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!"
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."
Born on Oct. 26, 1947, Hillary Rodham during the 1950s was a familiar face at the First United Methodist Church. Her father, Hugh, taught his children to be self-reliant and beyond that to rely on God, not government. "We talked with God, walked with God and argued with God," Clinton wrote in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village (Simon & Schuster). "Each night we knelt by our beds to pray."
In 1964, as a high school senior, Hillary campaigned for Barry Goldwater-but she had also come under the tutelage of a youth pastor, Don Jones, who steered his flock away from historic Methodist teaching about salvation and personal morality. Instead, he set out to "awaken" his charges to white privilege, instill in them guilt, and enroll them in the "cultural revolution"-and young Hillary became his star pupil.
She kept in touch with Jones when she went off to Wellesley College, then Yale Law School, where Michael Medved remembers her as a warm, nurturing person, in contrast to the evil ice-queen image that many conservatives love to hate today: "She was probably the most liked and respected student at Yale Law when I was there. You could talk to her. This brittle lady that we see today, I mean, it's almost unimaginable to me."
At Yale, Hillary Rodham's metamorphosis from "Goldwater Girl" became complete. In 1970, she worked as a legal volunteer helping to defend Black Panther leader Bobby Seale against a murder charge. Protests over the "racial injustice" of the charges shut down the Yale campus-this though three of Seale's conspirators, all of whom were also black, had already pled guilty.
In the summer of 1971, she interned with attorney Robert Treuhaft, a social revolutionary and former member of the Communist Party USA. She graduated from law school in 1973 and was soon working on the Watergate investigation of President Richard Nixon. In 1975 she married Bill Clinton and moved with him to Arkansas, where Bill was elected attorney general and then, in 1978, governor. She became an attorney with the prestigious Rose Law Firm and kept her maiden name.
Hillary gave birth to Chelsea Clinton on Feb. 27, 1980, and was soon speaking in support of her husband's reelection bid-but voters made known their dislike for her. Gay White, whose husband Frank, now deceased, challenged Clinton in the 1980 governor's race, remembers that people would shake her hand and ask, "If your husband gets to be governor, are you going to keep his name?" Frank White edged out Bill Clinton that year, 52 percent to 48 percent. The defeat marked another era of reinvention.
"There was a dramatic change in Hillary," White said. "All of a sudden, she became 'Mrs. Bill Clinton.' She seemed to understand what the people in Arkansas were looking for. To her credit, she did what she needed to do to be more acceptable." One thing she did was go back to church, attending First United Methodist where she served on the board and did pro bono legal work.
Was career always first with her? Medved says, "I have the best proof that's not true: She went down to Arkansas to be with Bill. . . . If you're a Yale grad, and you've already done well enough to land a job on the Watergate committee, going to Arkansas to get married is not a good career move. It is an insane career move."
Clinton is ambitious, yes, but she also did the "traditional female thing," Medved said: "Somewhere inside her there is still that Methodist youth-group Goldwater Girl who has done everything possible to advance her husband."
Clinton's next makeover took place on a national stage. As soon as her husband became president she set about socializing the nation's health-care system-and crashed like the Hindenburg. Former House GOP leader Dick Armey says, "She really went to laying low after that. I think she realized that the country did not want a co-president no matter how much she may have wanted it . . . [so] she learned to be very undercover about it-almost invisible."
Out of sight, yes, but not out of touch. Clinton was "the consistent, stable, and reliable guiding organizational hand for the entire Clinton presidency," wrote former U.S. attorney Barbara Olson in The Final Days: The Last, Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House (Regnery, 2001). Olson wrote that her research "found Hillary involved . . . in virtually every White House scandal-even if just masterminding the defense and counterattacks as in the Lewinsky affair."
Still, China-gate, File-gate, Travel-gate, and Monica-gate didn't keep the former Watergate attorney from being elected to the U.S. Senate from New York after her husband served two terms as president. And now, having emerged as a political force in her own right, Clinton is mid-stride in what is perhaps her most masterful reinvention of all: She is successfully re-branding herself as the moderate choice for president.
