Team America

As the Clintons launch themselves back into the limelight for Hillary Clinton's 2006 Senate campaign, rumours about new marital difficulties seem at odds with the couple's behaviour. Marion McKeone profiles the king and queen of American politics


There was an eerie sense of déjà vu about last week's New York Democratic Convention, the official start of Hillary Clinton's 2006 Senate re-election campaign and the unofficial start of her 2008 bid for the White House. There they were again, Bill and Hillary, triumphant, beaming, locked in an embrace as the balloons and streamers fell and the delegates cheered and shouted themselves hoarse. Buy one. Get one free.

You haven't seen Hillary Clinton look awkward until you put her to music. The dancefloor manouvres may have been a little uncertain as she and her husband shuffled to the strains of the '70s disco hit "Let's Get Right Back Where We Started From", but there was no mistaking the message.

Throughout the gruelling 1992 presidential campaign, amid the setbacks and the scandals that almost derailed his White House bid, their song of choice, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow", became more than a campaign-stop footstomper; it became their mantra. Through all the acrimony, the setbacks, and the marital fuses that blew, the Clintons kept their eyes on the prize.

That Hillary Clinton has set her sights on the White House in 2008 is a given. Not a single senior Democrat, least of all her husband, disputed that during last week's convention her eye was on a far bigger prize than a second term as New York's junior Senator.

Her speech was overly long for the launch of a Senate campaign that even Republicans concede will be a shoo-in. And the 18-minute Hillary video hagiography that proceeded it was more than a little treacly, with everyone from 9/11 families to breast cancer survivors to former political foes and her errant husband joining in the eulogy.

As the convention drew to a close Bill Clinton was the last remaining politician in the hall, talking up his wife's credentials to anyone who would listen. During her speech she referred to him as her "inspiration and mentor, partner and friend".

In recent weeks the Clintons' personal life has been catapulted back into the spotlight, with even the more sober national media speculating about their relationship and its implications for Hillary's presidential ambitions.

Reports about a new batch of marital difficulties and unsourced claims that Hillary would sideline Bill in her campaign for the presidency seem at odds with their appearances last week. Hillary Clinton is smart enough to know that Bill Clinton is arguably her greatest political asset. While Hillary is a force to be reckoned with, Bill Clinton remains the Democratic Party's undisputed superstar. During the convention the crowd clapped and chanted Hillary's name but when Bill appeared he was welcomed with a sustained standing ovation. It was as though someone had jimmied up the electricity coursing around the room by 10,000 volts.

The Clinton marriage is a seemingly indestructible alloy of steel, flint and quicksilver that obsesses, dazzles and enrages. It runs hot and cold, expands and contracts. Like many marriages, the Clinton union is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. However, unlike other marriages vast tracts of forests have been razed in attempts to decipher the pact between them.

More than a hundred books seeking to explain, condemn or rationalize the Clintons' relationship and the intertwining of their political and personal lives have been published. There is no shortage of sensation and titillation but despite, or because of, all that has been written, Hillary Clinton is surprisingly difficult to define and, despite all the scandals and speculation, the Clinton marriage is the most powerful political partnership in American politics. She is arguably the most famous woman in the world. Her range of experience is formidable – chief presidential adviser, campaign strategist, senator, children's advocate – but no one seems able to quite define her. This may be her greatest asset or her greatest liability. Is she for or against the war in Iraq? Is she a liberal or a centrist? Does she hold a single belief that is not negotiable?

To many, Hillary Clinton is a chameleon caught in a kaleidoscope: loyal wife and political opportunist, Mother Teresa and Lady Macbeth, bipartisan ally and bitter foe.

The most polarising figure in American politics, she has been revered and reviled, pitied and pilloried in roughly equal measure. Even within the Democratic Party she is more respected than liked, more feared than trusted. There is a sense that in the game of high-stakes political poker at which Hillary Clinton is so adept, political expediency always trumps political principle. In this she is little different to most politicians.

Both Clintons are voraciously ambitious. Not for personal enrichment – the $20m his 'n' hers autobiographies notwithstanding – but for power and influence, for the ability to get things done. For the most part their political agendas coincide but their attractiveness to the electorate doesn't.

