Reconsidering Hillary Clinton

Years ago in Colorado, I met a well-to-do, interesting, likable guy who had once lived in Little Rock, Ark., where he had been friends with the governor of the state _ Bill Clinton _ and his wife Hillary, and who had fond memories of late-night gab sessions with them and others.

Over beer, the participants would take up a host of political issues, he told me. Both Clintons, he said, were exceptionally well-informed, swift of mind and articulate, but there was a major difference between them.

Bill, he said, did not like confrontation, would always seek common ground and would back up in his stances if he could not find it. Hillary, on the other hand, was unyielding. She would never give an inch.

The story struck me as illuminating, in part, I guess, because it fit my own impressions of the Clintons. I figured it to be an illustration of something crucial about the two.

Bill Clinton, it seemed to me, was relatively moderate, though leaning leftward, and a person whose intellectual curiosity would not quickly exclude the possibility of his being wrong. He was a compromiser, which was both good and bad _ good because none of us has all the answers and a democracy requires give-and-take, but bad because compromise can sometimes go too far and be a sign of weak character.

People who are so intent on being liked that they will easily let go of perceived truths are not to be trusted with high responsibility.

Hillary Clinton, I figured, was made of sterner stuff, but was not therefore politically embraceable. The evidence suggested that her sternness derived from arrogance about mental capacities granted to none of us and an ideological assuredness next door to absolute.

After all, the health program she helped devise during the first year of her husband’s tenure was a nightmarishly bureaucratic, welfare-state abomination, and many of her observations in writings, speeches and interviews were paeans to all-intrusive government.

She struck me as a deep-down socialist who thought we poor, ordinary slobs could not make it across the street safely without the help of federal programs devised by people smarter than us, namely, people like Hillary.

Surprise, surprise. As a Democratic senator from New York, Hillary Clinton has been either reasonable or close to it on a variety of issues. I don’t want to get carried away here. She has been as guilty as any liberal in her demagogic claptrap about President Bush’s proposals for a Social Security restructuring without which the roof caves in. Showing solidarity with the nitwit proposition that the administration favors the rich, she has also bashed economy-rescuing tax cuts that happened to include reductions for people who pay most of our taxes, namely, those with incomes well above average.

But she has also voiced praise for the problem-solving strengths of the free market. She has joined with the former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a health-care proposal that would give a large role to private enterprise. On the highly emotional, divisive issue of abortion, she has encouraged means that would make the practice far rarer without making it illegal. And she has refused to join in the Democratic clamor to race as quickly from Iraq, thereby putting the United States at huge risk.

“It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state the way Afghanistan was, where terrorists are free to basically set up camp and launch attacks against us,” she is quoted as telling reporters recently. While she also said the United States should let Iraq know it won’t be there forever, that’s a far cry from the withdrawal timetable foolishly urged by other Democratic senators.

Some say Hillary Clinton’s positions on such issues are meant to appease various constituencies in New York and to move her closer to the political center in the likely event she runs for president in 2008. Maybe, but I remain impressed by a tone that runs counter to the ideological fixity I had anticipated and find her much less phony and overbearing than the past two Democratic candidates for president, John Kerry and Al Gore.

It doesn’t follow that I think she should be elected to that office _ a number of possible opponents in a general election are considerably closer to my own convictions. It does follow that I am not nearly as put off by her as I once was.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)