First Lady President?
This interview was originally published in Verve in 2004.
Back in the late 1970s, when Hillary Rodham was the First Lady of Arkansas, and a working First Lady at that (she was a successful attorney), her husband, Governor Bill Clinton, chose her to head a committee on children’s education. When she addressed a group of legislators with the committee’s findings, her performance was so skillful that a state representative, Lloyd George, an unsparing critic of the administration, sprang to his feet and blurted a remark that echoed for years thereafter: ‘Gentlemen, we have elected the wrong Clinton!’ A quarter century later, American politics is aflutter with talk that voters might finally have the chance to elect the right Clinton, or at least the other Clinton too, to the highest office. In 2008, if not in 2004. After sublimating her own political ambitions to fuel her husband’s career, Hillary Clinton, never one to be in the shadows, has stepped centre stage even as her other half recedes into the background. Senator Clinton seems to be only a stepping stone to President Clinton, President Hillary Clinton, a wispy wish that first appeared on bumper stickers in 1992 when her husband became the chief executive.
It was always meant to be this way. When Hillary Rodham first met Bill Clinton at the Yale Law School in the late 1960s, her passion for politics was as strong, if not stronger, than his. According to one biography, the fact that Clinton was thinking of the White House even in those early days seemed to be a very attractive proposition for Rodham. On his part, Bill Clinton fell in love with her mind, and her confidence. All other girls fawned on him, but Hillary’s attitude was: ‘I don’t need you.’ When he introduced her to his mother, he explained her plain looks, saying: ‘Look, ma, I have work to do. I don’t need to be married to a sex goddess.’
She was the equal, if not the dominating force in their relationship. Well-matched, temperamentally and intellectually, they complemented each other. They were both brilliant, and it was said they probably had the highest IQ total for a husband-wife political team in the world.
Yet, the world’s leading democracy has generally treated its First Lady as a sort of trophy wife. Some have been glamorous, many homely, some formidable, many supportive. But mostly, they have first and foremost been the wife, the companion standing two feet behind and to the right of the President during his speeches, a step or two behind him during the ceremonial reception to greet a foreign leader. Occasionally, of course, they strayed from the stereotype. Eleanor Roosevelt was politically active and had strong views which she communicated to her husband; Jacqueline Kennedy was easily the most glamorous of the First Ladies, and Nancy Reagan, notwithstanding the goo-goo eyes she made at Ronald Reagan in public, used the pillow talk session to have her way. Hillary Rodham Clinton broke the mould. She was a pol and a consummate one at that. She has been acknowledged to be the most openly empowered presidential wife in American history save for Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, with her husband done with the American presidency, it seems her hour has come.
On a wintry Washington evening I meet Hillary Clinton for an interview at the Hay Adams Hotel opposite Lafayette Park, across from the White House. It is Friday, and Mrs Clinton, who takes her Senatorial duties seriously unlike some of our own Rambas and Urvashis, has to pop in and out of the Congress in between the interview. I am a little curious about the choice of venue, given her need to be at the Senate often that day. There are many hotels closer to the Hill she could have used. On the other hand, Hay Adams is not only a historic hotel and one of Washington DC’s landmarks, but it is as close as you can get to staying at the White House, short of being invited by the President. The hotel takes it name after John Hay, private assistant to President Abraham Lincoln and later secretary of state, and Henry Adams, an acclaimed author and descendant of U.S. Presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. In its 120 years, it has played host to some of Washington’s leading artists, writers and politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Henry James.
