The Freshman: Starring Hillary Rodham Clinton

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- If anyone thought that Hillary Rodham Clinton, first lady, bete noire of the right and now New York's favorite adopted daughter, might blend into the woodwork as just another freshman senator, the opening day of Congress ended that fantasy.

During the hourlong swearing-in ceremony last week, the entire center of gravity in the ornate Senate chamber shifted to the last row of desks, where Clinton, in a vivid aqua pants suit, sat nonchalantly whispering like a veteran with Sen. John Breaux, the deal-making Louisiana Democrat.

In a classic Washington tableau of power-worship, hypocrisy and redemption, the Senate took on the look of a receiving line, as a parade of senators came to welcome Clinton, air-kissing, back- patting and handshaking, including numerous Republicans who voted just two years ago to convict her husband on impeachment charges. The culmination was an embrace from the 98-year-old South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond in all his incorrigible glory.

Yes, there have been Senate celebrities before: Bill Bradley, the Rhodes scholar who played for the Knicks; John Glenn, the modest astronaut. But Clinton is a phenom the likes of which the staid Senate has rarely if ever seen, no matter how often she protests that she just wants to buckle down and deliver for New York.

She is the most admired woman in America, according to a recent Gallup poll, beating out Oprah. She is a figure of international stature, who once lectured China about human rights. Her friends and enemies are legion -- including a phalanx of professional Hillary- haters who were happily returned to cable television the moment she was sworn in.

Perhaps the only comparable figure to grace the Senate, said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, was that other carpetbagger New York embraced as its own, Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the martyred president.

From the moment Kennedy entered the Senate it was widely assumed that he would seek the presidency. In those days, a freshman might wait years before daring to give a major speech, but Kennedy waited only until the summer. He spoke on nuclear weapons and infuriated President Lyndon B. Johnson, who saw the address as a jab in his direction.

"In Kennedy's case, he knew he was never going to be a member of the club," said Beschloss, "and rather than beginning in that Uriah Heepish way, he went to the Senate as Robert Kennedy, future president, who made no bones about that. It was basically a question of what year it would be."

By contrast, Clinton's supporters say she very much wants to be a good club member, that finally having elected power of her own, she wants to learn how to use it and become an effective lawmaker.

"My gut is she'll handle it pretty well because she's smart," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. "Smart is understanding that people are waiting here for any false move to jump all over her. Smart is knowing that this is 100 egos and everybody's an equal here."

Yet even on Day 1 there were signs of the difficulties Clinton will face. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., (brother of one of the House impeachment managers), sounded a tad exasperated when he said to a television reporter, "She's still going to have one vote no matter how she leads the evening news, but she'll be respected by her colleagues and receive a warm reception. …

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