Even those who attack Bill Clinton as amoral, flawed and corrupt admit to having been ambushed by his charm. George Bush Sr launched many personal attacks on Clinton during the 1992 campaign and long afterwards. But when the two joined forces to raise funds for the South East Asia tsunami victims, Bush confessed he was completely won over by Clinton. "Its impossible not to warm to the fellow," he complained.

For most Americans Hillary Clinton is a hard woman to like. While she is funny, smart and acerbic, she appears to possess little of the fuzzy warmth that her husband exudes so effortlessly. Whether he's working a political campaign, delivering an after-dinner speech or pushing one of his many global causes, Clinton always appears to be more involved, more passionate and more human than anyone else in the room. Hillary, by contrast, often vacillates between a forced cheeriness and an indefatigable stoicism at public events.

Back in 2000 Bill Clinton showed that he would do whatever it took to get his wife elected. He campaigned at county fairs, ate sausages and pressed the flesh. Now he is more than ready to do it all over again. Several Democratic sources testify that he's fairly chomping at the bit to stage manage his wife's 2008 campaign.

Depending on whom you talk to, the Clinton union is variously a marriage of minds, a marriage of political expedience, a marriage held together with the glue of shared ideals and ambitions, or a marriage just like any other, whose shares of ups and downs are in proportion to the appetites and ambitions of both spouses.

The Clinton Global Initiative summit was a case in point. Last September, world leaders from 191 states had gathered in New York for a UN summit and 60th birthday celebration. Ever the pragmatist, Bill Clinton chose to launch his vastly ambitious programme to tackle global poverty, climate change, and religious strife and corrupt governance the same week. Since all the worlds movers and shakers were in the neighbourhood, the logic went, why not invite them over for a quick brainstorming session on the world's most pressing problems?

But Clinton being Clinton, and the UN being the UN, the roles were somehow reversed. The UN's much-hyped 60th anniversary agenda was trampled by a stampede of colliding national interests, mutual hostilities and intransigence on the part of its most powerful members, most of whom decamped to the Clinton gathering, where the collective IQ,, wealth and influence crammed into a Manhattan basement ballroom at Clinton's behest was incalculable: Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sachs, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Rupert Murdoch, Kofi Annan, Jeff Immelt, Kofi Annan, Paul Wolfowitz, Bono, Bob Rubin, John Podesta, Madeleine Albright, Mick Jagger and Tony Blair.

Bill Clinton may be a hard dog to keep on the porch but, as friends and former aides testify, he knows who's boss. "He's Clinton, you know," his long-time friend and campaign strategist James Carville said in response to a question about the former president's insatiable appetites for political and personal intrigues. "He just can't help himself."

That could be an issue for Hillary. Some Democrats believe that the American electorate would see a Hillary victory as a return to a tawdry White House soap opera that obsessed the nation in more frivolous times.

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton can win the battle; her 2006 Senate campaign is a formality. But can she win the war? Can she take back the White House in 2008? Do Americans want eight more years of Hill and Bill?

First she has to win the Democratic primary. The Democrats learned a hard lesson in 2004. Kerry may have been a war hero but he wasn't a political streetfighter. He buckled after a few kicks in the shins from the Bush bullyboys. No one will fight longer or harder than Hillary Clinton. And no one will fight harder on her behalf than her husband.

Within the party's hierarchy, a number of influential Democrats believe the Clintons have hijacked the Democratic Party for their own purposes, and are quietly determined to scupper their kingmaker ambitions.

Susan Esterich, author of another Clinton tome, says that rumours about Bill Clinton's extra-curricular activities since he left the White House are just that. He is aware that the Democrats see him as a liability but, according to Esterich, he has made it clear to Clinton and other Democratic strategists that there are no skeletons left in the Clinton closets. It's certainly true that there is no stone unturned in the effort to unearth something unsavoury about the Clintons. The muckraking has been so thorough that only the most insignificant grubs could have remained undiscovered. One thing Hillary may not need to worry about in 2008 is the October surprise.

Long-time Clinton friend and strategist Paul Begala points out the Lewinsky scandal was before 9/11, before the twin towers collapsed, before thousands more American lives were lost and hundreds of billions of dollars were squandered on an increasingly unpopular war. There is something teetering on nostalgia for the days when Americans had the luxury of endlessly obsessing about their president's priapism rather than fretting about his competency.

