From spouse to senator: The evolution of Hillary Clinton, politician
A first lady's startling decision to run for office set her on a path no woman has walked
On Feb. 22, 1999, the country’s attention was riveted on the U.S. Capitol. For only the second time in U.S. history, the Senate was set to vote on whether to remove an impeached president from office.
But in the private residence on the second floor of the White House, the topic at hand was someone else’s political career.
First lady Hillary Clinton had summoned longtime adviser Harold Ickes to discuss a delicate question: What would it take to become a senator herself — specifically, to win an open seat in New York, a state in which she had never lived?
Democratic Party delegates will gather in Philadelphia from July 25 to 28 to choose their nominees for president and vice president. Full coverage, featuring special reports, photos, graphics and videos, will be at washingtonpost.com/politics. Photo of Hillary Clinton by Melina Mara/The Washington Post
As the morning dragged into an unseasonably warm afternoon, Ickes gave her a crash course on the Empire State: its Democratic Party structure and rules, a list of 100 key leaders she would have to get to know, the different electoral rhythms of upstate and downstate, its minefield of multiethnic politics.
Over lunch, Bill Clinton dropped by to hear how things were going, and to download what he knew of New York politics. “He literally remembered how many votes he had gotten in Herkimer County,” Ickes marvels.
On the momentous day on which the 42nd president of the United States would be acquitted by the Senate, Bill Clinton later told an aide, “If anyone had seen us, they would have seen us laughing, but not about what they would think.” When Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) called Hillary Clinton later to tell her the good news, she and Ickes allowed themselves only a brief moment of celebration before getting back to the business of her future.
By that summer, the first lady was traveling New York on a “listening tour.” The following February, she formally announced her bid to replace the retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D).
With her husband, President Bill Clinton, daughter, Chelsea, and mother, Dorothy Rodham, by her side, Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy for the Senate seat from New York held by the retiring Daniel Patrick Moynihan, center, on Feb. 6, 2000, at the State University of New York in Purchase. (Reuters)
“Politics is the art of making possible what seems to be impossible,” she told a cheering crowd of more than 2,000.
That also could be said of Clinton’s evolution into a politician in her own right, one who stands a single election away from becoming the nation’s first female president.
In some ways, this historic juncture can seem as though it was inevitable, a part of the destiny that she began to write with the electrifying, subversive speech she delivered upon her graduation from Wellesley College in 1969. It landed her in Life magazine, as a voice of her generation.
“We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living,” she declared. “And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue.”
Civil rights leader Vernon Jordan had met her that year at a League of Women Voters conference in Fort Collins, Colo. “It was clear to me when I met her in June 1969 that she had a future,” he says. “I saw her as a young lady who was going somewhere.”
Somewhere turned out to be Arkansas. Starting with her decision to follow her boyfriend Bill Clinton and his ambitions to Fayetteville, the next quarter-century of her life would be a push and pull between her desire to forge her own identity and put her stamp on the causes she cared about, and the tight and traditional confines of being a political spouse.
More than once, she would learn the hard way that stepping beyond those bounds carried a cost — both for herself and for her husband.
And more than once, her performance in a supporting role would be crucial to his survival.
She also would become a Rorschach Test of how the country felt about the changing expectations of women, at home and at work. Was Hillary Clinton at the vanguard of the feminist movement, or had she betrayed it by marrying power, rather than earning it?
The Clintons presented themselves to the country in 1992 as a new kind of partnership in politics. His charisma paired with her discipline; his gut with her spine.
During his first presidential campaign, there was speculation about a possible Cabinet post for her. Instead, he put her in charge of a health-care overhaul, his boldest policy initiative. They quickly learned that the country did not want what they had called a “buy one, get one free” bargain.
Hillary Clinton is pictured with her husband, Bill Clinton, in the late 1990s. (Mary Lou Foy/The Washington Post)
There was also a Lady Macbeth storyline to her controversy-filled White House years. She found herself at the center of a host of scandals and pseudo-scandals, from the intrigue around the Clintons’ failed Whitewater real estate deal to the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of her law firm records to her suspiciously lucrative trades in cattle futures.
In 1996, because of Whitewater, Hillary Clinton earned the dubious distinction of being the only first lady in history ever compelled to testify before a federal grand jury.
Not until Bill Clinton’s political career was ending had she been free to consider doing something that no first lady had ever done: put her name on a ballot for federal office.
As it happened, her popularity in late 1998 and early 1999 was as high as it had ever been. The adulation, however, had not come for any achievement of her own — save the one of having endured the public humiliation of her husband’s affair with a White House intern.
