Twenty-four years earlier, on another CNN telecast, Candy Crowley delivered this news: "Now Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president."
That wasn't exactly true. Crowley clarified: "Actually, she's running for her husband, who's running for president. But it can be a distinction without much difference."
Media coverage this week of Hillary Clinton's presumptive nomination for president by the Democratic Party has noted its historic significance — she is the first woman to top a major-party ticket — and described how she bounced back from a primary defeat in 2008 to win on her second try.
In a literal sense, this is indeed Clinton's second attempt to win the White House. But a review of press accounts from her early days in the national spotlight makes clear that in the media's eyes, the hard-charging, Yale-educated lawyer from Park Ridge, Ill., has been running for president since 1992. And the idea that she — as much as her husband — was on the ballot that year helps explain why Clinton is so often held to account for 1990s-era policies enacted when she was technically not a politician.
One article more than any other cemented the narrative that Clinton wants to be commander in chief. It appeared in the May 1992 issue of Vanity Fair, under the headline "What Hillary Wants." The subhead posed a provocative question: "The most controversial figure of the election year so far has been a woman, Hillary Clinton, and she isn't even running for office. Or is she?"
By the time the story hit newsstands in April, the wife of Arkansas governor and Democratic presidential front-runner Bill Clinton already had polarized voters with her assertive presence on the campaign trail and a defense of her career ambitions — "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" is the operative quote here — that detractors still invoke today as evidence that she looks down on stay-at-home moms.
But Vanity Fair writer Gail Sheehy detected in Clinton something more than a desire to continue practicing law while her husband ran the country. In an interview, Sheehy recalled pitching a Hillary Clinton profile to her editor in January 1992 — and meeting resistance.
"I was really on the case before almost anybody," Sheehy said. "I had to really twist the arm of [then-Vanity Fair editor] Tina Brown to write about the candidate's wife. She said, 'No, I want you to cover all the candidates. The candidate's wife? That's not important.' I said, 'This one is.' "
Sheehy's 10,000-word opus described Clinton as a "lawyer-activist-teacher-author-corporate boardwoman-mother and wife of Billsomething, who is the diesel engine powering the front-running Democratic campaign."
"Maybe the next presidential election, or several more down the line, the other Clinton will be on the ticket," Sheehy posited.
At one point in the story, Sheehy set the scene of a fundraiser in Los Angeles, where "Hillary dazzled an audience that is usually ho-hum about stars." The buzz in the room after Clinton's speech, Sheehy reported, was, "Why isn't she the candidate?" Here's the key passage from the whole piece:
If he is the messenger, she may be the message. Those who keep asking "Why isn't she running?" miss the point. Hillary Clinton is running. She and her husband have been a political team for more than 20 years. And now they are, despite protestations to the contrary, co-candidates for president of the United States.
Sheehy also quoted Bill Clinton endorsing his wife's fitness for the Oval Office: "It doesn't bother me for people to see her and get excited and say she could be president. I always say she could be president, too."
Other journalists and news outlets — at home and abroad — quickly picked up on the idea.
Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas: "Hillary Clinton wants to be president of the United States. If her husband is elected, it appears he will be little more than a front man for his wife's political agenda. What other conclusion can be drawn from Hillary Clinton's remarks that if we elect him we get her, and comments by her husband in the May issue of Vanity Fair magazine?"
Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory: "Voters seem more concerned that she might make her husband look like a co-president, an idea whose time may not have come."
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper: "Mrs. Clinton doesn't want to be 'popular,' she wants to be co-president."
The Independent (London): "In 1962 a Chicago schoolgirl called Hillary Rodham wrote to NASA asking if she could be an astronaut. NASA wrote back haughtily: 'We are not accepting girls as astronauts.' The would-be high-flyer has now become one of the most respected lawyers and effective political activists of the U.S. baby boom generation. Is America's voting public ready to place her in orbit as something like a co-equal presidential candidate with her husband?"
Sheehy said her profile of Clinton came together after she struck a deal with her skeptical editor: "I asked if I could just follow her. 'Give me a chance to follow her. I think she's really worth a story.' And after a month, I said, 'She is the biggest story in this campaign.' "
That was almost a quarter-century ago. On the pages and airwaves of American media, Clinton has been covered much like a presidential candidate ever since.
Sheehy believes Clinton was well aware of the speculation that she would one day be exactly where she is today. Contrary to what she said in New Hampshire in February, Clinton did think she would do this.
"I'm sure she was thinking, in the back of her mind — and telling herself — 'Just you wait,' " Sheehy said.