Clinton speaks to supporters during a campaign stop at Dover High School on February 17, 2007. (Andrew Moore photo)
Early in this campaign season, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has told audiences, often with a laugh, that "I’m the most famous person you don’t know very much about."
It’s a revealing line that cuts to the heart of the New York senator’s quest to reintroduce herself to a voting public where she has 100 percent name recognition - the sort of stature that many presidential wannabes would sacrifice a limb for. It’s a revealing line because it’s easy to take for granted that Clinton has been a major presence in national politics for more than 15 years, a fact of life that can cut both ways. She has been publicly dissected by armies of political and media enemies - and, to a lesser extent, allies and admirers - to an incomprehensible point, put on the rack and stretched beyond recognition in a manner befitting not a politician but a Hollywood celebrity overwhelmed by a tabloid tsunami, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Consider this: Hillary Clinton grew up in Illinois in, what she told me recently, "a very Republican family." In 1964, she was a "Goldwater girl," a volunteer for the campaign of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater who lost a landslide election to President Lyndon Johnson, a defeat that set the stage for the conservative resurgence of the past four decades. She told me she was a "very big admirer" of Goldwater and his love of liberty and "staunch individualism." But she had also admired President John F. Kennedy for his call to put a man on the moon by end of the 1960s decade.
By the winter of 1968, Clinton was again working against Johnson, but this time she was in New Hampshire, a college volunteer for the anti-Vietnam War candidacy of Democrat Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Clinton told me her political evolution began during that pivotal 1964 election, when in a high school debate class she presented the Johnson position. "I was forced to represent a defense (of Democrats)," she said. It opened her eyes to issues such as the great civil rights movement dominating the national headlines. Her political shift "led to great debates with my father," Clinton said.
No candidate in American history has been as vetted, analyzed, vilified and likely misunderstood as Hillary Clinton. She’s been the subject of investigations by federal prosecutors and Congress. She’s been painted as a shrewd dragon lady by conservative regulars and considered a warrior hero by her Democratic Party admirers, while liberals have mostly stayed at a mistrusting distance.
And she has given as good, if not better, than she’s gotten. She was mocked in 1998, when as first lady she talked about how "a vast right-wing conspiracy" had targeted President Bill Clinton.
One can debate how vast the conspiracy was, but there’s little doubt that the 1998-99 impeachment drive against the president was a barely disguised coup attempt, driven by a dedicated cadre of operatives at all levels of the Republican establishment. The president’s spectacularly self-destructive tryst with a White House intern opened the door to the legal and political onslaught, but the gears were already in motion.
Consider this: Clinton’s political rise from first lady to U.S. senator to Democratic presidential front-runner is unprecedented.
In the spring of 1999, when talk first surfaced about her political future, the woman being fitted for a serious White House bid was Elizabeth Dole, a Republican (now senator from North Carolina) who briefly overshadowed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in public opinion polls.
Back in 1966, Hillary Clinton resigned from the college Republican club at Wellesley College, because she "no longer felt comfortable" with the party’s stances on the war and civil rights. Her first contact with Washington, D.C., came in 1968 and, ironically, it was as an intern with the House Republican Conference where she came into contact with House minority leader and later president, Gerald Ford. Her diligent work led to an invitation to the 1968 Republican convention in Miami, where Richard Nixon finally emerged from political purgatory.
When I asked Clinton about her political evolution, about what books she read, about her political inspirations, she was vague, even guarded. She has read hundreds of books and was guided by the Bible, though she wasn’t clear on what scripture inspired her. She said she maintains her "idealism" about public service from that era. According to a recent piece by Michael Crowley in The New Republic, in 1975, the law school graduate walked into a U.S. Marine Corps recruiting office to ask about enlisting. A recruiter sent her back out the door after a few sexist comments.
She had the tough and hopeless task of campaign organizing in Texas in 1972 as a supporter of Democratic candidate Sen. George McGovern - perhaps a foreshadowing of the tough ground she covered in 2000 as a New York senatorial candidate in her own right, introducing herself to strangers and asking them for their vote. After graduating from Yale Law School, she served on the House Judiciary Committee investigating President Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Talk about your six degrees of historical separation. Hillary Clinton has been there and done that.
"I learn from trial and error," Clinton told me. There’s been no shortage of both in her career and life with one of the most popular and enigmatic politicians in modern American history.
But if, in a sense, the history of her remarkable journey defines her, it can also be a burden.
There’s little doubt that she’s one of the smartest, toughest and most qualified candidates around in this or any election cycle.
"She’s so smart and has so much strength," said Arnie Arnesen, a Hopkinton-based political talk show host and shrewd analyst who has known the Clintons since the 1992 New Hampshire primary. "She is the seasoned, long-distance runner that you need to be to withstand the crap of the campaign."
Clinton’s campaign is based on the judgment, experience and leadership as a seasoned historical participant. She has secured the endorsement of nearly 30 (and counting) state House Democrats and compiled what will likely be the strongest political organization in the state. But it’s also a campaign based mostly on "Hillary" as a significant brand name, one that doesn’t have a signature theme of emotional resonance yet.
Arnesen, a Democrat who ran for N.H. governor in 1992, believes Clinton’s many virtues may not be enough to overcome something she has no control over - a historical transforming wave of change driven by the war in Iraq and revulsion to the Bush era and deep concern about the country’s future.
"There’s a passion and anger among Democratic voters that she has to contend with," Arnesen explained. "People are so frustrated. (Clinton) is speaking to machine Democrats. We are not in a machine mode, but a change mode."
In particular, Arnesen believes that Clinton is too politically nuanced for her own good.
But what is certain is Hillary Clinton is as resilient as her husband. We may think we know her. There are lengthy rosters of doubters and fools who have underestimated her smarts, determination and toughness. What remains to be seen is whether the voters believe this is her time.
Michael McCord is the opinion page editor of Herald Sunday and the Herald.
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