I spent a couple of hours today at a remarkable gathering. It was a symposium held at the prestigious American Enterprise Institute. (Full disclosure: Slate's Washington offices are sublet from AEI, and come with full cafeteria privileges.) The meeting was held in cooperation with the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a West Coast operation whose admiration for our current first family is, how shall we say, restrained. Only one topic was on the daylong agenda: "The Legacy and Future of Hillary Clinton."
Naturally, as we journalists are rigorously trained to do, I approached the subject with dispassion and scientific curiosity. Judging from the outpouring of high-pitched, even hate-filled, books on the subject of Mrs. Clinton, the hideous possibility of her election to be the junior senator from the Empire State is looming large in many prolific minds. And, judging by the recent polls, these authors and their readers have good reason to be worried. Despite all their timely warnings, it seems that at least a slim majority of New Yorkers, even many in conservative upstate, are warming to the carpetbagger--or at least cooling on her opponent.
But what exactly are the Hillary Haters so worried about? Why, I asked the audience, would a roomful of busy scholars and dignitaries devote an entire day to exploring the threat posed by one candidate among many seeking election to the federal legislature? What sort of senator would Hillary Clinton be that she evokes such visceral response?
I don't know Mrs. Clinton personally and have met her on only a few occasions. But like many others, I have read a great deal about her. I also know a few people who have worked for or with her over the years. So I feel pretty confident in offering the following picture of Hillary Clinton, U.S. Senator:
She will, first and foremost, be disciplined and diligent, well-informed and well-prepared. She asks smart questions of her staff and the people who consult with her. Even before her recent "listening tour" of New York State, she knew how to listen.
But she also knows how to talk. Anyone who has ever heard her will have to agree that she is a most accomplished public speaker with a sometimes uncanny poise. Right after the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit the headlines in January 1998, when most of us in her shoes would have been hiding under a bed, I saw her address a packed auditorium of world movers and shakers gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She spoke for about 40 minutes without notes and without pause--not a single "er" or "I mean" or "that is"--and she wowed 'em. Even the snotty Brits from the Economist were impressed.
And Mrs. Clinton--remarkably in this town of flacks and flunkies--does a lot of her own research, so she usually knows what she's talking about--even if you don't agree with her. Her staff chuckles about her famous cardboard box into which she dumps articles, briefing papers, and research summaries that catch her interest and which she drags out at meetings for follow-up. If it's dairy farms she needs to talk about, she'll know the price of every cow and the cost and distribution of every milk subsidy.
As a senator, she will be religious in impulse. Her religiousness has been firm since her youth, and contrary to the '60s stereotype, she was no hippie--she never dabbled in drugs or took to the streets to bring down the system. She even started off in life as a Republican. (This reminder actually evoked a gasp from some more zealous among my listeners.)
She will be most concerned about "kitchen table" issues--especially children both at home and around the world. Mrs. Clinton is, of course, a mother herself and, judging by the proof of the pudding, a pretty good one. Her own daughter, after all, is, by all accounts and appearances, an exceedingly attractive, poised, sensible, and hard-working student. Moreover, Mrs. Clinton was an early proponent of the notion that a child may, under certain extreme circumstances, have rights and interests that trump those of his parents. This idea was once dubbed radical. But as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has pointed out, it seems to have acquired a far broader--and more conservative--constituency in the current arguments over the fate of one Elián González.
She will be a persuasive politician. All her experience on the campaign trail--not just for herself but earlier for other candidates--seems to demonstrate that the more people see her the more they like her. Sorry!
Next, she will be willing to compromise--this may come as a surprise. But Mrs. Clinton has been trained in compromise ever since she first arrived in Arkansas and discovered that her plain-Jane, eyeglassed image didn't play well with the Razorbacks. So she got blonded and contact-lensed, and now, if there is any concern about her appearance among her detractors, it's that she's too photogenic--at least for their own good. Sure, her health-care plan was overengineered and overbearing. But since then, she's learned to be a good tactician. She works through intermediaries--on Capitol Hill, in the nonprofit and corporate sectors, and in her many quiet policy pushes since the health-care debacle. She knows when to keep her head down and live to fight another day. And here her acquiescence in and subsequent support for welfare reform is a good case in point.
