December 7, 2014


Hillary Clinton's History as First Lady: Powerful, but Not Always Deft (PETER BAKER and AMY CHOZICK, DEC. 5, 2014, NY Times)

What Mrs. Clinton leaves out about her time as first lady is her messy, sometimes explosive and often politically clumsy dealings with congressional Republicans and White House aides. Now, the release of roughly 6,000 pages of extraordinarily candid interviews with more than 60 veterans of the Clinton administration paints a more nuanced portrait of a first lady who was at once formidable and not always politically deft.

Her triumphs and setbacks are laid bare in the oral histories of Mr. Clinton's presidency, released last month by the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The center has conducted oral histories of every presidency going back to Jimmy Carter's, interviewing key players and then sealing them for years to come. But more than any other, this set of interviews bears on the future as much as the past.

These were formative years for Mrs. Clinton, a time of daring and hubris, a time when she evolved from that headstrong young lawyer so impressed with the man she would marry into a political figure in her own right. She emerged from battles over health care and Whitewater a more seasoned yet profoundly scarred and cautious politician with a better grasp of how Washington works, but far more wary of ambitious projects that may be unpopular.

Now carefully controlled at 67, then she was fiery and unpredictable, lobbing sarcastic jabs in private meetings and congressional hearings. Now criticized as a centrist and challenged from the left, Mrs. Clinton then was considered the liberal whispering in her husband's ear to resist the North American Free Trade Agreement and a welfare overhaul.

"She's much more politically astute now than she was in early 1993," said Alan Blinder, who was a White House economist. "I think she learned. She's really smart. She learns, and she knows she made mistakes." [...]

She was an independent force within the White House, single-handedly pushing health care onto the agenda and intimidating into silence those who thought she might be mishandling it. She was prone to bouts of anger and nursed deep resentment toward Washington. She endured a terribly complicated relationship with her philandering husband. And yet she was the one who often channeled his energies, steered him toward success and saved him from himself.

"She may have been critical from time to time with temper tantrums and things like that," said Mr. Nussbaum, who went on to become Mr. Clinton's first White House counsel. "But she was very strong, and he needed her desperately. He would not have been president, I don't think, without her."

Mrs. Clinton created her own team in the White House that came to be called Hillaryland, and "they were a little island unto themselves," as Betty Currie, the president's secretary, put it. She inspired more loyalty from them than the president did from his own team, said Roger Altman, who was deputy treasury secretary, probably because she was not as purely political. "She wears her heart on her sleeve much more than he does," he said.

But the Clintons were fiercely protective of each other, acting at times as if it were just them against the world. "I remember one time in one of these meetings where she was blowing up about his staff and how we were all incompetent and he was having to be the mechanic and drive the car and do everything -- that we weren't capable of anything, why did he have to do it all himself," said Joan N. Baggett, an assistant for political affairs.

Mr. Clinton had a similar temper when it came to the arrows hurled at her, and aides learned early on never to question her judgment in front of him. "He really reacts violently when people criticize Hillary," said Mickey Kantor, the 1992 campaign chairman and later commerce secretary. "I mean he really gets angry -- you can just see it. He literally gets red in the face."

He depended on her more than any other figure in his world. It blinded him to trouble, some advisers concluded, most notably about her ill-fated drive to remake the health care system.

But he rarely overruled her, at least not in ways that staff members could detect. "I can't think of any issue of any importance at all where they were in disagreement and she didn't win out," recalled Abner Mikva, who served as White House counsel. [...]

[I]f Mr. Clinton's dalliances were a challenge, some of his aides worried that so was his wife. Some questioned whether he would look emasculated to have such a strong spouse. "They pigeonholed her," said Susan Thomases, a close friend of Mrs. Clinton's who worked on the campaign. "She was so strong a personality that there were people who felt that when they were together her strong personality made him seem weaker."

Mrs. Clinton struggled with that, trying to find a balance. But she was integral to nearly every decision -- from her husband's ideological positioning down to his campaign song. "Every time we suggest something, Hillary vetoes it, and we just can't get a song," Mr. Clinton's longtime consigliere, Bruce R. Lindsey, complained at one point, according to Al From, founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Finally, Mr. From suggested Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop," and that passed muster.

More important, Mr. From pushed for Mr. Clinton to run to the middle, and ultimately she signed off on that too. She approached Mr. From at a party. "I thought about it and you're right, and we're going to be a different kind of Democrat by the convention," he remembered her saying. [...]

But the health care effort and its expansion of government involvement in the private sector proved politically toxic and generated deep internal division within the White House. Mr. Magaziner was seen as dismissive and few were willing to confront the president's wife. "There were a lot of people who were intimidated," said Leon E. Panetta, the chief of staff.

Ms. Shalala, who had been named secretary of health and human services, was one of the few who tried. "I told Hillary that this thing is just headed for disaster, and she told me I was just jealous that I wasn't in charge and that was why I was complaining," Mr. Edelman, who served as Ms. Shalala's assistant secretary, remembered Ms. Shalala telling him.

Some of the White House economists were dubious and privately called Mrs. Clinton's health care team "the Bolsheviks." In return, according to Ms. Rivlin, the economists were "sometimes treated like the enemy." Their suggested changes were ignored. "We could have beaten Ira alone," said Mr. Blinder. "But we couldn't beat Hillary."

Indeed, the conflict left the president in a bind. "You can't fire your wife," Mr. Kantor observed.

In the end, the Clintons were stunned by the collapse of the effort in Congress, a defeat that helped lead to the Republican takeover in 1994. "They may be an irresistible force," said William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser, "but they met an immovable object." [...]

For both Clintons, the Senate race in 2000 became a way to purge the toxins of the scandal. Mr. Gore, now the vice president, wanted nothing to do with Mr. Clinton as he mounted his own White House bid. So the departing president focused his energy on his wife's campaign.

Posted by at December 7, 2014 7:54 AM

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