A virtuoso on second fiddle

In the latest twist to the Hillary Clinton saga, the New York senator is being touted as a secretary of state.

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One day, early in Bill and Hillary Clinton's eight-year spell in the White House, their daughter Chelsea was feeling poorly at her private school in Washington DC and the nurse decided an aspirin would be in order. School regulations laid down that parental consent was needed before any medication could be dispensed, which presented an obvious problem. "Call my dad," Chelsea advised the nurse briskly, "my mom's too busy."

The nurse followed the child's advice and got through to the Oval Office with surprising ease. The president quickly gave permission for the aspirin to be administered. Then he stayed on the line for a long chat about her symptoms, and other matters. This anecdote - which happens to be true - is revealing not just because it shows an endearingly human side to Bill Clinton, but also because it confirms how Chelsea, even as a young girl, understood where the real power resided in her family.

Many who have fallen within the Clintons' orbit over the years have remarked upon Hillary's lack of tact, but no one has ever doubted her stringent self-confidence, or her utter conviction that she is entitled to wield power in her own right. To the surprise of no informed Washington insider, the Clintons are once again capturing the American political headlines at a time when the spotlight might more properly be pointed at the man who won the recent presidential election. All talk and coverage of president-elect Barack Obama's transition to the White House has been overtaken by Hillary speculation. Will she or won't she accept the offer to become Mr Obama's secretary of state; has she, for that matter, actually been offered the job?

Hillary Clinton lost the battle for the Democratic nomination, yet once again she is The Story and, like a good soap opera, this drama is wringing emotional responses and calculations not just from her, but from her husband and her closest friends, who are happy to talk to the media. For Hillary, how bitter must be the realisation now that had things gone better for her in a couple of pivotal primaries, and had she sewn up the nomination, then she would almost certainly have won the election against the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, who in the run-up to the election proved himself the most inept national campaigner since Bob Dole in 1996.

Bill Clinton called himself the "Comeback Kid" after he bounced back in the New Hampshire primary of 1992 and rescued his first White House run when it appeared certain to collapse under the enormous weight of the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal (it was not actually a big scandal; the only scandal was that he was denying a low-intensity, long-standing affair with a woman when it was clear to everyone that he was lying, as was subsequently confirmed).

But it is not only Bill Clinton who has this resilience. Watching Hillary earn the devotion of white working class men and women in blue-collar states such as Pennsylvania a few months ago as she tried to overtake the candidate Obama, it is difficult to remember how reviled she was when her husband burst into the national consciousness in 1992. From his earliest days in Arkansas politics, Bill always had the easy charm, the warm handshake, the "elevator eyes" that appraised any youngish woman from kitten heels to hair band, and back again. The voters looked into Bill's open face and saw their own weaknesses and foibles reflected back at them. So they forgave him his sins of the flesh, which somehow seemed to be caused by too exuberant an appetite for life, which is no great offence when you think about it.

By contrast, in the public mind at least, Hillary was cold and shrill, the icy feminist from the Midwest who was not fit for retail politics. People who got to know the Clintons in Washington in the 1990s said this caricature was wide of the mark and that in private she had a warmth and earthy sense of humour. It was said she could tell a decent dirty joke; but no matter, the public image was all, and it stuck, even if it was unfair.

How galling all this must have been for Hillary during her husband's two terms in the White House and as she ran around after him, clearing up the messes he left. Hillary Rodham met Bill Clinton at Yale Law School in the early 1970s and she was easily the better student, comfortably outscoring her boyfriend in all the tests. Like all good lawyers, her mind was clear and precise, whereas Bill's was meandering and diffuse.

Yet it was Bill who had that special quality that was to lead him inexorably into politics and she was always just the helper. She once said she was not the type of gal who was contented to stand by her man, but in truth no first lady has any choice but to take up that role once she finds herself in the White House. And she had to stand by him even when, humiliatingly, it was found he had dallied with a young intern named Monica Lewinsky in a room just off the Oval Office, with disastrous consequences for his presidency.

But when Hillary Clinton struck out on her own, she confounded her critics and triumphed and, as her husband left the White House, she found a seat in the Senate. Her record since has been good enough that two years ago she was in position to mount a plausible bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and she very nearly won. Her primary campaign against Mr Obama was a dirty one and Bill Clinton himself was occasionally on hand to press buttons which raised covert racial questions about Mr Obama's suitability. It was never a pretty fight, and several times it threatened to become very ugly indeed.

Mr Obama held his nerve, maintained his poise and prevailed. Why now, then, Democrats in Washington wonder, is he drawn to deal with the Clinton machine when, on the face of it, he would not seem to need her? One explanation might be Mr Obama's recognition that, in narrowly winning the Democratic nomination, he failed to score convincingly with white working class voters. And as the credit crunch bites in the United States, and it is clear the incoming administration will face serious questions about its willingness to bail out the US car industry, the new president will need all strands of Democratic opinion on his side. Should one or more of the big three auto manufacturers lapse into bankruptcy in the early days of the Obama administration, the new president could do without sniping from a rival who got the blue-collar vote in the states likely to be worst affected.

But there is another point. It is often said in American presidential politics that you want your enemies inside your tent, facing out, rather than outside, facing in. The role of secretary of state is precisely as important as the president wants it to be. The incumbent does not work in the White House, but down the road in an obscure part of town called Foggy Bottom, where the state department is placed and, in Washington, geographical proximity to the seat of power is all.

Colin Powell was lured into the Bush administration to give some semblance of multilateral thinking in difficult times, but he was ineffective. Successful secretaries of state prevail only when they have the authority of their boss. James Baker, the first President Bush's secretary of state, was the best example of this, ruthlessly enforcing his master's will in assembling the broad coalition in favour of the First Gulf War against Iraq.

Hillary is smart enough to know that she could be humiliated. Unlike Mr Obama, she voted in the Senate in favour of the Iraq war; she made a fool of herself during the campaign earlier this year by suggesting she flew into Bosnia as first lady under fire, when the news footage showed an elaborate and cosy reception committee had been in place. She has ridden out those embarrassments and she has shown she has a thick skin. But if she accepts the job as secretary of state, she must know she faces the prospect of being marginalised and condemned to playing second fiddle - a role she mastered for eight years in the White House even if her family indulged her by pretending they thought she was really in charge.

* The National