Top Democrats had begun urging her to run almost from the moment that Moynihan announced he was retiring. They would clear the field for her, leveraging her fame as their best hope of hanging on to a seat they had held for more than two decades. But it was expected to be an uphill race against the likely Republican nominee, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“In a sense, I was a desperation choice — a well-known public figure who might be able to offset Giuliani’s national profile and his party’s deep pockets,” Clinton wrote in her memoir “Living History.”
This was not a popular decision in the tight-knit East Wing circle known as Hillaryland. Clinton talked it over with her close friend and adviser Maggie Williams during a long walk in the spring of 1999.
“I think it’s kooky,” Williams told her. “And anyone who cares about you will tell you the same thing.”
Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s scheduler who would later manage her 2008 presidential campaign, flatly predicted that she would lose.
That possibility also worried her longtime friend Vernon Jordan, who suggested that she consider making a bid for governor of Illinois instead. She had grown up there, and would not be considered a presumptuous carpetbagger, he argued — leaving unsaid his belief that a statehouse would be a better springboard to something bigger someday.
“I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea,” Jordan recalls.
But Clinton wouldn’t budge. “I’m going to run,” she told him.
Hillary Clinton is shown during a campaign stop at the Jackson Diner in New York's borough of Queens on April 11. She easily won the Democratic primary in the state she served as a senator for eight years. (Yana Paskova for The Washington Post)
This was not the first time Hillary Clinton had considered elective office. In 1990, the Clintons were agonizing over whether Bill should run for a fifth term as governor of Arkansas, even though he was all but certain that he would be making a bid for the presidency two years later.
As a governor, he would be making unpopular decisions, perhaps such as raising taxes, in the middle of a presidential campaign. But if he gave up that job and lost the White House — a likely possibility — he might be washed up in politics.
Maybe there was a way to get the best of both alternatives. The Clintons asked Dick Morris, their pollster at the time, to find out what people in Arkansas would think of Hillary running for governor. If she won and Bill lost in his White House bid, he would still have his power base in his home state.
So the pollster did a survey, and “I came to the conclusion — it seems hard to believe now — that people didn’t see Hillary as a separate person, just as a part of Bill,” Morris says.
Morris put it to the couple bluntly: Hillary running for governor would be viewed as “the Lurleen Wallace effect.”
That stung. In 1966, George Wallace’s wife had been the first woman elected governor in the Deep South. But she was a little-educated homebody, branded a “placeholder” for her husband, because Alabama law prevented him from running for reelection as governor while in office.
The Clintons “almost jammed the poll down my throat. They were screaming at me, going crazy. Bill especially. He was red-faced,” Morris recalls.
Bill Clinton demanded that Morris take a new survey — this time, reminding people of Hillary’s accomplishments as a lawyer, her commitment to children’s causes and the work she had done leading a state education reform initiative in the early 1980s.
The results came back the same
“I’ve always believed that was the moment when she realized that she had to have her own achievements,” Morris says.
That Hillary Clinton would have to struggle to define her identity is something that would not have been predicted for the earnest high achiever from the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. But things changed when Hillary Rodham fell in love with a husky, bushy-haired young man she met in the student lounge at Yale Law School in the autumn of 1970.
“He was tall and handsome somewhere beneath that reddish brown beard and curly mane of hair. He also had a vitality that seemed to shoot out of his pores,” she later wrote.
Her decision, four years later, to move to Arkansas had astounded her friends.
“Are you out of your mind?” one of them, Sara Ehrman, asked her. “Why on Earth would you throw away your future?”
Still, Ehrman agreed to drive her down to Fayetteville from Washington, where Rodham had been working on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry of President Richard M. Nixon.
“Every few miles, she asked me if I knew what I was doing, and I gave her the same answer every time: ‘No, but I’m going anyway,’ ” Clinton wrote. Bill Clinton was already teaching at the University of Arkansas Law School and she had an offer to do the same.
“I just cried when I left her there,” Ehrman recalled in an interview 34 years after she dropped off her friend at the couple’s rented split-level. “I thought: She’s going to the end of the world. I told her, ‘You can’t even get Brie!’ ”
Bill and Hillary Clinton campaign during his run for governor of Arkansas in 1978. (The Washington Post)
Hillary probably thought the move was only temporary; Bill, 28, was already running for Congress from Arkansas’s Third District. He lost. In 1976, a year after their wedding, he was elected the state’s attorney general, and became governor two years after that.
She began building a career of her own, making partner at Little Rock’s venerable Rose Law Firm in 1979, at age 32. She was also the young family’s primary breadwinner, given that the governor’s salary was only $35,000 a year.
In the election of 1980, Bill Clinton suddenly went from being the youngest governor in the United States to the youngest former governor.
After that reelection loss, he “seemed sometimes to be overtaken by self-pity,” his biographer David Maraniss wrote.