Conversations with figures as diverse as former Clinton press secretary and top aide George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, former Clinton cabinet member Andrew Cuomo suggest a consensus on one thing: despite his philandering Bill Clinton is terrified of his wife. Stephanopoulos described how Clinton blushed and bumbled like a schoolboy when Hillary upbraided him mercilessly and often publicly, for anything from a poor policy decision to an embarrassing relative. But according to Stephanopoulos, Hillary's tough exterior belies a vulnerable woman who, notwithstanding their blazing rows, adores her husband – Bill Clinton, for all his warmth and congeniality, is by far the more calculating of the two.

People who know them a long time say the relationship has become more balanced in the past ten years. Clinton was the golden boy – brilliant, ambitious and charismatic – but few people at Yale or Oxford knew how far he had travelled. The son of a boozy good-time girl and a violent alcoholic, he knew all about being a peacekeeper and a pleaser. She, plain and studious, came from a solid middle-class background and hid her insecurity with a take-no-prisoners stridency and prickly exterior.

Even after two decades in the brutal glare of the public spotlight, the Clintons seem to wear their hearts and minds on their sleeves. The night of Hillary's victory celebration following her 2000 Senate victory, the hostility between the two was palpable. She pointedly didn't thank him and when he moved to hold her arm aloft she stepped away from him.

One of Clinton's campaign aids grinned when asked whether she had overheard the couple arguing loudly in one of the Marriott's suites before their arrival in the ballroom. "Everyone else did."

Right now the Republicans can't find a single candidate who has a hope of beating Hillary Clinton in the November Senate elections. At the Republican convention, squabbling also-rans forced a Republican primary that will select the hapless Republican candidate who will spend millions of dollars for the privilege of being trounced by Clinton. For Republicans the looming Senate race is like one of those New York basement clubs where you pay to be whipped and humiliated. Only it costs a lot less and the humiliation is private.

There is a real fear amongst Democrats that Hillary may have enough funds, name recognition and razzmatazz to carry her through the primaries but that an easy romp home in the primaries won't translate into a general-election victory. Polls thus far show that even with George W Bush's approval rating as low as 29 per cent, Hillary Clinton's support as a national candidate hasn't risen above the mid 40s. "There is a real concern amongst certain Democrats that she just can't win a general election," says Democratic strategist Steven Jarding, who helped orchestrate Democratic governor Mark Warner's surprise victory in Virginia.

This doesn't factor in her dogged determination on the campaign trail and her husband's formidable skills as a campaigner and strategist. Both Clintons appear inexhaustible but Hillary Clinton's capacity for work is truly astonishing. During her 2000 Senate campaign, every day was an 18-hour day. The pace was so grueling that most journalists covering Clinton did so by rote but every day, seven days a week, she started campaigning at 6am and continued until midnight.

Hillary Clinton and the US media have always had a tense, mutually distrustful relationship. It was very clear that back then she saw herself as the packhorse while Bill was the showjumper.

As a campaigner she has improved enormously since those early terse days on the campaign circuit, when her daughter Chelsea would often gently guide her back to a supporter or donor she had either failed to recognise or to whom she had been less than gracious. Hillary can be funny, acerbic. She can also be surprisingly ungracious. The night of her Senate victory speech scores of volunteers who had worked on her campaign were refused access to an overcrowded Marriott Hotel. They left after waiting outside for several hours. Neither Clinton nor any of her senior aides spoke to them or acknowledged their help.

History shows that Senators do not fare well in presidential races. But if not Hillary Clinton as the Democratic contender, then who? The Democratic field is crowded with Senators; John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, Russ Feinstein have all indicated an interest. Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards are also mentioned as likely contenders. The only two non-Senators that are generating any heat are Virginia Governor Mark Warner and former Vice-President Al Gore. who has been dominating the media headlines in recent weeks, partly due to the unexpected commercial and critical success of An Inconvenient Truth, his documentary on global warming.

The current Al Gore frenzy is like a seasonal flu – one of those fevers that Washington's politicians and the press corps infects each other with – that passes with no long-term affects. If Gore does set his sights on another run at the White House in 2008 it would be awkward for the Clintons, particularly Bill Clinton, whom even friends joke would be advising Hillary one minute -- then advising Gore on how best to beat her the next.