emulate is Gen. Colin Powell, who has raised many millions for charity (and a few for himself) by making uplifting speeches about service to the community. Powell, like Hillary, is a hands-on organizer; his America's Promise has been effective at making the private sector help impoverished youth. If they wanted to pool their talents, Powell and Hillary could organize a powerful army of do-gooders.
Right now, Hillary is ""thinking about what the world will really look like,'' says Grunwald. ""This is the first moment in a long time when she can really make a decision for herself.'' If she waits too long, she risks—in the Clinton tradition—being careless with the lives of others. In New York, the Democrats have to field Senate candidates and start raising money right away. (Recently, Mrs. Clinton gave a hug and, later, a pledge of fund-raising support to one anxious would-be candidate, Rep. Nita Lowey.) But Hillary can't be blamed for wanting to savor the moment. A lover of New York's pace and culture, she has told friends she'd like to live part time in Manhattan whether she runs or not. And the chatter about her Senate prospects will just generate more offers, book contracts and career opportunities. She has always been a strong woman. But she has never had such a golden chance to show her strength and put it to use, on her own terms.
FOR THIS NEWSWEEK POLL, PRINCETON SURVEY RESEARCH ASSOCIATES INTERVIEWED 502 ADULTS BY TELEPHONE FEB. 19. THE MARGIN OF ERROR IS +/- 5 PERCENTAGE POINTS. THE NEWSWEEK POLL (c) 1999 BY NEWSWEEK, INC.