To the Loser Go the Spoils

Hillary Clinton returns to her Senate office -- for the first time since suspending her presidential bid -- to find a ping-pong game in session.
Hillary Clinton returns to her Senate office -- for the first time since suspending her presidential bid -- to find a ping-pong game in session. (Courtesy of Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Hillary Clinton was taking the elevator up to her Senate office yesterday for the first time since she lost the Democratic presidential nomination when one of her aides, Philippe Reines, warned her about the condition of her office.

In her months-long absence, Reines cautioned, "things have gotten a little casual."

The vanquished candidate swung open the door of her private office and found two of her legislative assistants in T-shirts, caps and sunglasses playing at a ping-pong table while the rest of the staff cheered them on. Clinton tossed her head back with her famous laughter, then sat on the couch to watch Mike Szymanski score match point against colleague Ann Gavaghan.

The girl had lost -- again! To the ping-pong loser, Clinton had some empathetic advice. "Ann," she said, "you have to be very gracious in defeat."

It was a lesson Clinton learned at great cost in her extended battle with Barack Obama. But as she returned in defeat to her old home in the Senate yesterday, she was received as if in triumph. And, in a sense, her stature had increased during the failed primary battle: She left as a legislator but returned as the leader of an 18 million-strong movement of women and working-class voters -- a group whose support Clinton's Democratic colleagues fervently desire.

And so, as Clinton entered a private luncheon in the Capitol, these colleagues greeted her with cheers, hugs and high-fives. "It's great to be here among my colleagues," Clinton teased, "just another regular, plain old superdelegate."

Among the well-wishers was Sen. John F. Kerry, the failed Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, who had some hard-won advice for Clinton. "Compartmentalize," he recommended. Still, Kerry predicted, "she'll be extraordinarily received."

Kerry knew what he was talking about. Two hundred journalists, interns and others awaited her arrival at the carriage entrance outside the Senate chamber yesterday. A Senate official tried to keep order among the cameras, boom microphones and shotgun-wielding cops: "I need media credentials out! I need a space for her!" Greta Van Susteren snapped pictures on a camera phone. Even Vice President Cheney, arriving in a sirens-blaring motorcade for lunch with Republican senators, merited no more than a murmur from the mob awaiting Clinton's appearance.

"Heads up!" somebody called out. The interns erupted in a cheer as soon as the leg of Clinton's turquoise pantsuit appeared though the doorway of her Lincoln Town Car.

"Like the Roman triumph," Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) observed wryly as he watched the scene. Bayh, who admitted that his own return to the Senate went "largely unnoticed" after he abandoned plans to run for president, said of Clinton: "It's good to see there is life after the presidential campaign."

If anything, the return made Clinton appear larger than life. The Hill newspaper, which last week ran a story announcing that Clinton was "taking a month off from Congress," was forced to come out with a second story Monday night saying she was "cutting short her initial plans for a monthlong absence." Reines, her spokesman, received so many inquiries about the arrival that he sent out an e-mail bulletin with logistics, further disclosing that, in preparation for the big moment, "I shaved today" and "I'm wearing a tie."

Clinton worked her way through the crowd of admirers and climbed the Capitol steps; at the top, colleagues offered hugs.

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