She’s bested a hostile GOP before. Are her opponents ready for her this time?
Hillary-hunters beware. On Thursday, when Hillary Clinton testifies before the Benghazi Committee, she will probably demonstrate the experience, poise and partisan steeliness that won last week’s Democratic debate. For more than two decades, this tough political veteran has testified before unfriendly congressional hearings and hostile grand juries. And over the years, she has proved to be as resilient, partisan and adaptable as her husband, who once described himself to his rival Newt Gingrich as “the big rubber clown doll you had as a kid. … The harder you hit me, the faster I come back.”
Hillary Clinton typically unnerves enemies and thrills fans with a soft if somewhat stagy Hillary touch tempering the classic Clinton counterattack she’s mastered, charging Republicans with flagrant partisanship and personal attacks. Exhibit One: During Benghazi testimony in January 2013, then-Secretary of State Clinton teared up when recalling how she comforted the survivors of the four Americans murdered by the Libyan Islamist terrorists on September 11, 2012, then tore into Republicans, making them seem bullying and nit-picky over the question of whether the deaths happened as a result of an Islamist radical protest or a terrorist plot. “We had four dead Americans,” she snapped. “At this point, what difference does it make?”
The news this week was that Hillary Clinton was taking time from her presidential campaign to prep for her Benghazi testimony—but in fact she’s been prepping at least since 1993, when, during the high-stakes Clinton health care reform fight, President Bill Clinton dispatched his wife to testify before Congress. Americans had never had a first lady like this, a supersmart career woman with a law degree who was nevertheless deriving power from her “Mrs. Degree,” trying to be co-president. “This is Eleanor Roosevelt time,” one aide exulted. Clinton’s authoritative but deferential performance prompted a rare standing ovation.
She’d been equally impressive a decade earlier, when she testified for the Clintons’ Arkansas education reform in 1983 and one legislator cracked, “It looks like we’ve elected the wrong Clinton.” Now, the crusty Dan Rostenkowski said, “I think in the very near future the president will be known as your husband.” The first lady smiled politely. The New York Times reported, awkwardly, that Mrs. Clinton “captivated and dominated two usually grumpy House Committees.”
Despite that triumph, and subsequent polls showing her being twice as popular as her husband, the health care reform effort failed, partially due to a backlash fueled by fears that an unelected first lady with no constitutional authority was seizing too much power. Defeated, Clinton retreated into a more traditional role. In January 1996, she launched an 11-city tour to promote her book It Takes a Village, articulating the Clintons’ centrist vision combining individual and communal responsibility—what she now calls her progressivism tempered by moderation.
It Takes a Village reflected Hillary Clinton’s cautious new makeover, with chapter headings like “Security Takes More Than a Blanket” and “Child Care Is Not a Spectator Sport.” The occasionally prickly power-player had become a safe mom and cliché-maker.
All the love she received on the road convinced the first lady that there was a huge “disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation.” She noted how “ineffectual the increasingly partisan rhetoric in Washington was in solving the problems that these children face.”
Yet even then the first lady’s tour was haunted by the Whitewater scandals—which began with allegations of conflicts of interest rooted in a failed Arkansas real estate investment. In a cruel twist—or a poorly executed manipulation—on January 5, as the tour began, the Clintons’ secretary announced she had stumbled onto a box in the “book room,” deep in the Clintons’ private domain, the Executive Mansion. The box contained long-sought billing records detailing the legal work Hillary Clinton and her Rose Law Firm colleagues did for the Madison Guaranty savings and loan at the heart of the Whitewater scandal.
Five investigative bodies had been requesting those records, some for as long as two years. The bills conveniently appeared two days after the statute of limitations expired, so that bank regulators could not sue the Rose Law Firm or any attorneys involved in the bank’s $60 million bankruptcy.
Mrs. Clinton had insisted that she remembered little about what was an insignificant case. The records showed otherwise, proving that Hillary Clinton, Esq., had worked 60 hours over 15 months, averaging an hour a week, on this file, with over a dozen meetings. Her claim that this proved that the file was forgettable meant that this supposed superlawyer was invoking a defense of borderline malpractice to dodge more serious charges of dishonesty and fraud. Ronald Reagan had made a similar choice when defending himself during the Iran-Contra scandal. Ultimately, like the 18½-minute gap with Watergate, the sudden surfacing of the long-sought billing records would remain a mystery: Were they genuinely misplaced or purposely overlooked? How did they suddenly emerge? “Nobody knows the real story with the billing records,” the White House counsel and Whitewater troubleshooter Jane Sherburne would say with a sigh.
