Hillary Clinton is the only political figure in America who doesn’t have to run for President to assure her place in history as a world-changer. She’s right up there alongside her avatar, Eleanor Roosevelt. And as she says in interviews, she has a very nice life now — money, sleep, a portable bully pulpit wherever she goes, and a long-awaited grandchild.
Friends counsel her not to run. Some tell me she is sorely conflicted, one day waking up to think of another amazing thing she could accomplish as President Clinton, the next morning waking up with a recoil: What were you thinking? It takes guts to open herself, again, to the inevitable lying and sliming that for a dozen years were a cottage industry of right-wingers, even though some of them have since repented.
At the recent Clinton Global Initiative conference, Hillary hinted that she felt guilty for leaving her young child when she worked long hours as the breadwinner wife in Little Rock. She said she sees in her presence as a grandmother the chance for a “do-over.” But if she ran for and was elected President, she wouldn’t be around for her grandchild either.
Even so, Hillary has waited for more than 50 years to make her dream come true. As a little girl, she spent hours dancing in the sun and, as she wrote from Wellesley College to a former high school classmate, she imagined the sunlight was intended for her — beamed down by God, “with heavenly movie cameras watching my every move.”
Once she hitched her wagon to Bill Clinton’s star, the cameras that watched Bill’s every move were hellish for her.
It took a Hillary to raise a President. It took a Hillary to save his presidency from permanent infamy. It wasn’t until she was 53 that she gained a sense of independence. While Bill Clinton was sweating out his impeachment vote in the Senate, Hillary was in the West Wing planning her own candidacy as a senator.
It sounded strange coming from a woman seen by the world as iron-willed, but on Feb. 12, 1999, she told her chief political strategist, Harold Ickes, “Now, for the first time, I am making my own decisions. It’s a great relief.”
Her favorability ratings began to climb. She charmed the claws off her Republican Senate colleagues, even hard cases like Sen. Orrin Hatch, who had voted for her husband’s impeachment. As secretary of state her ratings consistently soared above 60%. She was the most admired woman in the world.
But as soon as she made the passage from being America’s top diplomat to flirting with a reentry to partisan politics, her approval ratings began to slide — they’re now down in the mid-to-low 50s. As she saw last time, when Barack Obama spoiled the party, early inevitability is fleeting.
So, will she or won’t she? Should she or shouldn’t she? How she answers will be guided by three major factors.
Could she sell the country on buying another two-for-one deal attached to unpredictable, ego-driven and, yes, potentially dangerous Bill Clinton? Would her health hold up through a grueling campaign and beyond? And, finally, does she have the proverbial fire in the belly.
Let’s start with Bill, who wants so desperately to be back in the White House. “I’d be happy as a clam; I’d do whatever the President asks me to do,” he told CNN.
Forty years ago, Hillary Rodham shocked her friends by deserting her prestigious job in Washington D.C. and declaring, “I’m going to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton.”
His first campaign manager’s wife was put in charge of running Bill’s girlfriend out the side door before Hillary entered the front. Finally, Hillary had to ask her oldest brother to come to Fayetteville and run the “college girl” out of town. The Starr Report revealed that Secret Service agents had watched Monica Lewinsky come and go from the Oval Office without a question.
It’s no wonder that, as I travel the country on a book tour, I hear variations on the same apprehensive question: What if Bill is still “misbehaving”?
Hillary would have to be beyond certain that the answer is no, and that she would be her own person as President, while the First Husband would be as obedient as the family dog. Whenever the West Wing door opened, he’d be held on a choke leash.
Then again, what an ambassador he would make — probably the only man in the world who could schmooze with Kim Jong Un. So suffice to say, Bill cuts both ways.
More pressing — and an issue over which Hillary would have no control — is one that many prospective candidates must confront as they wrestle with the reality of carrying the weight of the world’s most demanding job: age.
A State Department diplomat who worked with Hillary in the Clinton White House and at State, and is close to her in age, questions whether or not Hillary’s health and energy level could hold up under the merciless travel and sleep deprivation that ages every President at double time:
“She needs to retreat to replenish her energy, the opposite of Bill, who has to be outgoing 24-7,” I was told. After six years of wrestling with a world in chaos, Obama looks like a zombie.
President Reagan could fake nonchalance because he was an actor. But apparent symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease surfaced well before the end of his second term.
Hillary has always needed eight hours of sleep. Fortunately, she is able to cat nap almost anywhere. There is the lingering concern that she wore herself out toward the end of her grueling four-year, globe-circling job as Secretary Clinton.
On the downside, she is prone to blood clotting as a result of repetitive lengthy air travel. In her memoir, “Living History,” she attributed the clot that developed in her left leg, in 1998, to “my nonstop flying around the country” as First Lady.
On the upside, Clinton has a far better life expectancy than Reagan did when he entered the Oval Office at the same age as Hillary would be — at 69. When her longer-lived gender and generation are factored in, a combination of federal data calculate her likely life expectancy as 86.
Finally, there is the passion factor, which is likely to be decisive.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has a lifelong passion for improving the lives of women and girls. As a condition for accepting the role of Secretary of State, she told president-elect Obama “I have my own agenda.” She demanded that he allow her to work for gender equality and make it a part of official foreign policy. She pursued that agenda in every country she visited.
Yes, Hillary may be a natural warrior woman. But the other strong core of her character is the nurturer-rescuer. Fighting for gender equality and empowerment of women, she says “is one of the great causes of my life.”
If she runs in 2016, there are strong hints that she will mount an aggressive campaign for extended maternity leave and quality, affordable childcare for working mothers.
“The absence of paid leave is a strong signal to women, and particularly mothers, that society and our economy don’t value being a mother,” she has said recently. Women shouldn’t have to choose between motherhood and advancing their careers.
As secretary of state, Clinton imagined a world that ensures that girls and women are as educated and healthy as men and free from violence, trafficking and abuse. The Clinton Global Initiative projects a much bleaker reality: by current standards, women will not comprise half of the world’s elected representatives until 2065 and won’t be half the world’s leaders until more than 100 years from now.
Hillary knows well the biggest mistake she made in her failed 2008 campaign for President. She listened to Bill Clinton and her chief strategist, Mark Penn. Both men insisted, more or less, that she not run as a woman.
They presented her to the voters as tougher than any man. Hillary loyalists repeatedly challenged Obama’s manhood, openly proclaiming to reporters that she was the only candidate with the “testicular fortitude” to be President.
When she finally conceded the 2008 primary election to a man, women of her age wept bitterly. She lifted them up with inspired words: Do not dwell on the what ifs, she said. “Life is too short. Time is too precious. We have to work together for what still can be.”
Millions of women around the world took those words to heart and found in them salve for their own crushing disappointments in life. Could Hillary betray the hopes of women the world over and dash the dreams of their daughters?
I hear women everywhere saying, “If she doesn’t run, I’d never forgive her.”
And Hillary, it seems almost certain, would never forgive herself.