Hillary, Act II
Penélope Cruz was there. So were Julianna Margulies and Hilary Swank, Christina Ricci and David Bowie. But among the 450 swells assembled at the New York Public Library for the annual Council of Fashion Designers of America awards ceremony on June 3, there was one guest whose entrance—in a blue silk Oscar de la Renta ball gown with pouf sleeves—made even those glitzy heads swivel.
"The sleeves were a little big," says Bloomingdale's exec Kal Ruttenstein, recalling how the sea of fashionistas parted for U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Nonetheless, "there was a lot of applause and clicking of cameras. She is a major icon."
What Clinton symbolizes, however, has changed dramatically since November 2000, when she became the first former First Lady ever to win elective office. For eight years she was one of the most politically powerful, and controversial, presidential wives in U.S. history—architect of an ambitious (though ultimately defeated) healthcare plan, emissary to nations as far-flung as Rwanda and Vietnam, key adviser to the nation's Commander in Chief. "It's like looking back on a beautiful dream," she says now. Of course, there was ugliness too: Whitewater; Travelgate; Monicagate. Surveying her suite in the Russell Senate Office Building—decorated with "It Takes a Village" and "Senator Hillary" needlepoint pillows and painted the same buttercup yellow that she chose for the White House living quarters—Clinton, 54, declares that she has moved on. "It's over" she says.
Indeed it is. The woman who gave up a promising law career to accompany husband Bill to Arkansas and stood at his side during his impeachment as President has become an independent superpower, with a clout in the Senate that belies her lack of seniority. "I'm so proud of her," says Bill. "I'm grateful that after all the help she gave me for 27 years, I can now support her." Adds Rev. Don Jones, a Methodist minister who has known her since high school: "Winning that election was liberation day for Hillary."
One that was followed, just 10 months later, by the day that changed everything for the country's leaders, especially those from New York. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Hillary planned to focus on boosting the upstate economy and tracking health hazards in the environment. In the aftermath she has spent 70-hour weeks landing $21.5 billion in federal disaster aid for her state, persuading the EPA to investigate Ground Zero air quality, even meeting with theater workers to develop a plan to lure audiences back to Broadway. "The most important thing I'm doing is fighting for New York in the wake of 9/11," she says. "That's my overriding job."
If that occupation helps make her popular with constituents—her approval rating stands at 55 percent—a sideline has earned her a place among the Capitol's top power brokers. Since founding her HILLPAC political action committee in January 2001, Clinton has become one of her party's most formidable fund-raisers, pulling in $1.8 million. "She's a star," says Larry Noble of the nonpartisan think tank Center for Responsive Politics. "She galvanizes Democrats who saw her as a strong presence in the White House."
Nevertheless, says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Hillary "made it clear from the start that she wanted to be a senator, not a celebrity." Says Clinton: "My attitude is, I'm getting paid for that." She's happy to be one of the gals as well. Last September she threw a shower for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who was adopting a baby girl, in her home off Embassy Row. (Clinton purchased the $2.8 million house using part of the $8 million advance for her memoirs, due out next year.) "We tell each other little asides, like what kind of shoes work best on marble floors, or the mystery of handbags versus portfolios," says Hillary of her female colleagues. "How do you carry your stuff? The men never seem to be carrying anything. We [women senators] all look like packhorses."
She also has her hands full balancing her professional life in D.C. with her personal life at the $1.7 million, three-story Dutch Colonial in Chappaqua, N.Y., that she and her husband bought in 1999. Hillary still shudders at the eight-month renovation. "For months we had our refrigerator on the front porch. It was awful. At one point the whole place was torn up, and the only place we could eat was a little table in our bedroom."
Today the couple maintain their commuter marriage ("a conversation that never stops," as she recently described it) with nonstop schedule-juggling; he tries to get to Washington several times a month, and she spends long weekends in Chappaqua. Between visits she faxes copies of her speeches to the man she jokingly calls her "editor in chief." If any tension remains after the Lewinsky scandal, neither the Clintons nor those close to them are letting on. Says former press secretary Joe Lockhart: "They're constantly on the phone. It's a combination of 'Hi, how was your day?' and two policy wonks sharing information."
Keeping up with daughter Chelsea, 22—who just finished her first year of grad school in international relations at her father's alma mater, Oxford University—hasn't been as easy. In May, when the tabloids caught an allegedly tipsy Chelsea leaving London's Embassy Club at 3 a.m. with her American boyfriend Ian Klaus, Hillary's office issued a terse "no comment." Says one insider of Hillary: "She's not happy [about the stories], but she's putting on a good face in public."
It was the kind of mild misbehavior that Hillary, one of three children of Dorothy, 83, a homemaker, and textile manufacturer Hugh Rodham, who died in 1993, rarely engaged in herself. "I grew up in a very Republican
home—child of the 1950s and '60s suburbs," she has said of her girlhood in Park Ridge, near Chicago.
She wanted to be an astronaut until she learned that NASA wasn't hiring women. Instead, after graduating from Wellesley in 1969, earning a law degree from Yale and working as a staffer for the House committee preparing Nixon's impeachment, she strapped her bike to her car roof and drove away from a career in Washington to join her then beau for his ill-fated '74 congressional campaign. "Her friends tried to talk her out of it," says Patty Criner, a longtime pal from Little Rock. "Bill was in this little bitty campaign headquarters in Fayetteville. Hillary walked in and looked so surprised."
She stuck beside him all the way to the White House. Now that she and Bill have left the building, the question remains: Does she have any plans to return under her own steam? She winces and says, "Oh, no." But MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews, for one, doesn't believe it. "I think she's going to run for President in 2008, maybe sooner," he says. "I can't believe she wants to serve as senator for the next 20 years."
Still, for Hillary, that role must seem a respite of sorts. "Let's face it," says Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y). "After what she's gone through the last eight years, the Senate is a cakewalk."
Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., and Sharon Cotliar and Rebecca Paley in New York City