She has moderated her talk on abortion (see sidebar below). At a January 2005 fundraiser, she declared that "there is no contradiction between support for faith-based initiatives and upholding our constitutional principles." Although she has repudiated her vote in favor of war in Iraq, she is not generally anti-war.
And yet, when alone with her base, Clinton still toes the progressive line. In January 2006, her Don Jones youth-group indoctrination resurfaced when she declared to a group of black leaders that the U.S. House of Representatives "has been run like a plantation." Speaking to Planned Parenthood in July 2007, Clinton pledged in her "very first days in office" to reverse "these ideological, anti-science, anti-prevention policies that this administration has put in place."
Despite Clinton's latest shape-shifting-or perhaps because of it-Dick Armey fully expects her to win the presidency. "Those running against her need to understand two things," he said: "She's smarter than they are, and she's meaner than they are. Hillary Clinton is a very skillful politician. A failure to understand that is going to be very risky."
To understand Hillary Clinton politically is to understand her on the abortion issue, an area which, for her, is sacred ground. Similarly, to understand Clinton politically in 2008 is to understand her on abortion. She realizes that in order to win in 2008, she will need some of those pro-life "values voters" who provided decisive religious rejections of pro-choice Democratic nominees Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Clinton is now engaged in a remarkable shift in her abortion rhetoric-but not abortion policy. To illustrate this striking turnabout, consider a very telling 12-month period from January 2004 to January 2005.
It began with Clinton giving the keynote address at a Jan. 22, 2004, NARAL event celebrating Roe v. Wade. "While the choice debate has changed little since Roe v. Wade was decided 31 years ago, the tactics employed by our opponents have changed," began Clinton. "They have realized it cannot be done quickly and in the light of day. . . . As we gather today, forces are aligned to change this country and strip away the rights we enjoy and have come to expect. Slowly, methodically, quietly . . . as the American public sleeps."
She zeroed in on stances by "anti-choice forces" that "seem reasonable." Among them, "It's a crime to harm a pregnant woman, so it should be a crime to harm the fetus, as well. Right?" She warned: "Many of these policies sound perfectly reasonable to the untrained ear. But they are not reasonable when you realize the true intention-which is not to protect fetuses from crime. . . . These policies are meant to chip away at all reproductive rights."
This also applied, said Clinton, to the use of federal tax dollars to pay for abortions: "On the surface, this argument also sounds reasonable," she averred. "But by imposing this ban, Congress has denied access to a legal procedure for women who depend on the government for their health care-poor women, women in the military stationed overseas, Native American women, women in prison, federal employees, Peace Corps volunteers."
She went on to claim that pro-lifers were seeking to end "all rights of privacy," and magically read rights that do not exist into the U.S. Constitution.
This same Clinton was on display at the April 2004 "March for Women's Lives" in Washington, where women hoisted placards condemning the president's mother and the late pope's mother for not aborting their sons: "If Only Barbara Bush Had Choice," read one sign; "The Pope's Mother Had No Choice," regretted another. Read one placard: "Pro-Life is to Christianity as Al-Qaeda is to Islam."
But then came the November elections, when George W. Bush won reelection with a big boost from pro-life Christians-a wake-up call for Clinton. Only days later, in a Nov. 10 speech at Tufts University, she said her party had erred in ceding evangelicals to President Bush. Suddenly, a very different Hillary emerged, as evidenced in her next major abortion speech: the annual conference of the Family Planning Advocates of New York State.
Gathering in Albany, the faithful expected another take-no-prisoners talk framing "anti-choicers" as intransigent fanatics. But not this time: The zealots of last January were the values voters who had defeated John Kerry.
"[W]e should be able to find common ground . . . with people on the other side of this debate," offered Clinton. "I believe we can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." In a startling about-face, she now seemed to respect pro-lifers: "I for one respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available."
She would soon hire Burns Strider, a top Democratic Party political strategist who specialized in advising liberal Democrats how to appeal to pro-life evangelicals.
Clinton has learned: Do not demonize pro-lifers, tell them you respect them-you need their votes. And yet, she refuses to budge an inch on a single matter of pro-life legislation.
-Paul Kengor, a Grove City College professor, is the author of God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins, 2007)