In her latest incarnation, Hillary Clinton has been bumping along back roads in a van in Iowa and New Hampshire lately, on some days through areas so bleak and desolate you wouldn't even want to be buried there. She stops at gas stations and chats with other motorists. She strolls into stand-up cafés, Mexican fast food joints and the living rooms of strangers, as quietly and inconspicuously as possible for someone constantly accompanied by the Secret Service. She asks people about their concerns. And she comes across as if she were running for a seat on the Cedar Rapids city council and not the most powerful office on earth.
When she officially announced that she was running for president in a two-and-a-half-minute video released a week ago Sunday, the first minute and a half consisted of ordinary American citizens talking about their next challenges. Hillary appeared at the end, with a paper cup of coffee in her hand and a benevolent expression on her face, and said that she was getting ready to do something, too. It was probably the most restrained way possible of announcing a candidacy for the world's most powerful position.
The video is a sign of things to come, of a campaign that aims to be a triumph of modesty. Clinton wants to portray herself as a warm-hearted, friendly grandmother. She no longer wants to be the tough, unapproachable politician Americans have come to know.
These are all lessons from the mistakes of her first candidacy for the White House. At the time, she seemed too arrogant and assured of victory, and too far removed from the everyday lives of the voters she hoped to convince. It always seemed as if she were talking down to ordinary Americans from a large stage. This time, she is saying that victories need to be earned. She is behaving as if her nomination by the Democratic Party is by no means certain, even if her potential challengers -- Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb -- are all men most Americans have never heard of.
As Many Transformations as Madonna
The public has gotten to know countless versions of Hillary over the decades. She has undergone almost as many transformations as Madonna. She has been a dedicated, left-leaning elite student, a supportive wife, an ambitious first lady, a betrayed wife, a senator, a secretary of state and an author. With each of these stations in her life, her appearance has changed -- her clothes, her hairstyle and her hair color. The only constant in her biography has been constant change.
But the most astonishing thing of all is that Clinton, now 67, is still such an important political player. She has had to swallow so many defeats and humiliations, personal and political -- far more than would fit into a normal human life. And yet none of these blows has forced her to capitulate. Clinton, like almost no other politician, possesses the willingness to learn new things that allow her to eventually present herself to the world as the new, better version of Hillary. Some call this opportunism and some despise her for it, as the right-wing half of the United States does so passionately. And some simply admire her for it.
The big question is whether her willingness to change, sometimes to the point of self-denial, is purely the result of personal ambition and thirst for power, and the desire to complete a life plan that includes the presidency. Or does she have a cause bigger than her own ambitions: the good of the country, if not of the entire world?
She is familiar with all the superlatives that would be tied to her presidency. A woman would be commander-in-chief for the first time in the history of the United States. She knows the symbolic importance her election would carry, and not just for women around the globe. The rise of former Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher in Great Britain or Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany may have been encouraging, but as president of the United States, Clinton would be in a different league. There is no office in the world as important.
Clinton still has several hurdles to clear before actually being voted into the White House in November 2016. This time, one of her biggest opponents is statistics. The last time the Democrats managed to get their candidate elected after a fellow Democrat had been in office for two terms was in 1837, when Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson. Clinton also has to contend with the charge that, at 69, she could be too old for the office -- and that she is a candidate of the past, not the future.
This will be an especially hard nut to crack among young voters, who were so enthusiastic about current President Barack Obama during his campaign. Although both the president and first lady Michelle Obama have promised to support Clinton in her campaign, which could help her among younger and black voters, their support is also problematic. Clinton will have to find a way to pay tribute to Obama's time in office while simultaneously making it clear that, as president, she will be more experienced and more professional -- in other words, more suitable -- than Obama.
The battle for the White House is waged more ruthlessly and unscrupulously than campaigns in other countries. It is both physically and emotionally draining for the candidates. But Clinton seems well-prepared, which has a lot to do with a brief moment that occurred seven years ago.
A Catalyst Moment
"I just wanted to ask her something that really interested me, from woman to woman," says Marianne Pernold Young. She thinks about that Jan. 7, 2008 almost every day, when she said something that made Hillary Clinton cry in public. Even today, she still sounds amazed by what happened.
