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.