When Hillary Clinton Ran for President ... in 1992

When Hillary Clinton Ran for President ... in 1992

By Sean Braswell


Because Hillary has been running for president far longer than you think.

By Sean Braswell

In this special election series, OZY looks at Hillary Clinton — both her past and what she may encounter as she battles for the White House. Later this week, we’ll profile a key player from her inner circle, look at what could become her most influential domestic policiesexplore the global issues that could disrupt her campaign and consider what her record in Haiti tells us.

This was a watershed moment for the Clinton campaign. A dominant Super Tuesday showing had vaulted their candidate to a formidable lead in the Democratic primary, and the crowd at the celebration in Chicago was eagerly awaiting the individual they hoped would be the next president of the United States. But the person who came forward to seize the microphone was not the Clinton everyone was expecting.

“We believe passionately in this country, and we cannot stand by for ONE MORE YEAR and watch what is happening to it!” a 44-year-old Hillary Clinton proclaimed in a passionate introduction in which she hardly mentioned her husband, who, as one reporter put it, “danced in the background like a prizefighter trying to stay warm.”

The first time Hillary Clinton ran for president was, in fact, 1992. Long before Claire and Frank Underwood conspired to form a conjugal presidential ticket on House of Cards, Hillary and Bill Clinton were test-driving a real-life co-presidency on the campaign trail, the culmination of a 20-year political partnership. Governor Clinton boasted that by voting for him, you could “buy one, get one free.” And some 24 years before she electrified another Super Tuesday crowd with an appeal to “make America whole again,” Hillary Clinton was starting to divide it as no prospective first lady ever had.

The Clinton campaign had devised what they called a “slow build for Hillary” in 1992, a gradual insertion of the Arkansas first lady into the spotlight — and into what they hoped would be the hearts of millions of Americans. That approach went out the window in late January when, weeks before the critical New Hampshire primary, a former cabaret singer named Gennifer Flowers came forward with allegations of an extramarital affair with the governor.

Hillary sprang to action, and, just as she would do again in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she plucked her husband’s political life from the fire, serving as his character witness, defense counsel, strategist and, most of all, forgiving wife. The Clintons’ interview on 60 Minutes following the Super Bowl that year was, writes Carl Bernstein in his Clinton biography, A Woman in Charge, a “triumph,” one that “probably saved Bill’s candidacy.”

Long before ‘House of Cards,’ Hillary and Bill Clinton were test-driving a real-life co-presidency on the campaign trail.

There was no slowing Hillary’s introduction to the American people after that, and even before she grabbed the mic to give her own introduction on Super Tuesday, it was clear she was a driving force behind the campaign — and in a future administration.

But it didn’t take long for the assertiveness that had helped save Bill’s campaign to turn into a liability, and not just in the conservative press, where Clinton was variously savaged as “The Lady Macbeth of Arkansas,” the “Yuppie Wife from Hell” and a “feminazi.” A couple of key gaffes fueled the unease many Americans harbored against an ambitious, career-minded woman serving as a first lady with benefits. (Her current campaign did not comment on the matter.)

The first came in the same 60 Minutes interview, when Hillary said she was not “standing by my man, like Tammy Wynette.” It was a relatively innocuous pop culture reference, but when she later told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” it started to sound like she had an ax to grind with America’s homemakers (never mind that her full comment made the opposite point). “Lots of things rubbed people the wrong way about Hillary,” says Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman, but it’s easy to forget just how different she was from previous first ladies, many of whom had never had a full-time independent career, much less a breadwinner’s salary as a corporate lawyer.

Still, cookies started pouring into campaign headquarters after what New York Times columnist William Safire called Hillary’s “second outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease.” “Mrs. Clinton has stepped into the eye of the stormy debate about the role of women in society and in politics,” his colleague Maureen Dowd observed. Whatever you wanted to call it — the “Hillary Situation” (Dowd), the “Hillary Problem” (Safire) or the “Hillary Factor” (Time) — it had to be addressed, and Clinton was pushed into quasi-exile on the campaign, sitting ceremoniously in the background, relegated to holding an umbrella for her husband when he gave speeches in the rain. Right before Election Day, a cartoon showed Bill telling a large box with airholes, “Only a few days more, Hillary.”

In the end, the attacks on Hillary likely went too far, argues Bernstein, making her “a sympathetic character and political victim of the right, something the Clinton campaign never could have done on its own.” Of course, there were still several more “Hillary situations” to come, from Whitewater to her failed health care reforms, but if Clinton is the candidate to finally shatter the presidential glass ceiling this election, it will have as much to do with her perseverance in 1992 as the 18 million cracks she claims her 2008 campaign put in it.

At an event in Los Angeles in the midst of her husband’s turbulent campaign, Hillary boldly predicted “we’ll have a woman president by 2010.”  Would she ever consider running herself?

“We’ll talk later,” she replied.