It was during her first bid for the White House, and Clinton had reached a low point. Obama had just won the first primary, in Iowa. Clinton was sitting in the Café Espresso, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, talking to ordinary citizens. Just before the end of the event, a gray-haired woman in a red blazer took the microphone in her hand.
"My question is very personal," Pernold Young began, as she looked Clinton in the eye. "How do you do it? How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?"
Clinton struggled with her response. "It's not easy," she finally replied, shaking her head. And suddenly tears came to her eyes.
That tearful moment Pernold Young triggered at the time has become the key to Clinton's second campaign. She is now presenting her more human side to the American people.
A few days ago, she published a new epilogue to her second biography, "Hard Choices," in which she writes about how happy she was over the birth of her granddaughter Charlotte, and about the tears in Bill's and her eyes. And because politicians are never without a chain of causation, she immediately drew the political consequences from this feeling of elation: "You shouldn't have to be the granddaughter of a president or a secretary of state to receive ... all the support and advantages that will one day lead to a good job and a successful life," Clinton writes. "In just a few months, Charlotte had already helped me see the world in new ways."
An Openness to Change
Even early in her career, Clinton was open to changes if they promised success. In 1982, when her husband was running for a second term as governor of Arkansas, she offered to stop using her maiden name, Rodham, and use Clinton from then on, even though the name was important to her. "I never will forget," Bill would later tell the New Yorker magazine in 1994. "She said, 'Look Bill, we cannot -- this is stupid! We shouldn't lose the election over this issue. We shouldn't run this risk. What if it's one percent of the vote. What if it's two percent. You might win or lose the election by two percent."
She was also willing to compromise that year when it came to her physical appearance. She followed the advice of advisers, who suggested that she dye her hair blonde, replace her thick glasses for contact lenses, wear make up and have a fashion consultant select her wardrobe. This may be a matter of course for female politicians today, but not in 1982. For Clinton, saying goodbye to her old appearance was also a departure from a self-image. Her student-like appearance -- the casual clothes, unruly hair and eschewal of makeup -- was part of an attitude. It represented the pride of an independent woman who wanted to be admired for her mind and not her physical appearance.
Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton attending the a dinner honoring US state governors at the White House in 1979.
Ten years later, when her husband was running for the White House, she listened to her advisers once again and underwent a makeover, which included dying her hair blonde once again. After that, she only occasionally complained that she actually hated what she called her "Ivana look" (a reference to the extremely blonde then wife of business magnate Donald Trump).
She was also open to inner change, as long as it would advance her cause. For example, in her younger years Hillary was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. As an attorney, she even helped get an inmate off of death row. But later, when it benefited her husband's career, she supported the death penalty. She had no objection to Bill flying back to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign to ensure that Ricky Ray Rector, who, after an attempted suicide, had the intellectual capacity of a young child, was executed. The list of adjustments and changes could be continued ad nauseum.
Her learning process also includes the eight years as senator representing New York, in which she worked effectively with her fellow lawmakers to enact legislation.
As first lady, she had lacked this willingness to compromise. The healthcare reform she had promoted failed in the US Congress, partly because Clinton was unwilling to play the often dirty game of Washington politics. She made many mistakes in dealing with the Washington system at the time, she told the New Yorker in 2003. "I made a lot of mistakes," she said. "I learned from those mistakes. At least I hope I did."
Her fellow senator Robert Byrd once called Clinton "the perfect student."
But the most painful compromises Hillary Clinton was forced to make had to do with her husband Bill. They were so enormous that many people, and not just women, wonder why the Clintons are still together. When Bill's half-brother Roger was sent to prison in the 1980s for cocaine possession, the New Yorker reported, Bill confided in a friend and said: "Everyone overdoes something -- drugs, food, sex. Everyone has some area that is out of control, that is an obsession." It was clear that Bill's main problem was not drugs or food.
It was so serious that Hillary's aide Susan Thomases berated him during the 1992 presidential campaign, saying: "You're stupid enough to blow this whole presidential thing over your dick."
Hillary Clinton often benefited from her husband's career. He took to her to places and put her in her positions very few people have managed to get to. But she was also forced to accept many indignities in return. Max Brantley, a journalist and colleague from Arkansas, once told the New Yorker: "It's hard even for those who admire and respect and love Hillary not to believe that she made a pact with the devil."
