By Marie Cocco
WASHINGTON—She will work herself to the bone. And bore the media to tears.
This is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strategy for securing the Democratic presidential nomination.
It is no secret. But it has been the secret of her success.
The candidate herself is going from network interview to network interview, telling the nation that she intends to win over the country the way she won over New York: “I’m going to go into people’s living rooms, into union halls, into church basements and let people ask me anything,’’ Clinton told NBC’s Brian Williams. “And believe me, people have asked me nearly anything.’’
To a degree that confounds Clinton’s incorrigible haters, people tend to like what they hear. From tiny hamlets along the shores of New York’s Finger Lakes to the tony suburbs of Long Island, Clinton as a first-time Senate candidate made extraordinary headway in softening voters’ calcified sentiments about her—about her marriage, her mistakes, her ambition, her ideological leanings and, yes, her hair.
She’s now won twice in a state that likes its politicians loud of mouth and larger than life. She did it by becoming smaller than her outsized public image. And by almost never making a political error that was big enough to be set in tabloid type.
“There is nothing worth discussing when it comes to strategic errors made in the state of New York,’’ says Gary Lewi, a New York public relations executive with long-standing ties to the state Republican Party—and to Clinton’s one-time Whitewater antagonist, former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. “Even the most partisan has to give her points for very hard political spadework that she’s done across the board.’‘
Though it seems a contradiction for such a celebrity, Clinton the politician has relied more on shoe leather than on star power.
Beginning in high school, when she lost her bid for student government president, her answer to adversity always has been to work harder. “As soon as the election was over, the winner asked me to head the Organizations Committee, which as far as I could tell was expected to do most of the work,’’ Clinton recalled in her 2003 memoir, “Living History.’’ “I agreed.’‘
When she first pondered a Senate run in 2000, she began her research into the state’s history not with the Rockefellers or the Roosevelts but by reading up on the Iroquois Confederacy, a league of Native American tribes that preceded the arrival of Europeans by more than 300 years.
Her obsessive attention to detail and methodical approach to fundraising, her careful choosing of words, even her picking a series of soft-focus Web “chats’’—with Clinton poised comfortably on a couch as she reintroduces herself to the public—are, to her detractors, monuments to Clinton’s lack of authenticity. But all of this is the real Hillary. These are the deliberate efforts of a straight-A student who refuses to settle for a B.
The dead-ahead focus she maintained during the chaotic and painful years of her husband’s presidency reinforced the image of Clinton as ambitious and icy. She told me in a 2001 interview—around the time a supermarket tabloid floated a bizarre story that tried to link her romantically with former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle—that she was merely following motherly advice. “My mother told me this when I was a very little girl. ... She said, ‘Every day you have a choice to be the lead actor in your own play or to read the lines somebody else writes for you and react to somebody else’s role,’ ’’ Clinton recalled. “And every day I think, ‘You have a choice. You can live out your life according to somebody else’s script, or get up and do the best you can.’ So that’s what I try to do.’‘
Clinton’s best will be tested in the 2008 presidential campaign. She lacks the charisma of Barack Obama and the silky smooth stump style of John Edwards. The size of the Democratic field—more than half a dozen candidates, and counting—is one measure of how vulnerable other politicians believe her to be. And Democrats are hormonally prone to primary-season infatuations—see Eugene McCarthy, Gary Hart, Howard Dean. One loss, even one win by a margin the media deems insufficient, and the mantle of inevitability will fall away.
What then? Get up an hour earlier, work an hour longer and, most likely, remind everyone that in the chill of New Hampshire in 1992, her husband’s candidacy was written off as stone-cold dead.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.
Copyright 2007, Washington Post Writers Group