Cover Story

Reinventing Hillary

Campaign 2008 | From Yale Law activist to faith-talking front-runner, the Democratic candidate meets challenges by mastering the makeover

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

Michael Medved hadn't seen Hillary Clinton in years when, in 1991, he tuned into C-SPAN to watch presidential hopeful Bill Clinton give a stump speech in Iowa.

Medved, now a conservative radio host and author, had been friends with Hillary Rodham when the two were classmates at Yale Law from 1969 to 1971. Another young law student named Bill Clinton began a year behind them.

Medved knew Bill had married Hillary after graduation, and that the two had been together when Bill became attorney general, then governor, in Arkansas. That's why Medved was surprised as a man on C-SPAN made the introduction: "Please welcome Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and Mrs. Clinton!"

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The Iowa crowd erupted into cheers. Medved stared in astonishment at the woman who appeared on the television screen.

"When I saw her," he says now, "I thought . . . 'Bill dumped Hillary!'"

The Hillary Clinton who walked onstage in Iowa looked nothing like Hillary Rodham, the popular, slightly heavy den mother of Yale Law '72. Gone were the Coke bottle glasses, mousy locks, and frumpy clothes. In their place: contact lenses, smartly styled hair, and a crisp, lawyerly suit. This Hillary had even shed the extra pounds.

"She looked almost stylish," Medved said. "She's the only person I know who looked better in her 40s than she did in her 20s."

Hillary Clinton's 60s are looking even better: The junior senator from New York has ridden comfortably atop the Democratic presidential polls for months. A late October Rasmussen poll showed her doubling up on Barack Obama, 43 percent to 20 percent.

Both her emergence as an apparently Kevlar candidate, and the dramatic outward change Medved observed in 1991, typify a Clinton pattern: reinventing herself to leverage the political moment.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, served in Congress while Clinton was first lady and also when she entered the Senate. "I was struck by how either one of the Clintons could go through what I called a 'makeover,' and do it so unblushingly," he said. "Basically, they would say, 'I get it. People don't want this. They reject us over it. Therefore, we're not going to be this-at least not on the surface.'"

But while Clinton associates and biographers WORLD spoke with described Bill Clinton as poll-driven, they view Mrs. Clinton differently. "Hillary is a much more complicated organism," Medved said. "Yes, she wants to be loved and appreciated, but she is also a true idealist."

Her faith provides one example. In the 2004 general elections, the Republican Party steamrolled to victory, picking up seats in the House and Senate, and reelecting President George W. Bush. Analysts declared that 'values voters' had put the GOP over the top. This was not lost on Hillary Clinton. Within days of the election, she was salting her speeches with references to God.

In a Nov. 10, 2004, speech at Tufts University, she called on Democrats to stop ignoring people of faith on social issues. "No one can read the New Testament of our Bible without recognizing that Jesus had a lot more to say about how we treat the poor than most of the issues that were talked about in this election," she said.

Some Clinton critics have suggested she hoisted spiritual sails only after poking a finger into the political winds. But that is only partly true, says Grove City College political science professor Paul Kengor, author of God and Hillary Clinton. "She has actually publicly talked about religion for a long time," Kengor said, noting Clinton's lifelong devotion to Methodism and her emphasis on social justice mandates found in the Bible.

During the 1980s, while first lady of Arkansas, Clinton often gave a talk called "Why I am a Methodist" in which she spoke of John Wesley's "gospel of social justice, demanding . . . that society do right by all its people." In a 1994 interview with Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward, Clinton said she believed in the Trinity, the atoning death of Jesus, and the resurrection.

Kengor said his research for God and Hillary Clinton convinced him that the senator's Christian faith is genuine. At the same time, though, he notes that Clinton has no compunctions about deploying religion in the service of politics-and in a way that her own party would vehemently condemn were a Republican to use the same tactics.

As an example, he points out "the amazing, flat-out, no-apology campaigning" Clinton did in 27 different New York churches during her 2000 run for the Senate. "George Bush couldn't get away with that even once, let alone dozens of times. It was very clearly an example of using your faith for political purposes."


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