She was clever and ambitious enough not to set herself up in the role of victim of a husband who, at certain times, was apparently a sex addict. She energetically defended him throughout all of his affairs, with women from Gennifer Flowers to Monica Lewinsky. And she later demanded compensation for her dedication with the same amount of determination.
When she became first lady in 1993, she demanded a role that became a provocation for many Americans. The United States had not seen a more active president's wife since Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the first to have an office set up for herself in the West Wing, the center of power in the White House. And she also demanded the chairmanship of a task force to devise the biggest healthcare reform in the country's history. After the end of his second term in office, there was no question as to whose political career would become the priority.
"Hillary can separate personal emotions from the goal and task ahead in a way that very few women can," Betsey Wright, Bill Clinton's longstanding chief of staff in Arkansas, told the New Yorker. Wright is one of the few people in whom Hillary confided when talking about her problems with Bill. "That is part of the investment in the marriage -- the ability to keep going when others would have a cry, at the very least, before they go on. She knows it's there, knows it hurts, knows it's wrong, but she controls it as a separate thing from what the goal or project is. It is such an extreme extension of self-discipline that it is not even self-discipline."
'Much More Organized' Than Bill
Few people know the Clintons as well as Leon Panetta. He was Bill's chief of staff in the 1990s, and he served alongside Hillary, as defense secretary, in President Barack Obama's cabinet. "They've obviously been through a lot of ups and downs and I've seen that," Panetta says in Monterey, California, in the offices of his Panetta Institute.
"But I've also seen them together, and the fact is: deep down," he says, hesitating for a moment, "there is love between them. There is an understanding and a dependence on each other in that relationships. For all the challenges they had to face, there is a very strong bond."
They complement each other perfectly, according to Panetta, because one always has what the other lacks. Bill, he says, loved discussions. "I remember going into the oval office and there would be 10 or sometimes 20 people talking about an issue and he never got to a decision. He was in his own way very undisciplined," Panetta adds. But his wife is the polar opposite, he says. "She is willing to listen, but she is much more disciplined and much more organized."
Hillary demanded far more loyalty from her team than her husband did of his advisers. At the time, she was suspicious and determined to remain in control. She still is today, says Panetta. And even though individual members of her team later said that there was something intimidating about Hillary, they were also proud of the spirit of solidarity that accompanied her group.
Whereas Bill had to learn many things the hard way, says Panetta, Hillary is far more prepared for the White House today than her husband was at the time. He believes she would make a good president.
It's a November day in 2014. The 10th anniversary of the Bill Clinton's presidential library is being celebrated in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, where the Clintons began their political careers. The master of ceremonies is Kevin Spacey, who plays ruthless politician Francis Underwood in the political TV series "House of Cards."
There is some self-irony in the Clintons' choice of Spacey. His character Francis Underwood has become the epitome of the power-obsessed US politician, who makes it into the White House with the help of tricks, connections and his lack of scruples. He is advised and spurred on by his equally ambitious wife Claire, played by Robin Wright.
They portray a couple for which all other aspects of life are subordinate to the desire for advancement and influence. Their marriage is a partnership of convenience that began as a great love affair. They cheat on each other, and yet they have no intention of allowing their joint project to fail. But they also demonstrate what happens when the hierarchy in a partnership shifts over time. At some point, Claire is no longer satisfied with merely being the woman at his side, prompting her husband to point out that there is only one chair at his desk in the Oval Office.
The fictional Underwoods' conflicts must seem all too familiar to the Clintons.
"I've known them for a very long time," says Spacey, "and now I have the honor of presenting to you my friends, President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton."
Hillary, wearing a blue dress, walks onto the stage with a determined gait. Bill, wearing a black turtleneck sweater, still comes across as the eternal dandy, even if he now seems a little shakier and his voice isn't as strong as it once was. When he reaches his wife, he takes her arm and she leans over and kisses him on the cheek. Then they take a few seconds to simply stare out at the audience, with looks of gratitude and pride in their achievements in their eyes.
