Hillary’s Comeback

It would make a great film, but it makes an even better story: the wife of a former president, humiliated by his philandering and lies in office, is poised to succeed him, and in the process become the first female head of state in the world’s sole superpower.

The resurrection of Hillary Clinton from embattled First Lady, loathed by many of her compatriots, to the favourite to recapture the White House next year, this time as the prime occupant of the Oval Office, is remarkable.

It began with her election as senator for New York in 2000, even as the rancour from the failed bid to impeach her husband for obstructing justice in the Monica Lewinsky affair lingered heavily over Washington.

She won well in a state she had barely visited before. Her critics expected her to be complacent on the campaign trail but she worked hard, travelling extensively and talking to voters. In the senate, she made friends of Republicans who expected to be her enemy. She listened, avoided confrontation and devoured her work.

In preparation for a presidential bid, she joined the Senate Armed Services Committee in order to burnish her image as a potential commander-in-chief. In January 2007 she announced she was running for president, and campaign funds began rolling in from admirers in Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street.

Early on, she was perturbed by the unexpectedly strong challenge of Barack Obama, the young pretender aiming to become the first black president. But by now his challenge for the Democratic Party’s nomination has probably been seen off. By mid-February we will likely know that Mrs Clinton has been chosen as the nominee.

By then half of the states will have held their primaries or caucuses where party members (and in some cases registered independents) choose their candidate. That part of the job done, how will she win the White House in November 2008, when George W Bush, to almost universal relief, stands down after two terms?

Her probable opponent will be Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who became a national figure with his emotive defiance after the 9/11 attacks, or possibly Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor attempting a breakthrough of his own – to be the first Mormon president. Whoever she faces, Clinton’s biggest problem will be that a lot of people simply don’t like her. For the right wing, she remains the figure of hate she became during her husband’s presidency.

Rabid radio talk-show hosts, Fox News pundits and various columnists have practically built their careers around Hillary-hatred. When she advocates middle-of-the-road policies, they accuse her of deception. As First Lady, Mrs Clinton tried to introduce a form of “socialised medicine”, as it is called by its detractors, and failed because of her inability to compromise.

The presumption that she should be given an important job simply because she was the president’s wife explains some of the animosity towards her, as does her intense secrecy and deep-seated suspicion of the press. There can also be a condescending, ‘trust-me-I’m-right’ quality to her tone that makes some people’s blood boil. But much of the hostility is plain old chauvinism.

Mrs Clinton’s campaign is a model of discipline and focus. She has held just one press conference in nearly a year, and given very few interviews – all with carefully selected American news organisations. This is a perennial frustration for British and other foreign media in Washington. In Washington foreign hacks are placed at the back of the crowd craning their necks to see the action.

I moved here several months ago and the aggravations of the job were soon plain – the deadline (1pm on average) is horribly early. There is a fair amount of chasing up stories in the Washington Post or New York Times. But so were the rewards. Americans love to talk. Open a notebook or pick up the phone and they will give you an opinion, and normally in highly cogent, quotable form.

There is a belief that the fourth estate is a worthwhile institution, and there is much less of the suspicion widespread in Britain that journalists are merely waiting for an opportunity to turn over a source. For a newcomer in need of enlightenment and analysis, there are endless think-tank types who answer calls, and, what is more, often have experience of government.

Shortly after arriving I saw Hillary Clinton trounce her Democrat rivals at their first nationally televised debate in South Carolina. The following night she and her fellow candidates crammed onto a stage on the ground floor of a multi-storey car park to address an almost completely black crowd of party activists.

All the excitement then was about the new man, Obama, who had shocked the Clinton campaign by raising equal sums of money. The crowd gave him a deafening welcome, but when he had finished his speech the acclaim was not as loud.

Hillary, on the other hand, received a lesser reception, but when she had finished telling the crowd how they could join her in transforming America, they raised the roof. I had this gut feeling then that she would become president.

As a naive new arrival, I thought I might grab her or Obama for a quick word after the speech. A phalanx of minders put paid to that idea. But as ringside seats go it wasn’t bad, and I expect to have one at her inauguration as the United States’ 44th president.