How Hillary Clinton Got Hot After Years of Being Stuck With a Cold Image
Her popularity is up, her guard is down. Howard Kurtz on what’s changed—and the implications for 2016.
Hillary Clinton bears the battle scars of a lifetime: the attacks on her ambitious role as first lady, her gargantuan health-care plan, her standing by her man after the Monica mess, her brittle presidential campaign that fumbled away a 30-point lead.
But suddenly she is awash in waves of positive press, even being described as “cool,” and the 2016 whispers are growing louder.
“Many people are saying, ‘Gee, she’s a pretty tough woman who’s taken a lot of hits and really come back,’” says James Carville, the Cajun strategist who helped Bill Clinton win the White House two decades ago. “The fact is she’s done a good job, she’s overcome adversity despite the personal disappointment. It’s a classic story.”
It doesn’t hurt that Hillary Clinton is circling the globe as secretary of State, seemingly soaring above partisan politics—she won’t be at the Democratic convention this summer—and dealing with high-minded diplomatic questions.
“On a lot of issues—like women, poverty, disease, AIDS—she’s been way out front in a way that reminds people why they liked her in the first place,” says Joe Trippi, who was Howard Dean’s presidential campaign manager. At the same time, Trippi invokes what he calls “the Clinton good-times glow... There’s still nostalgia for the Clinton presidency. Those were better times for the country, regardless of whether you’re left or right.”
But the Hillary boomlet goes beyond a sense of ’90s redux. The woman has always been so carefully controlled on the public stage, so guarded in keeping her emotions in check, that a brief choking-up moment at a New Hampshire diner in 2008 was hailed as a breakthrough. These days, when not discussing matters of war and peace, she seems considerably looser.
As the 64-year-old Clinton put it to Elle magazine in a glowing profile: “I think people have finally said, ‘Well, you know, I kinda get her now.’ I’ve actually had people say that to me.” In the same piece, insisting that women can have a brood of kids and still be successful, she drops the veil by hinting at fertility problems: “I just didn’t have any more children, not that I didn’t want any more.”
Chris Lehane, who worked with Hillary in the White House, credits her decision to take the cabinet post after the bitter battle against Barack Obama.
“It’s one thing when you’re going for a job interview and another when you have the job,” he says. “She’s being perceived through a very different prism now. And she’s done a damn good job. Even people who didn’t necessarily like her recognize she’s a capable, competent person, and that skill set shines through at State.”
Four years ago, when Clinton appeared so wary of the press, it is impossible to imagine her playing along with a gag like “Texts from Hillary,” as she did this week. The Tumblr blog uses a serious-but-suave picture of Hillary in shades on her official aircraft, wielding her BlackBerry and supposedly sending zingers to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Arianna Huffington, and Jon Stewart. But Clinton actually offered a submission and posed with the two guys who cooked up the stunt.
That, in turn, prompted kudos from Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: “Hillary was regarded by kids as the lady who’d been around a long time, wearing headbands and pantsuits. She had a paranoid relationship with the press and an antiquated take on technology. Now she’s quick to laugh at herself and take advantage of the positive buzz.”
Clinton, of course, is no longer being subjected to political potshots, except on foreign policy (and it doesn’t hurt that Osama bin Laden and Muammar Khaddafi are dead). She is the country’s most admired woman, according to a Gallup poll last December, picked by 17 percent of respondents (compared with 7 percent for Oprah Winfrey and 5 percent for her East Wing successor, Michelle Obama). The president was the most admired man, also the choice of 17 percent.
“When 68 percent of the people like you, you’re a lot more relaxed than when 38 percent of the people like you,” Carville observes.
Another underappreciated development is that Hillary has finally escaped the long shadow of Bill. From the moment he touted a two-for-one presidency in 1992 through her stormy tenure as first lady and her first run for the Senate, she was often defined through her husband: Who elected her? Isn’t she stepping outside her role? Is she trying to seize a sympathy vote from the Lewinsky humiliation? Why does she stay with him anyway? And the chatter never ceased during her 2008 run: Would this be a third term for Bill? Would he behave himself as first spouse?
Now he has receded to a humanitarian role with the Clinton Foundation, and she has a clearly defined mission as the nation’s top diplomat.
“Before,” says Trippi, “part of the problem with Hillary Clinton was that people thought she was seized by blind ambition. She was going to become first lady no matter what, she was going to run for president no matter what.” Now, he says, “She’s become more authentic, more real, more accessible.”
Perhaps the pressure has eased because Clinton is winding down her career. She has confessed to being tired, says she won’t serve at Foggy Bottom again if Obama is reelected, and ruled out another presidential campaign.
“I’m really old-fashioned,” Clinton said last fall. “I feel I have made my contribution. I have done the best I can. But now I want to try some other things. I want to get back to writing and maybe some teaching, working on women and girls around the world… I think it’s time for others to step up.”
And that sense of the lioness in winter may account for the softening views of Hillary. “She’s becoming a major person emeritus, which she’s certainly earned,” says Republican strategist Rich Galen. “I can’t think of very many people who have the same view of her as they did in 1994, when she was a polarizing individual.”
Maybe Madame Secretary indeed intends to hang it up at year’s end. But who knows what will happen between now and 2016? Does Joe Biden run, as some of his confidants have been hinting? Does Andrew Cuomo get into the race? Is President Romney running for reelection? Is there a Democratic groundswell for Hillary Clinton?
“She’s still young enough to run for office,” Lehane says. “It’s an enormous process to go through. Do you have it in your stomach that you want to go for this again?” And that, in the end, is a question that only she can answer.