Over the decades, Bill and Hillary Clinton have created a family dynasty, a political corporation, Clinton Inc., a massive network of friends, advisers, foundations and benefactors. It isn't always clear which contact is connected to which of their projects at a given time, but in the end they usually contribute to the shared success of the Clinton brand.
Will Foundation Burden Campaign?
One of their foundations, which began as the William J. Clinton Foundation and is now called the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, distributes more than $200 million (187 million) a year. The foundation could present a problem for Hillary's campaign.
Its donors include authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, oligarchies like that of Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk, whose own foundation donated $8.6 million to the Clintons' foundation, and companies like military contractor Blackwater, which has since been renamed. Hillary Clinton has always denied that these donations have influenced her policies. During her tenure as secretary of state, gifts from foreign governments were prohibited, but the ban did not apply to private citizens like Saudi billionaire Mohammed Hussein Ali al-Amudi, who reportedly donated up to $5 million. And now that Hillary is no longer secretary of state, the Clintons' foundation is once again free to accept donations from foreign governments.
We will probably never know whether the many millions coming from foreign governments have in fact led to a conflict of interest. Nor will we know whether Hillary's efforts to promote women's rights are compatible with millions in donations from Saudi Arabia, a country with a poor record on the issue. This is precisely why the issue will dog her during the campaign. As is so often the case with the Clintons, there is a divide between their moral standards and reality.
In the campaign, Hillary Clinton will also encounter the charge that the United States is not a monarchy, in which individual families simply pass on the crown to another member. Clinton doesn't like being confronted with the monarchy question, but it's one she will have to address.
"We had two Roosevelts," she said after a long pause when she met with SPIEGEL journalists in Berlin last summer at the Adlon Hotel. "We had two Adams. It may be that certain families have a sense of commitment or even a predisposition to want to be in politics. There may be something. Like some families go into business. Some families go into the arts. Some families go into journalism, whatever. Maybe it is the way you are raised, what you're interested in -- you would choose to go into politics."
Then she stood up, walked over to the window and looked out at Pariser Platz. She asked where Barack Obama gave his now-famous speech in 2008. She also asked where he spoke the second time, in the summer of 2013, and she wanted to know exactly where he was standing. Then she stared pensively at the spot where he gave the speech, in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
If she does address the world as the president of the United States in the future, the old hierarchy of her family operation will finally be turned on its head. The question is whether her husband will be able to perform the new role.
"Bill as first male spouse?" Leon Panetta laughs. "It may take some time to adjust to that position, but my experience is that they can work it out." At the end of the conversation about the Clintons, Panetta is standing in front of a glass case where he keeps photos and trophies, the credentials of a long career in Washington politics. He is especially proud of one item: a red brick from the building where Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was shot and killed in May 2011.
US President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.
Strength in Defeat
The fact that she became secretary of state in the first place epitomizes the way Clinton handles defeat. She could have had valid reasons to steer clear of Obama. He had attacked and insulted her during the campaign. But when it was over, he asked her to meet with him in Chicago, where he offered her the cabinet position. After some hesitation, she accepted.
It was yet another one of those milestones that prompted some to wonder whether the sole purpose of everything she does is to remain close to power and advance her career. Others admired her for the ability to take on yet another new challenge.
Her office at the time was on the eighth floor of the State Department. David McKean, the director of policy planning, works across the hall from the secretary of state's suite of offices. Clinton brought him in at the time, and today he works for the current secretary of state, John Kerry.
Sitting behind his desk, McKean says that Kerry is a more active secretary of state than Clinton was, and that he has a stronger creative drive. He also has an explanation for his opinion. "When Barack Obama took over in 2009, the US' reputation was at an historic low." The Iraq war, which was based on false claims, and the accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo had severely tarnished America's reputation.
Clinton's mission was to make amends, says McKean, explaining that she flew around the world and cultivated relationships. She did a "heroic job" of reestablishing America's standing worldwide. Clinton herself says that she sees her role as secretary of state and, more generally, as a politician in a democracy, as a relay race. "I mean, you run the best race you can run, (and then) you hand off the baton."
McKean believes that Kerry would never have come as far as he has in foreign policy without Clinton's groundwork, and that the Iran negotiations are a case in point.
