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
"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
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. …