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She always came prepared. From the first planning sessions for her husband's victorious 1992 presidential run through the final 1994 White House meetings she chaired as the Clinton administration's ill-fated healthcare initiative collapsed, Hillary Rodham Clinton was a force to be reckoned with as a decision-maker.
Her debut on the national stage in the early 1990s was a defining era for Clinton, a period when she emerged as Bill Clinton's most influential campaign strategist and policy advisor. She was forceful and methodical in shaping the Clinton administration's domestic policies and political strategy, and proved to be a disciplined partner to her famously disorganized husband: commanding, opinionated, daunting.
"Bill talked about social change, I embodied it," Clinton wrote in "Living History," her autobiography.
Meetings were her milieu. She would arrive toting the crisp yellow legal pads she had carried habitually since her days as a corporate lawyer. Armed with an exhaustively researched grasp of the issues at hand, she would press for still more options while lacerating opposing arguments with surgical precision.
Clinton's all-access pass into the West Wing gave her an intimate education in presidential decision-making that none of her opponents can claim. She observed at close range how big government works, and she learned painfully from her missteps how easily it bogs down.
Yet Clinton has never exercised ultimate executive authority. Unlike some of her campaign rivals, she has no experience in managing massive state budgets or city bureaucracies, a critique pointedly raised by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
The healthcare initiative started out as Clinton's most ambitious experiment in policymaking and ended up as her greatest management failure, trailing criticism that her performance was flawed by hubris, inflexibility and a penchant for secrecy and political combat.
On the campaign trail, Clinton has offered her assurances that the scars left from her healthcare experience came with lessons learned. Her tight-knit New York Senate office, disciplined campaigns and studied effort to win over legislative colleagues are all evidence, her partisans say, of how she would run her own shop differently in the White House.
But her gates-drawn stance raised concerns that shadow her presidential bid today -- that she reacts with a siege mentality under pressure, retreating behind a restrictive wall of presidential and attorney privilege.
"There's no question that her first instinct was to protect herself and the president," said former Clinton chief of staff Leon E. Panetta.
Presidential historian James McGregor Burns, who studied the uneasy dynamics of the Clinton White House, said that even her setbacks amounted to "educational failures" that toughened her for the long run.
"She's been tested over and over again," Burns said. "The question for voters is whether they feel she passed those tests and whether they think she learned from them."
She'd had some practice
Hillary Clinton's emergence as a key advisor in her husband's 1991 presidential run was hardly sudden. She had worked as a field organizer in Texas during George S. McGovern's defeat in 1972 and in Indiana in 1976 as part of Jimmy Carter's winning campaign.
Clinton also had limited management experience -- as a Wal-Mart director and as board chairman at the activist Children's Defense League, where her successor, Donna E. Shalala -- later a Clinton administration Health secretary -- recalled her as a "natural leader. She took on the same kinds of problems that corporate executives deal with."
From the start, Clinton's campaign role was left as amorphous as possible, allowing her to carve out her own domain.
"No one raised a question about how her role was defined," recalled lawyer Mickey Kantor, the campaign chairman. "It was assumed. You wanted her involved at the highest level."
Involved she was, and in everything. She used her ties to New York legal circles to raise cash and tap political pros. While staffers took a breather on a bus caravan through Texas, old friend Bill Burton watched as "Hillary sat in the back and took charge of a press release on natural-gas policy." As she peppered her husband's aides with strategy, she was empire-building -- cherry-picking loyalists who would work at the core of her White House staff.
Kantor and other campaign veterans credit her as the driving force behind the rapid-response "war room" operation. Later, she rode herd on the "defense team," a cloistered group of staffers and lawyers who fended off media queries about the couple's financial deals, rumors of Bill's infidelity and his youthful dealings with Arkansas draft officials during the Vietnam War.
"She methodically set down the counter-strategy in a disciplined way," said Betsey Wright, who ran the unit from Little Rock, Ark.
Anything related to the Clinton investments was Hillary's turf, Wright told an aide in a May 1992 e-mail now filed in the National Archives: "Hillary asked me to have no inquiries about their personal finances go to anybody without my personal decision."
Clinton was just as fierce in guarding her reputation. During the primaries in April 1992, when Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot suggested that two 1970s-era articles she had written about childhood legal rights might be read as encouraging children to sue their parents, Clinton directed her advisors to fashion a full-throttle defense. Aides lined up support from two dozen policy and medical experts, from Shalala to pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton.
The issue lay ignored for months, until George H.W. Bush's nomination at the GOP convention in Houston. When conservative activist Pat Buchanan growled at her "radical feminism," citing her old writings in a prime-time jeremiad, Clinton unleashed her experts. The furor spiked briefly, then flared out.
Clinton's people look back on the episode as a foreshadowing of the congressional investigations and ideological sniping that plagued her as first lady.
They also regard it a defining moment that "showed her thoroughness," said Melanne Verveer, who worked on the response and later was Hillary Clinton's White House chief of staff. "She's fact-based and pragmatic, and she's good at synthesizing issues quickly."
Once she makes a decision, "she sticks to it," adds Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's campaign manager. "There's no coulda, woulda, shoulda."
Her turf moved west
In the White House, Bill Clinton allowed his wife to define her territory. She quickly took on the healthcare portfolio and prodded support for social programs including the Americorps volunteer program and nationwide immunization for children.