A Focus on the Middle Class
If Clinton becomes president, the United States will pursue a different, tougher foreign policy. She is convinced that Washington should have opposed Russian President Vladimir Putin far more energetically than Obama has. And she has publicly criticized Obama for not taking earlier steps against the Assad regime in Syria. The United States cannot solve all the world's problems alone, says Clinton, "but the world cannot solve them without the United States."
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appear together on a stage during the 2008 election campaign in Unity, New Hampshire.
The week before last, she announced that she intends to fight for ordinary, middle-class Americans -- and that too is a lesson from her failed presidential run in 2008. Now she intends to address the concerns of "everyday Americans," over issues like affordable housing, jobs and daycare, and to campaign for better professional opportunities and a higher minimum wage.
It's the right goal for a country in which the lower 90 percent of citizens account for only 23 percent of national income, and the tax burden for high-income earners is constantly declining.
But Clinton doesn't come across as overly credible on these issues. In the past, Bill and Hillary Clinton needed too much money from Wall Street for their campaigns to be able to tangle with it politically. During Bill Clinton's presidency, many steps were taken to deregulate the financial markets, steps that later contributed significantly to the financial and banking crisis.
As a senator, Hillary also acted consistently in Wall Street's interest, behaving as if this did not conflict with her commitment to "everyday Americans." But the financial crisis, in which millions of everyday Americans lost their livelihoods, should have taught her the error of her ways.
There is one consistent thread running throughout her many transformations and compromises: her commitment to the rights of women. For decades, there is no other issue for which she has fought so passionately.
On a spring afternoon, 80 women are sitting in a conference room at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, to discuss women's rights in America. Hillary Clinton is beaming. It's the kind of meeting she likes. The moderator wants to know why she is so committed to women's rights.
"What I see as I travel around our country, just as I saw when I traveled around the world as secretary of state, is where women are left out, where women are not given the opportunity to pursue their economic well-being, their children suffer, their communities suffer, indeed their countries suffer," says Clinton. Women still hold two-thirds of all minimum-wage jobs, she points out, and a woman earns only 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. Her audience claps enthusiastically.
Clinton is part of the generation of women who fought hard and against great resistance to achieve equal rights in the 1960s. Although her father was very conservative, her mother Dorothy raised her in a very liberal way. Her mother was not allowed to go to college and became a housewife instead. Clinton says that she simply couldn't imagine not going to college or giving up a career in order to transform herself into a housewife.
She had an eye opening experience when, as a teenager, she wrote a letter to NASA to volunteer for astronaut training. "I received a letter back informing me that they were not accepting girls in the program," she wrote in her first memoir. She never forgot the experience of being rejected because of her gender.
An Advocate for Women
As first lady, Clinton led the American delegation to the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. "It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights," Clinton said. "For too long, the history of women has been a history of silence."
To this day, Clinton is prouder of that speech, which attracted more attention worldwide, than of any other in her career. And in contrast to the past, she now openly describes herself as an advocate of women.
She took a different position in her campaign against Barack Obama. She wanted to be elected because she believed she was the better politician. She didn't emphasize women's issues in 2008, but she has since learned her lesson and is taking the opposite approach in her recently launched campaign. Clinton has already been courting female voters for months.
Some 61.6 million men and 71.4 million women voted in the 2012 presidential election. Clinton is currently the favorite among women in every poll. She has brought many women into her campaign team. Most recently, she recruited Stephanie Hannon of Google to serve as her chief technology officer. Her job will be to bring the campaign into social networks and make Clinton appear more modern than in her first run for the presidency.
Hillary Clinton, a woman of transformations, constant learning processes and new beginnings, would probably be better equipped for the presidency than all of her rivals. She knows the White House from the inside, and she knows what it means to be president. She has eight years under her belt as a senator and has strong foreign policy experience. She also seems to have figured out how not to merely portray herself as a good president in theory, but actually to become one.
Marianne Pernold Young, the woman from New Hampshire whose words prompted Clinton to shed a few tears in public, voted for Obama in 2008. This time she intends to vote for Hillary. Barack Obama broke through "the glass ceiling for blacks," she says. "Hillary will break through the same ceiling for women. Finally. She'll open the door. For all of us."