The fallout was considerable. Her book tour yielded distracting, demoralizing questions. Newsweek ran a cover story on Hillary Clinton, promoting book excerpts while asking “SAINT OR SINNER?”
Most distressing, on January 19, Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, convinced that Hillary Clinton was obstructing justice, issued the first subpoena ever in American history compelling a first lady to testify in court. Hillary Clinton heard this news while touring. “I returned to the White House discouraged and embarrassed, worried that this latest turn of events might destroy whatever credibility I retained,” she recalled in her first memoir, Living History. Then as now the Clintons believed the charges were malicious, partisan and abusive—charges Hillary will echo Thursday.
Clinton worked on controlling her fury. She knew that snippy responses to the prosecutors’ questions would make her look arrogant and guilty. In April 1995, when Starr and his attorneys had deposed the Clintons at the White House, she had greeted them coldly. Her husband, ever the seducer, had infuriated her by schmoozing them, including giving the standard Lincoln Bedroom tour. Mrs. Clinton speculated that one of Starr’s “goals may have been to humiliate me publicly, but I was determined not to let him break my spirit.” She would control her anger—but lost 10 pounds in the week and a half before her testimony, “not a diet I would recommend,” she said archly.
As Hillary Clinton put on a mask with false bravado, telling reporters: “Cheerio! Off to the firing squad,” her husband fumed, “Look what they were doing to Hillary.” As someone who loved a good political fight, he bridled under legal advice suggesting the Clintons cooperate and found it excruciating that his wife had to fight alone. “I’m tired of this limp-dick shit,” the president cursed, according to Taylor Branch’s book The Clinton Tapes. “I want somebody to stand up to these people. This is ridiculous.”
Responding to her subpoena, rather than sneak in through the back of the courthouse, the first lady swept through the front, making an entrance, looking confident. Unfortunately, her trendy flowing black cloaklike winter coat had an embroidered gold design on the back that looked like a dragon. This fashion misfire fed sexist stereotypes of Hillary, the tough wife, as the dragon lady.
Still, her celebrity aura dazzled. One grand juror asked Hillary Clinton to autograph a copy of It Takes a Village. She humbly asked for permission to sign. Starr granted it but soon dismissed that juror.
“I, like everyone else, would like to know the answer about how those documents showed up after all these years,” the first lady said after testifying for four hours. She insisted the records showed how little Madison Guaranty work she did. Onlookers’ signs showed how polarizing this first lady was. “COME CLEAN” and “IT’S ETHICS, STUPID,” detractors insisted. Supporters responded: “WE LOVE YOU HILLARY.” “Would you rather have been somewhere else today,” one reporter asked. “Oh, about a million other places,” she deadpanned.
HILLARY! had emerged, now known globally simply by her first name, like Madonna or Oprah. The mousy hippie in the famous Clinton wedding photo now contrasted with the movie star cool the first lady exuded during this humiliating moment. The academic Camille Paglia called Hillary Clinton “the drag queen of modern politics, a bewitching symbol of modern women’s sometimes confused search for identity in this era of unlimited options.” While evolving from the Ice Queen she had once been to the celebrity she was becoming, she and her husband represented a bold attempt to update the traditional nature of the political couple and what Paglia called a “failed feminist experiment in the redefinition of the sexes.”
Yet by February, Hillary Clinton’s negatives hit 54 percent, making her the most unpopular first lady in recent American history. Even as her public standing improved, she would remain a surprisingly polarizing political figure. Later that year, a Pew survey asked voters to describe her in one word, the most frequently used words were, “strong,” “intelligent,” “dishonest” and, a disdainful term for women the survey delicately reported, “rhymes with rich.”
At the same time, protective but politically sensitive, Bill Clinton distanced himself from his wife. She no longer positioned herself next to the president in meetings and avoided many strategy sessions for nearly two years, even though she still had Bill’s ear in the Executive Mansion. Publicly, Bill Clinton ran—and won—reelection in 1996 by flying solo.
Hillary paid a price for leaping beyond the traditional boundaries of first-ladydom in the 1990s—and she probably will on Thursday. But, once again, she survived—as she probably will on Thursday. Hillary Clinton went on to gain sympathy as the wounded spouse during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and to earn credibility as an independent politician by becoming the first first lady to run for office in 2000, winning the Senate seat from New York. Now she must get past her Benghazi trial-by-testimony to convince the American people that she is the right Clinton for 2016: able to “captivate” and “dominate” yet another “grumpy” committee, jumping yet another hurdle in her rocky, unlikely, historic, White House run.
Her history seems to be on her side.