Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 12, 2003.
Hillary Clinton is laughing a lot, almost unnervingly so given that she's in the midst of reliving some of the most painful parts of her husband's embattled presidency. She is being repeatedly asked this week about such unpleasantness as Whitewater, missing documents and the suicide of a close friend. She is discussing her marriage counseling on national television.
And yet in an interview yesterday afternoon, loud, long and full- throated giggles came rapid-fire from the former first lady. She is asked, for instance, about the mixed early reviews for her just- published memoir, "Living History," some of which call the book detached and unemotional. "Hahaha," goes Clinton. Some people have told her the book is too revealing. "People say, my gosh, why are you telling me these things?" she says.
She is asked how she feels about supplanting Sen. Ted Kennedy as the GOP's favorite Democratic villain. "Hahahaha. . . . It's something that kind of goes with the territory of being me," she says. "Apparently I've raised quite a bit of money for Republicans."
She is asked how often she is asked if she will run for president. "Every interview," she says, letting go her loudest laugh yet. She says she has no intention of running in either 2004 or 2008.
"I should get, like, little Chinese fortune cookie things, and like, just print up the answer on the piece of paper and just pass it out.
She is sitting on a couch in a hotel suite near the Capitol. The junior senator from New York is between votes, a news conference with actor Bruce Willis and Sen. Bill Frist, book signings, shouted questions, practiced answers and the peculiar other components of "Hilla-palooza." This is the New York tabloid term for the public storm that has accompanied the release of "Living History" this week.
Clinton, 55, is the queen of public storms. She's been through more of these than hairstyles -- grand jury appearances, Filegate, Travelgate, sex scandals in the Oval Office, presidential pardons, etc., etc., etc. None of the questions Clinton has received in recent days while she publicizes her book has surprised her, she says. Nothing about how she feels about Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, questions about what if Bill cheats again, what she tells Chelsea and whether she herself has been faithful to the former president.
Still, Hilla-palooza is a condensed reemergence of all the emotions, good and bad, that Clinton has elicited in people through much of her public life. It follows her first 21/2 years in the Senate, in which she has strenuously kept a low profile and tried to blend in with her colleagues.
"Some people are reviewing the book, some people are reviewing me and some people are reviewing my future, which hasn't even occurred," Clinton says of her current situation, which she calls "a wonderful experience but a little overwhelming."
In the parlance of packaging, Clinton is in the process of "reintroducing herself to the American public." Or, to her detractors, she is giving America a chance to get sick of her all over again.
"This woman won't go away," says Raoul Deming, who was protesting Clinton's appearance at a book signing outside a Manhattan Barnes & Noble on Monday. He is wearing a rubber George W. Bush mask and holding a homemade sign that says "Rodham Hussein."
"She's out here trying to rewrite history," he says, and he's not prepared to let Hilla-palooza pass without a catcall or three. He traveled four hours by train from his home in, of all places, Takoma Park.
One of the abiding cliches about Clinton is that she is a "polarizing," or "divisive," figure. She is polarizing "because of her stands on the issues, because of her agenda," says Dan Allen, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That agenda is characterized by many conservatives as ultra-liberal and out of the mainstream of American life. "She polarizes people. . . . It's not for me to say why. I'll leave that to you and other pundits to say."
"People just see this woman and go nuts," says Pat Schroeder, the former Democratic congresswoman. "It's going to be a love-her, hate- her sort of thing no matter how she tries to define herself as a human being and political figure."
Sen. George Allen, chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, sent out a letter to Republican donors last month urging them to "stop Hillary" before it's too late. "If Republicans don't take immediate steps to counter her," Allen writes, "she will continue to rise unimpeded to the pinnacle of power."
"Hahahaha," Clinton says when asked about her pinata status. "In a way, it's perversely flattering."
By several accounts, Sen. Clinton has maintained smooth, even warm relations with many Republican colleagues. They include those who frequently invoke her as a bogeyman, such as Allen, who declined to comment for this article.
One of Clinton's more savvy qualities is that she is disciplined and on-message. She is less prone to visible anger than her husband. She gives opponents little satisfaction this way.