So when Mrs Clinton bustles into the room for the interview, the first question I have in mind is whether she has chosen Hay Adams because she misses the White House and wants to be close to it. “Hello! Nice to see you! Thank you for coming!” she gushes as she sweeps in. Actually, I had met her personally and at any length only once before, at a White House dinner banquet. Then too, she had been equally effusive. She has that politician’s touch aimed at immediately putting you at ease. She spots my miniature digital tape recorder, and exclaims “Oooh! That’s nifty!” I am tempted to tell her that it is probably made in China, but that will segue the conversation into economics and I do not want that. I have been warned that time is very limited, probably no more than half an hour to begin with. But before I can begin, she has also spotted two hardbound books I have kept on the wide table. On top is her book, Living History, which I had intended to get signed that day. Underneath that, is a copy of my own book, The Horse That Flew: How India’s Silicon Gurus Spread Their Wings, which I wanted to give to her. “Is this your book?” she trills, even without my telling her about it. How does she know? I’d placed it under her book but her quick eye has probably taken in the spine of the jacket. “It is, as a matter of fact, and I meant to give you a copy…” I reply. “How interesting!” she says, leafing through the book.
“Is this your first book?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Congratulations. Did you enjoy it?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Exciting, isn’t it?”
“It’s always wonderful to see something you’ve done between covers…and you, Senator, have been through it what…three times…?”
“Four times…” she corrects me.
With the preambles out of the way, I ask her what is on my mind, whether she is staying at the Hay Adams because she misses the White House. “I don’t. I really don’t miss it,” she says without hesitation, and for reasons that are more intuitive than rational, I think she means it. “I had eight wonderful years with extraordinary experiences but I was ready to go on,” she continues, “and it’s fortunate that our country has the two term limits because it causes people to have to keep moving. I am very grateful for the experience but I am very happy doing what I am doing now.” Of course, the question is a set-up for the obvious one to follow. For months now, in fact, even when she was in the White House as a First Lady, there has been speculation that she was interested in running for the highest office.
Is the window for running in 2004 closed? “I don’t know,” she responds quickly, starting to laugh loudly. “I’m not the person to ask.” Or is too late to run? I persist. “I have no plans,” she replies, leaving the issue fairly open. The Washington whisper of course is that Bill Clinton is keen for her to run, because, go the naughty asides, he wants to return to the White House and enjoy its fruits without the pain of scrutiny. So is he pushing her to run? “He really isn’t … he is not at all,” she says, before becoming animated. “He is very anxious for someone to defeat George Bush and put the country back on the right track, but he’s going to support whoever our nominee is….” Make what you will of it. I think she sounds like she herself isn’t keen to run and has no plans right now, but if push (or Bush) comes to shove from Bill and the party machinery (“I’m not the person to ask”), she wouldn’t be averse. It is all a matter of timing and circumstance.
When I first came to Washington in 1994 as a foreign correspondent, Hillary Clinton was not a very popular figure in the nation’s political sweepstakes. She was seen as too bold and brassy. Attacked over conflict of interest issues because she was a working professional, she had stirred traditional, conservative Americans by snapping that she could have stayed at home and baked cookies. When Bill Clinton became President, he gave her the job of reforming American health care plans (where she first came in touch with Atul Gawande, a young Indian medical graduate who went on to become a staff writer for the New Yorker and a brilliant surgeon). But the proposals were rejected and the mission ended in political disaster.
In early 1995, the Clinton administration decided to resurrect her on the foreign policy front, where there would be fewer enemies than on the hotbed of domestic politics. Although foreign policy was not majorly on the Clintons’ radar screen, there was one area which the twosome always had a soft corner for: India. Like most children of the ’60s generation, they had heard, read, and had been interested, more than captivated, by the region. Clinton had read India when he studied at Oxford and roomed with Indians. Hillary was a child of the beat generation. “I grew up listening to Ravi Shankar’s sitar and I loved Indian food,” she recalls.
In fact, Hillary said she wanted to visit India as far back as the early 1960s, and had even applied for a Fulbright fellowship that would have taken her there. But the India-China border spat broke out and she was advised against it. “My earliest memory (of India) is studying about Gandhi and non-violence when I was in school, before college. It was part of learning about the civil rights movement in our country, about how Dr King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi,” she recounts. “And then I became fascinated with Nehru, Indira Gandhi… I was very interested in this woman who became a leader of her country… I became very interested in the role that India played in the Non-aligned Movement and the role that India tried to achieve in the position between Soviet Union and United States.”
