Hillary Clinton’s History as First Lady: Powerful, but Not Always Deft

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from The New York Times,

In recent months, as Mrs. Clinton has prepared for a likely 2016 presidential campaign, she has often framed those White House years as a period when, like many working mothers, she juggled the demands of raising a young daughter and having a career. She talks about championing women’s rights globally, supporting her husband during years of robust economic growth, and finding inspiration in Eleanor Roosevelt to stay resolute in the midst of personal attacks.

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.

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.
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“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.”

No president ever had a partner quite like Hillary Rodham Clinton. She attended campaign strategy meetings in Little Rock, Ark., and later became the first (and so far only) first lady with an office in the West Wing. She would bring his meandering meetings to a close. She plotted out his defense against scandal.

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.”

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.

. Mrs. Clinton was unsentimental in her calculations about whether her husband was ready to run for president. As governor of Arkansas, Mr. Clinton evaluated a candidacy in 1988, when he would turn 42, and thought it might be in his interest even if he lost. Mrs. Clinton disagreed. “You run to win or you don’t at all,” Mr. Kantor remembered her saying a couple of years later.

Ms. Shalala agreed that Mr. Clinton was “terrific,” but added that “he’s never going to be president of the United States.” Ms. Rivlin asked why not. “He’s got a woman problem,” Ms. Rivlin remembered her answering.

By 1992, Mrs. Clinton was convinced that he was ready, and she confronted the “woman problem” directly in strategy sessions. “We had one meeting that was solely on this subject at which Hillary was present,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, their pollster. “It was an uncomfortable meeting, I can assure you, raising the issue,” he added. “I remember Hillary saying that, ‘Obviously, if I could say no to this question, we would say no, and therefore there is an issue.’ She spoke about this as much as he did.”

But if 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.

Once in the White House, Mrs. Clinton was a different kind of first lady. Put in charge of revamping health care, she recruited a bright and supremely confident adviser in Ira C. Magaziner and assembled a bold if elaborate plan.

She impressed Capitol Hill. “Hillary never turns her head when she’s talking to someone,” noticed former Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, then the No. 2 Republican. “She is absolutely riveted. She doesn’t look around, like, ‘Oh, hi there, Tilly. How are you?’ or divert her attention from the person she’s talking to. That’s a gift.”

But scandal was stalking the Clinton White House.

Mr. Clinton lied under oath about an affair with a former intern named Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Clinton denied the affair for months, and Mrs. Clinton publicly said she believed him. But not all of their confidants were so sure.

Mrs. Clinton was furious with her husband but never contemplated a split. “She would have hit him with a frying pan if one had been handed to her, but I don’t think she ever in her mind imagined leaving him or divorcing him,” she said.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton went up to Capitol Hill to rally Democrats against impeachment. “She was absolutely great,” recalled Lawrence Stein, the White House lobbyist. “They loved her. She called it a coup.”

Without her public support, Democrats might have abandoned the president, leading to pressure to resign or even a conviction in the Senate. Once again, Mrs. Clinton had rescued him.

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