Hillary Clinton sprang into action. One of her first acts in plotting the comeback was to recruit Morris, an abrasive, bare-knuckled New York political consultant whom many in the Clintons’ orbit viewed with suspicion, in part because he worked for clients of both parties.
Morris does not think she did so with any interest in a political future for herself.
“No, none at all,” he says. “Quite the opposite. I got the impression that it was an imposition — that she had a nice legal career, and now she had to bail him out.”
Part of the strategy was to retool her own image. In Arkansas, “I was an oddity because of my dress, my Northern ways and the use of my maiden name,” she wrote.
After Bill Clinton’s reelection defeat, “for the first time, I came to realize how my personal choices could impact my husband’s political future,” she recalled.
He made the official announcement that he was running for his old job on their daughter Chelsea’s second birthday, Feb. 27, 1982. And on that day, Hillary Rodham began referring to herself as Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, wave to supporters at the Old State House in Little Rock on Nov. 3, 1992, the day Bill Clinton was elected president. (Luke Frazza/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Yet Hillary Clinton did not fit anyone’s stereotype of a political spouse — as quickly became apparent when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992.
“If I get elected president, it will be an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor,” he told Vanity Fair. “They were two great people, but on different tracks. If I get elected, we’ll do things together like we always have.”
Former president Nixon, whose wife had been the embodiment of mid-century meekness, offered a different perspective in February of that year: “If the wife comes through as being too strong and too intelligent, it makes the husband look like a wimp.”
Hillary Clinton was a conundrum for her husband’s handlers. “They didn’t get her. The people who were organizing the campaign were a bunch of Washington types, and they didn’t quite get her,” her adviser Susan Thomases said in an oral history of the Clinton presidency collected by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“They pigeonholed her,” Thomases added. “It was really complicated. Some of it was the campaign’s decisions, some of it was her performance and some of it was the public’s perception of her. She was so strong a personality that there were people who felt that when they were together, her strong personality made him seem weaker.”
Still, when allegations about Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs exploded, they needed Hillary Clinton to be by his side for a post-Super Bowl “60 Minutes” interview as the ultimate validator.
Interviewer Steve Kroft flatly asked them if theirs was an arrangement, not a marriage. “I’m not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” she retorted.
The reaction to her response was brutal, as it was when she later seemed to disparage homemakers with: “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.”
What got lost in the furor was the rest of her comment. “The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed . . . to assure that women can make the choices,” she said, “whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination.”
Once she arrived in the White House, her management of her husband’s health-care overhaul was a fiasco. The plan, hatched in secret by a 500-member task force whose identities she refused to reveal, never got a vote on the floor of either house of Congress. She became the most polarizing first lady in modern history, even burned in effigy by a group of tobacco farmers in Kentucky.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, shows first lady Hillary Clinton to her seat prior to her testifying before the panel on Sept. 29, 1993. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)
Her health-care stumble also was a major reason that Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 midterm election. Bill Clinton’s reelection prospects looked iffy.
Even before the midterms, Hillary Clinton was plotting her husband’s resurrection. In October, she once again turned to the controversial Dick Morris, whose tendency to see the underside of things she considered a counterbalance to her husband’s perpetual optimism.
She phoned Morris, she wrote in her memoir, and said, “If I can get Bill to call you, will you help?”
The Clintons agreed that Morris’s role would be secret — even from people in their own White House, where the consultant would leave phone messages under the code name “Charlie.” George Stephanopoulos, then a top White House adviser, later referred to Morris as “the dark buddha whose belly Clinton rubbed in desperate times.” (Morris has since become a vocal critic of the Clintons, and just co-wrote a book called “Armageddon: How Trump Can Beat Hillary.”)
Morris conducted a private poll. He found that one-third of the public viewed Bill Clinton as weak, and that his marriage was a major reason.
Nixon had been right. The more these voters saw of Hillary Clinton, the more diminished her husband seemed to be. That slice of the population “had no conception of a win-win marriage. They thought it was zero-sum,” Morris recalls.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton had been seared by the health-care experience.
“Sometimes, I am saddened by her understandable loss of spontaneity,” Diane Blair, her close friend from Arkansas, told Ann Blackman of Time magazine.
“It was one of her most endearing qualities,” said Blair, who died in 2000. “But in public now, she filters out her first response, and sometimes her second one, and that contributes to the sense that she is aloof and haughty. She has learned to be careful about what she says.”
So it was in both their interests for Hillary Clinton to fade from view. Over the next few years, she rarely ventured into the West Wing; she stuck to safe issues, such as adoption and Gulf War syndrome; she wrote a bestselling book about raising children. Even her wardrobe underwent an overhaul under the guidance of Oscar de la Renta — from the power teals and reds she had favored to pastel suits, with pumps to match.