Her aides prospected for a West Wing office, a marked departure from the traditional East Wing exile for presidents' wives. Their search led to a brief spat with Vice President Al Gore's circle over who would roost in a spacious West Wing suite that previously had been the vice president's quarters.
"These physical and staff changes were important," Clinton wrote later in her autobiography, "if I was going to be working on Bill's agenda." Her purview, as she saw it, was "issues affecting women, children and families."
As a boss, she inspired equal amounts of devotion and fear. She built an insular White House fiefdom known as Hillaryland, surrounding herself with a tightknit band of loyalists who skillfully advanced her causes, but who were also criticized for isolating her from political realities.
Hillaryland's denizens began to jokingly refer to themselves as "the Stepford Wives." Their unflinching devotion gained them wide berth in the West Wing.
Staffers were expected to work grueling hours and report back any development that involved the first lady. She kept them busy with news clippings that she covered with scrawled questions and filed in a cardboard carton in her office.
Mistakes were tolerated, but Clinton led intense post-mortems to keep her people focused. A well-aimed glare or a roll of the eyes told them all they needed to know. "She'd stare at us and say, 'Who was the cause of this?' And all of us would raise our hands," press assistant Neel Lattimore recalled.
Clinton cemented their loyalty with personal touches. She showed up at the hospital when Solis Doyle's son and daughter were born. She played White House tour guide for Lattimore's parents when he was in China doing advance work for Clinton.
Shirley Sagawa, the first policy aide ever hired by a first lady, was "slightly terrified" when she found herself assigned to a high-profile cubicle just outside Clinton's West Wing office. Clinton reassured her by playing with her toddler while Sagawa was busy lighting fires under Clinton's favored programs.
Clinton acted "like a de facto chief of staff," said James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. "She would focus debate in meetings while Bill Clinton would go on and on. She's a very tough manager, and I think she would run a very tough ship."
But other experts in presidential power caution that White House decision-making is not easily mastered by osmosis. A Hillary Clinton presidency would start out as a gamble, said presidential historian Forrest McDonald.
"There's still a world of difference between making the hard decisions and being an advisor," McDonald said.
High-wire act flopped
The first lady's management of the initiative to overhaul American healthcare remains her closest approximation of high-wire decision-making.
She ran the meetings in which seminal decisions were made and set an impatient tone for prodding allies in the Democratic-controlled Congress. In memos, aides tallied 95 meetings Clinton held with legislators. They also plotted how to target balky moderate legislators with preelection visits from "field operatives."
Bill Clinton now insists that she has "taken the rap" over the years for the healthcare debacle. The effort's failings "were far more my fault than hers," he told MSNBC recently.
But under her watch, the healthcare task force became a bureaucratic fiefdom. More than 500 officials churned out reports that funneled into a 1,300-page plan. As they prodded the effort forward, Clinton and her top officials also worried that intrusive media and Washington healthcare lobbyists would "overwhelm the process," recalled Christopher Jennings, then her healthcare liaison to Congress.
She appeared sensitive to scrutiny from the start. Just three days after her husband gave her authority over the healthcare plan, she was already considering limits on public access to the plan's records. In a Jan. 28, 1993, memo, deputy counsel Vincent Foster advised the first lady and Ira Magaziner, who devised the complex healthcare process structure, that task-force records might be withheld from release under the Freedom of Information Act if the files remained "in the control of the president."
Her response is not known because many of her healthcare documents have not been released. The Clinton library in Little Rock has released scores of healthcare memos sent to the first lady. But none of her own memos or notes is available, and though some are now scheduled for release early next year, others may remain locked away until after the 2008 election.
Her doggedness was not matched by her coalition-building skills. Chicagoan Dan Rostenkowski, the gruff, powerful former House Ways and Means chairman, felt that congressional committees should lead the way. "None of the people in your think tank can vote," he recalls telling Clinton. "She wasn't persuaded."
She courted skeptical Senate Finance Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but undercut the stroking with threats. At a weekend retreat after the State of the Union address in 1993, she dismissed worries about meeting a 100-day deadline set by her husband for a healthcare bill. Asked what would happen if they were late, she said: "You don't understand. We will demonize those who are blocking this legislation and it will pass."
"She was naive," recalled former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who was in the audience.
Clinton's management of the healthcare initiative was further shaken by a spate of personal and legal crises: Foster's suicide, the furor over the firing of White House travel aides, and Republican calls for the appointment of a Whitewater special prosecutor. The constant rounds of meetings with lawyers and aides to contend with the pressure sapped her time and patience and began to divert her attention from healthcare.
"What concerned her when she walked into White House meetings in those days was that she might be blindsided by some new development," Panetta recalled. "She felt she had to grab control of things. To a lawyer, the worst thing you can do is walk into a surprise. But not every case called for a lawyer's mind-set. Sometimes it was more a political problem than a legal one."
By the end of 1994, the landscape had shifted. Congress had gone Republican. There was a new special prosecutor, and more inquiries to come. Healthcare, she lamented later, had "faded with barely a whimper."
But Clinton endured. She coped by withdrawing from her high-limelight policy role. Her power remained, but she was quieter about showing it, more selective in using it. Her legendary preparation turned to taking stock.
She opened up slightly about what she learned from her rough passages in a February 2001 speech. "I learned some valuable lessons," she told her listeners, "about the political process, the importance of bipartisan cooperation and the wisdom of taking small steps to get a big job done."
Her audience was the U.S. Senate.