As Hillary Clinton prepares for Tuesday’s Democratic debate, the big challenge she faces is that she is just not a natural pol—unlike her husband. Two decades ago, as the Clinton administration began, the notion of Hillary Clinton becoming a politician was a joke, a sexist way of mocking Bill Clinton as henpecked. In May, 1994, David Letterman offered the top ten signs Hillary was running for president, ranging from shaving the slogan “into the fur of Socks the Cat,” to calling Bill “First Lady.” Four years later, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the notion seemed even more farfetched. Yet this public humiliation freed Hillary Clinton from her First Ladylike handcuffs, catapulting her toward the Senate, the State Department, and now, possibly, the White House.
The 1990s’ dismissive jokes must have infuriated Hillary. When she met Bill in the 1970s at Yale Law School, many peers believed she could be the first woman president. Many Northeastern friends begged Hillary not to sacrifice her ambitions by following Bill to remote, backwards Arkansas. Indeed, Hillary Rodham resented being a Southern political spouse, pressured to dye her hair blonde, wear contacts, and drop her maiden name. In the White House, many were surprised to see this supposedly feminist First Lady stuck in an old-fashioned one-sided marriage. “Hillary loves Bill, and Bill loves Bill,” the Clintons’ political guru Dick Morris gibed.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 boast that his wife would be “co-president” became politically poisonous in 1994, when her health care reform debacle helped Democrats lose Congress for the first time since 1952. Reeling, the Clintons consulted some New Age gurus. The process reminded Hillary that she disliked being a “full-time surrogate” with only “derivative” power, saying “that’s not what I enjoy doing.” She was a policy person. Yet, she became popular by taking on traditional, family-oriented projects, including writing her best-selling manifesto, It Takes a Village.
Hillary’s popularity surge in 1998, as traditional women sympathized with her as wounded spouse, was sobering yet liberating. After serving a self-centered, needy man with an all-consuming career, Hillary Clinton wanted to make her own mark as a “real person.”
During the 1998 midterm campaign, with her husband subdued, Hillary Clinton emerged as the Democrats’ star surrogate, in demand nationwide. On Election Day, the impeachment-obsessed Republicans lost seats — including Al D’Amato’s New York Senate spot to Charles Schumer, whom Hillary Clinton had campaigned for intensely.
Days later, the other New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, announced his plans to retire. The veteran Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel urged Hillary to replace Moynihan, and planted the idea with the New York Times columnist, Bob Herbert. On November 12, 1998, Herbert begged: “Run Hillary Run.”
Hillary Clinton demurred, telling Rangel: “Oh, Charlie, I’m honored you would think of me, but I’m not interested.” In her memoirs, she claimed that most close friends, fearing another bloody political battle, counseled her not to run. However, “the Democratic leadership” begged her to run, believing that only she could beat the Republican Rudy Giuliani. Actually, Hillary and Bill were already mapping out a strategy, which included having key New Yorkers like Rangel draft her. Ultimately, she claimed she decided to try after helping to launch an HBO special about women in sports, Dare to Compete. “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton,” a young female basketball player whispered to her. “Dare to compete.” And she did.
The “Draft Hillary” movement helped voters start seeing the First Lady as a politician, while justifying this Arkansan-Illinoisan’s New York campaign. As the campaign intensified, Giuliani had an affair exposed and cancer diagnosed. A young, obscure congressman, Rick Lazio, replaced the popular mayor.
In becoming the first First Lady to run for office, Mrs. Clinton ended her roller-coaster tenure happily. Now, she would be judged more like an Eleanor Roosevelt activist than a Barbara Bush cheerleader.
The Clintons began the White House’s first commuter marriage, buying a house in Chappaqua to establish New York residency. Despite Bill Clinton’s support for her candidacy, he missed her companionship and partnership. For the White House Correspondents dinner in April, 2000, the president recorded a satirical video of his “Final Days” in office, posing as a lonely, forgotten has-been. Bored, he starts gardening, learning email, bicycling around the Executive Mansion, washing the presidential limo, and playing battleship with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The First Lady appears briefly, impatiently sitting in a limousine in the White House driveway, saying “I wish I could be here more, but I really think that Bill has everything under control.” As she drives off, Clinton comes running out shouting “wait, wait,” holding the brown bag lunch he prepared for her.
By winning a Senate seat in 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton flourished independently while extending the Clinton family brand. Her fortitude, discipline, and fame paid off. She exploited a political culture that confuses celebrity with wisdom. With pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura still preening from his 1998 gubernatorial victory over Hubert Humphrey III in Minnesota, at least the First Lady had political experience.
Hillary Clinton preyed on the American weakness for stories of redemption, reinvention, and revenge, of a wronged women getting things right, of soaring after being constrained for so long. Trading her last name for an exclamation point—Hillary!—freed her from the shadow of her husband’s peccadilloes. And in visiting all 62 New York counties, no matter how remote or unglamorous, the First Lady escaped her role’s gossamer shackles, which has presidential spouses claiming they can be whatever they wish but generating controversy whenever they get too political or policy-oriented.
Hillary Clinton’s public makeover worked. Once Hillary Rodham Clinton earned the right from voters to wield power, the “Lady Macbeth” accusations and jokes about unmanning Bill diminished. Fifteen years later, people may like her or dislike her, but they take Hillary Clinton seriously as an independent political powerhouse, a reluctant but experienced campaigner, no longer just a betrayed political spouse.