Tuesday, September 26, 2006

MAUREEN DOWD: Another Clinton Seduction

At least Jerry Falwell didn’t say Hillary smelled of sulfur.

But he did say that if she runs for president, she will bedevil evangelicals and fire them up to vote Republican with a dark force exceeding even Lucifer.

I suppose, since Senator Clinton’s shrill right-wing critics usually portray her as a witch, being promoted to devil can count as a feminist triumph. And she’s in good bipartisan company with the president, who was also cast as the devil by a world-class nutbar.

Hillary is morphing from workhorse back to show horse, paving the way for her historic presidential race with a series of big policy speeches. And she is taking on the other dynasty more energetically.

“I’m certain that if my husband and his security team had been shown a classified report entitled ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,’ he would have taken it more seriously than history suggests it was taken by our current president and his national security team,” she crisply told reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Forty years after feminism brashly burst forth, female leaders are still struggling to figure out how to blend sexuality and strength in way that will not backfire. Consider Hewlett-Packard, the progressive Silicon Valley company. Carly Fiorina was fired as chairman and chief executive after a stereotypically alpha male reign, while Patricia Dunn lost her job as chairman after she used what some critics called a stereotypical “Mean Girls” subterfuge to spy on male board members rather than confronting them directly over leaks.

Hillary is also trying different methods, searching for the key that would allow her to break into the ultimate mahogany-paneled men’s club at 1600 Penn. She will try to get back to the West Wing based not on what she has done in the Senate, but on how she has done it.

She has been like a silent-film star, lacking a voice in this chilling time when the Bush administration has Photoshopped the Constitution, portrayed critics as traitors, and spurred terrorism with a misconceived and mismanaged war in Iraq.

Explaining why she had not taken any unpopular stances and championed no big ideas, Hillary answered Joshua Green more like diva than devil in the upcoming cover story for The Atlantic Monthly: “Everything I do carries political risk because nobody gets the scrutiny that I get. It’s not like I have any margin for error whatsoever.”

She has transformed her method from bulldozing alpha in the White House — high-handed, unilateral and insensitive on health care — to coalition-building gamma in Congress. Now the woman who hated being called first lady charms with the most handkerchief-dropping feminine wiles and stratagems, from fetching coffee for senior male Senate colleagues to stepping to the background so that preening male peacocks can hog the live shot.

As one of her male aides bragged to Mr. Green, it’s so effective because the men who tried to impeach her husband don’t expect the former first lady of the United States “to ask if you want two lumps of sugar.”

“Fetching coffee, I think, is too much,” said Michael Morris of the Columbia Business School. “But any good politician is a good flirt. Bill Clinton seduced every woman and every man he met.”

One Hillary aide recently crowed to me about the surprising number of her male colleagues who have crushes on her. And the Rev. Falwell may have missed her bonding with conservative lawmakers at Hill prayer breakfasts. As Mr. Green writes, Hillary and Sam Brownback worked together on legislation after the Kansas conservative gave testimony at a prayer breakfast that he realized it was a sin to have trashed her.

It may not be turning the other cheek for Hillary, so much as triangulating the other cheek. “The Warrior,” as her staff calls her, has not forgotten what she learned from her consort. The Clintons once polled on where to go on vacation when they were in the White House (Dick Morris advised that a camping trip would play well with swing voters), and now Mr. Green reports that the Clintons moved to Chappaqua at least partly in response to polling data.

He also writes that in 2003, the pollster Mark Penn created a 007-secret team to determine whether Hillary could break her pledge to serve a full Senate term and still have enough political clout to wage a presidential run — an assertion that Mr. Penn neither confirmed nor denied.

It may not smell of sulfur, but it smacks of truth.

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