The Clintons were intelligent enough to understand the middle path India trod those days, but as far as the Washington establishment was concerned, the geopolitical stars of the two countries were hopelessly mismatched. But then the Cold War ended at the turn of the decade, India itself underwent tremendous political and economic convulsions, and by mid-1990s, the time seemed opportune to rebuild ties between the two giant democracies. “It was intended to make a very strong statement that the United States wanted to build a closer relationship with India,” Hillary says of her visit. “So the President and the Secretary of State asked me if I wanted to go as an ice-breaker.”
The trip was a rousing success. Hillary Clinton combined both the glamour of Jackie Kennedy and the social activism of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was both a politician and mother (a 14-year old Chelsea accompanied her). She charmed both her hosts and her critics at home. Describing the visit in her book, Living History, Hillary says it was one of the defining moments of her political life, including a turnaround in her relationship with the American media.
There were many highlights to the trip, but none more electrifying than her decision to feature a poem by a young New Delhi schoolgirl named Anusuya to highlight the status of women across the world.
“Too many women
In too many countries
Speak the same language
Of silence…” it began.
By the time she concluded it with the words, “We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak (too many women in too many countries) I seek only to forget the sorrows of my grandmother’s silence,” there were many dewy eyes in the audience. The story also found wide play in the American press, and in that one single moment, Hillary Clinton erased much of the brassiness that was attributed to her. In fact, the other most memorable moment of the visit, she tells me, was not the obligatory stopover at the Taj Mahal, but her visit to Ela Bhat’s Sewa headquarters in Ahmedabad. The sight of poor working women rising up to sing “Hum honge kaamyaab…” exerted a powerful tug on her emotions and went a long way in spurring her involvement in women’s empowerment issues. Months later, Bhatt was a visitor to the White House, and they remain in touch.
Nearly eight years after her India trip, Hillary’s desi connections remain strong, perhaps stronger. She has returned to the region only once since then — to attend Mother Teresa’s funeral. But her close circles are spotted with people of Indian origin. Her legislative director is Neera Tandon, and Anil Kakani works on her budget and finance proposals. Among the closest Clinton pals are Anita and Rajat Gupta, the IIT-ian couple, the male of whom led the consulting firm McKinsey for many years. The Clintons are frequent visitors to their home. Chelsea, after her stint at Oxford last year, did an internship at McKinsey and found a job there, but the protective mother is quick to point out, without any provocation from me, that “Rajat gave her no special treatment!”
Other Clinton buddies include the family of the restaurateur Sant Chatwal Singh, who owns Washington’s Bombay Palace, among other establishments. It was an association that the Indian officialdom found a little unsavory because Chatwal was in a protracted legal wrangle with some Indian banks over alleged financial irregularities and defalcation, and in Indian eyes at least he is on the lam. But it wasn’t something that was going to keep the Clintons away from them. It wasn’t Chatwal’s political contribution, the joke in Indian circles went, as much as the Clintons’ fondness for Indian food.
In fact, Hay Adams is just round the corner from Bombay Club, the upscale Washington restaurant, a stone’s throw away from the White House, which was one of Clintons’ favourite eating places in the eight years they were at 1600. “I love that place. Even now as a Senator, I still go there a lot,” Hillary gushes, even as I wonder why her staff hadn’t ordered some take-out from there instead of laying out a lunch of cold sandwiches.
For now though, the food for thought in Washington is whether Hillary will run for President. It seems certain now that 2004 is out, but 2008, when Bush will be not be eligible for a re-run (on the assumption that he wins a second term), it will leave the field open for Democrats and for Hillary, especially, if other contenders have expended their energy in 2004. The consensus in Washington’s political parlours is that Hillary is playing a waiting game.