In the role her campaign now touts, the 1997 expansion of health-care coverage to uninsured children (CHIP), Hillary Clinton operated largely behind the scenes and on the edges, as Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) did the heavy lifting on Capitol Hill.
Vice President Al Gore shows his support for President Clinton, pictured with first lady Hillary Clinton, outside the Oval Office after the House voted to impeach the president on Dec. 19, 1998. (Doug Mills/Associated Press)
In 1998, Bill Clinton needed to be rescued yet again, after his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky became public and set him on the path to impeachment.
Just six days into the scandal, the first lady appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, and pointed blame at “this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.” Not until much later, friends said, did she face up to the depth of his betrayal.
In that year’s midterm elections, no Democrat running wanted to be seen with him, but she was in demand everywhere.
And she went. During the last week before Election Day alone, she hit nine states — twice in Florida and New York.
“I think she began realizing her political strengths — chops, however you want to put it — in that 1998 election,” said her longtime adviser Ann F. Lewis.
Defying expectations, the Democrats picked up seats in the House, in large part because the Republicans had overplayed their hand on the Lewinsky scandal. And then, three days after the election, Moynihan announced he was retiring.
That night, the White House operator patched through a call from Charles B. Rangel (D), a longtime congressman from Harlem.
“I sure hope you’ll consider running,” he told the first lady, “because I think you could win.”
First lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea -- pictured with former New York mayor Ed Koch, center -- wave to supporters on Nov. 7, 2000, in New York after Clinton's victory over Republican Rep. Rick Lazio in the race for a Senate seat. (Matt Campbell/Agence France-Presse)
Several weeks into Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, Ickes received a phone call from her.
“Harold, I never knew how good Bill is,” he recalls her telling him. “This is a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”
The race had gotten off to a rocky start, in part because of her natural reserve, particularly with New York’s famously aggressive news media. Her campaign team included people who had been hired for their expertise in that state’s politics, with whom she had not yet built up a reservoir of familiarity or trust.
Their internal focus groups and polling also showed that she had a big problem among women, who should have been her base. Some were mad at her for not leaving an unfaithful husband; other viewed her decision as proof that this had always been a marriage of calculated ambition, not a joining of two hearts.
So her advisers made her do the hardest thing imaginable: meet skeptical women face to face in living rooms in Westchester County, and Long Island, and upstate.
“They were free to ask whatever they wanted to ask,” says one former campaign adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
No reporters were invited, but in those pre-social media days, it “went viral in their communities,” the strategist recalls.
Meanwhile, Giuliani withdrew from the race in the wake of revelations of his own marital infidelity and a diagnosis of prostate cancer. In his place, Republicans nominated Rick Lazio, a boyish four-term congressman from Long Island. Hillary Clinton won by 12 percentage points. She was reelected six years later by a staggering 36 points, carrying all but four of the state’s 62 counties.
By then, she already was laying plans for a 2008 presidential run, where she was heavily favored to win the Democratic nomination.
In a memo written shortly before the campaign began, Mark Penn, her chief strategist, identified former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as her political role model.
“We are more Thatcher than anyone else — top of the university, a high achiever throughout life, a lawyer who could absorb and analyze problems,” Penn advised in December 2006. “She represents the most successful elected woman leader in this century — and the adjectives that were used about her (Iron Lady) were not of good humor or warmth, they were of smart, tough leadership.”
Clinton’s campaign, however, was a disaster from the beginning.
She was a cautious front-runner, exactly wrong for an electorate that was looking for someone fresh and exciting. She had voted in favor of the 2003 Iraq invasion, putting her on the opposite side of the Democratic base on the question that mattered most. Her campaign never mastered the rules of the various primary states, particularly underestimating those that held caucuses. And her fundraising operation was a relic of the 1990s.
On the other hand, Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, was perfectly suited for the moment, and had built a nimble, modern campaign machine.
Their primary battle stretched into June. When she withdrew, she supported Obama, but not without calling attention to what she had achieved and the number of votes she had received.
“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” she said to a cheering crowd at the National Building Museum. “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”
On Feb. 19, Clinton is joined by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea, at a rally in Las Vegas before the Nevada caucuses, in which she edged out Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
It has been. Hillary 2.0 is a far different campaign operation.
She still struggles with campaigning. “This is not easy for me,” she said during a debate in March. “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama. So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can.”
But there’s one problem she has put behind her: Having served as a senator and then as Obama’s secretary of state, she has carved out an identity of her own — and Bill Clinton is the one in the supporting role.
Now, the question is whether the plans that she and Ickes began laying more than 17 years ago in the White House will take her back there as the nation’s 45th president — and the first woman to sit in the Oval Office.