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.
"We need you!" said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.).
"You need me?" Clinton replied. "You need my vote."
"We need a lot more than that," Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), head of the Senate Democrats' campaign effort, assured her.
Indeed, they need her 18 million supporters -- and they were tripping over themselves to make nice to the fallen candidate. "Hillary Clinton is a great, stalwart Democrat and a friend of mine," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced to reporters, with Clinton at his side.
After Clinton's brief words to her colleagues at the lunch, Reid and other Democratic leaders formed a procession to escort Clinton toward the reporters outside. Reid described "one of the most emotional caucuses I've attended," complete with tears. But he also made it clear that, in the Senate, he was in charge. He introduced Clinton, decreed that "she'll be happy to take a couple of questions now" and decided when to cut off the session.
Clinton delivered a version of the party-unity theme she had voiced behind closed doors. "I come back with an even greater depth of awareness about what we have to do here in Washington," she said. She spoke with vagueness about her new role ("to be the very best senator I can be"), her plans ("I'm rolling up my sleeves and getting back to work") and her vice presidential ambitions ("I am not seeking any other position"). And she repeated the requisite promise to "work very hard to elect Senator Obama our president."
The ceremonial welcome over, it was time for Clinton to get back to the humdrum life of the legislator. She returned to her old office on the fourth floor of the Russell Building and, handing off her handbag to Reines, began to greet her aides -- until she heard the cheers coming from her office. Inside, she found the players, referees in uniforms borrowed from Foot Locker, three dozen staffers, and signs saying "I like Mike" and "I'm an Ann Fan."
"Silence, please!" the line judge called out.
Clinton beckoned to the ping-pong table. "I think we'll leave this right here -- it doubles as a conference table," she proposed. "Now," she added, "we've got to get back to work."
Moments later, the ping-pong table was gone, and Clinton had sat down for a meeting with Gen. Wesley Clark.