And she will draw attention--not just to herself but to the important business of policymaking. She will be devoted to her job and to the idea of public service.
My goodness. Who could possibly want an elected representative like that?
How in the world could such a woman possibly fit into the club of Solons, the corps of modest, self-effacing, even-tempered, erudite, and devoted persons whom we know to be the U.S. Senate? Surely this will be the end of American democracy as it has evolved in our times.
What, then, are the real perils that so many fear? Let's put some flesh on this monster, on this face that launched a dozen screeds.
Is it conceivable, for example, that Clinton will draw so much attention to the Senate that some of her colleagues might be revealed in a less than flattering light? Surely her senatorial colleagues are not so bashful or so fearful of the limelight. Isn't it more likely that they will bask in her reflected brilliance?
Well, then might not her famous temper get out of control? Might she throw a tantrum in the Senate aisles? We've all heard stories about her temper--mostly as it has been directed (justly no doubt) at her errant husband. But it's worth noting that all the many people who have worked for her over the years attest that she is a good boss. Demanding, yes, sometimes preoccupied (who could blame her?), but generous in her praise, concerned about her colleagues and subordinates and unerringly polite and gracious in public. She runs a collegial--not a command-and-control--operation, and her staff are devoted to her.
Think, by way of contrast, of some of her potential colleagues in the Senate, many of whom are positively famous for blowing their stacks, abusing their staff, and even occasionally ranting and raving. At her rumored worst, it's hard to imagine that Hillary would stand out in the crowd.
Third fear: She's no Eleanor Roosevelt, as Christopher Hitchens complained in his boffo if boozy kick-off of today's meeting. So? Is Al Gore Abraham Lincoln? Is John McCain Mahatma Gandhi? Is George W. Bush George Washington? Please.
Then there is the worry expressed by author and Reagan devotee Peggy Noonan--that electing Mrs. Clinton to the Senate will spread the disease of Clintonism. But what are the symptoms of this dread malady on the body politic? Low unemployment? High growth? Low inflation? Soaring productivity? Maybe it's that dash of irrational exuberance that so alarms the Noonanites.
Next threat: She will generate controversy. Heaven forfend! This eventuality is, of course, of special concern to us journalists who--as you know--deplore the occasional descent of the sober business of governance into the low clash of personality and the trading of bootless recriminations. (Are there any other kind?)
Finally, of course, there is the bedrock concern: She's too liberal. (Part of a group of "messianic socialists," charged the day's final speaker, David Horowitz, I am told.) But too liberal compared with whom? Charles Schumer? Paul Wellstone? Ted Kennedy?
And while we're on the subject of Ted Kennedy. Surely no person in the Senate has ever possessed a higher profile or set of aspirations--at least on the part of his adherents. Here he was the survivor of two martyred brothers, the keeper of the liberal flame. His colleagues must have been terrified of the competition.
Yet despite his scarcely deniable personal failings, Kennedy has built a reputation as an effective and collegial legislator who is skilled at compromise. And despite the threat of this star-quality liberal menace on Capitol Hill, Republicans have held the White House for 20 of the last 32 years. The country has edged rightward--and settled pretty much comfortably about where the mainstream GOP used to be. The republic is intact, Columbia, not Britannia, rules the waves, God's in his heaven, and all's right with the markets.
What are the Hillary-bashers so scared of? I didn't really get any answer from either the audience (which, by and large, took my remarks in good spirit if not great good humor) or from my fellow panelists. There were, to be sure, repeated recitations of the Clintons' alleged transgressions from Whitewater to Monica. Also some complaints that Mrs. Clinton wants to have it both ways--victim of her husband but policy player in her own right. But I don't recall that Mrs. Clinton ever portrayed herself as a victim. It was a sympathetic public that, seeing her carry herself with uncommon dignity through her ordeal, so classified her. I'm still puzzled.
Jodie T. Allen, former Washington editor of Slate, is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.