In "Living History," she attacks former House speaker Newt Gingrich and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr with a cool contempt, at times with sarcasm. ("The previous fall, Starr had finally conceded that Vince Foster really had committed suicide.") The book is revealing in places, but she seems to write at times with a big, disdainful smile.
"This was a difficult book to write," Clinton says. "Some of the book wrote itself. It was fun. . . . But there were a lot of parts that were obviously very hard to write." She says she struggled with defining her "zone of privacy" as she wrote the book. "Obviously, there were many things that I believed should have been kept personal and private that had been made public."
In her first promotional forays for "Living History," Clinton has repeatedly said that the oft-quoted "vast right-wing conspiracy" she railed against in 1998 is, in fact, vibrant, well and thriving. Only it's no longer a conspiracy, because that implies a hidden agenda.
Now, concerted efforts by "the kind of well-financed, well- organized kind of right-wing networks," she says, are fully out in the open. "This is not people sitting in their living rooms and saying, 'Hey, I don't like her because I don't like her hair, or I don't like this or that about her.' I think the organized opposition is really about what I stand for and the political views I have."
She says this with a giggly nonchalance, as if she will happily define herself through her political and cultural enemies. She is unconcerned if the notion of a "right-wing network" might sound dismissive of her political opponents, many of whom are her Senate colleagues. Or that the term (back when it was still a conspiracy) was widely ridiculed as paranoid. On the contrary, the notion of an organized opposition is strikingly on-message for her.
"Somebody told me the other day that there's something like 279 hours a day of nationally syndicated conservative right-wing talk radio," Clinton says. That compares "to about five hours a day of so- called progressive talk radio. And there's a statistic that, like, 22 percent of Americans get their news from that source."
She speaks with a big grin, which grows even wider when she discusses the conservative "media echo chamber," think tanks and organizations sending out millions of e-mails a day. Her voice becomes louder. "If you're the kind of person who thinks that everyone should have a machine gun in their bedroom," she says, "well, I'm not on that side."
Beginning late Sunday night, Clinton's supportive public -- or at least her curious public, or more polite public, began lining up outside Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue. By the next morning, they were snaked down 48th Street next to idled TV satellite trucks and behind blue police barriers. They are photographed, interviewed, rephotographed, reinterviewed. Per modern celebrity convention, they make up the spectacle of the waiting swarm.
Clinton arrives at Barnes & Noble at 11 a.m. "Hello again," she says to a cluster of about 100 reporters and photographers. They are crammed between the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves, a few feet from where Clinton will sign books. Her smile is tight and bright. She answers shouted questions, including one about whether she's always been faithful to Bill ("Yes"), and now that that's cleared up she can sell books.
Clinton is wearing a canary yellow pantsuit and crosses her cream- colored pumps under a pine table. In a little more than three hours, using a Mont Blanc pen, Clinton will sign -- by the store's count -- more than 1,000 books with assembly-line efficiency. Each customer will receive a signed book (or two) and roughly 10 seconds of small talk before being gestured away by a store staffer. In the first 10 minutes, Clinton will use the exact greeting -- "Hi, how're you?" -- with 18 consecutive customers, before she breaks her streak with a truncated "Hi" for the 19th.
After a while, the transactions take on the pace and rhythm of a line dance. Clinton looks left to greet, down to sign and right for small talk as the customer heads off.
In between, snatches of connection are forged. "My grandmother lives in Illinois," one man tells Clinton. She thanks a customer in a police uniform for his service, compliments a woman on her dress, wishes several happy birthdays and asks people with accents where they've come from.
"Budapest? I write about it in my book. . . . Kurdistan? I write about it in my book."
Nearly everyone is well-behaved, with a few exceptions, such as the odd man who moves his cheek next to Clinton's and demands a kiss. "Next book," a staffer yells as the man continues to request a kiss.
"Sorry, I have to get to know you better," the former first lady says. This apparently is not going to happen today. Security guards loom, the man walks away, and Clinton, turning to the next customer, bursts forth with a quick giggle.