Hillary Clinton Is Ready for Her Close-Up

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Starting to take charge: Senator Clinton discusses the environmental impact of power plant emissions

Back in January, you could throw a bag of Air Force One M&M's anywhere on Capitol Hill and feel pretty confident it would hit someone who hated Hillary Clinton. The new junior senator from New York wasn't staying around to find out; still dogged by allegations of impropriety and linked, at least to some, to the scandals of her husband's administration, one of the best-known First Ladies ever spent the first few months of her term ducking the national spotlight.

What a difference six months make.

These days, Hillary-haters are still out there, but their voices — and numbers — are being challenged by a newly emergent, pro-Hillary caucus. For her part, Senator Clinton is on the rise, moving back into public life, enjoying a bit of the spotlight and savoring the fact that whatever attention she does get is all about her.

How did Hillary Clinton get to this point? By sheer hard work; she has put in long hours mastering the issues and political minutiae of her new home state. And by finally, at long last, becoming her own woman.

Becoming a legislative force

Initially, it was all about New York: How to solve problems at home, how to turn attention to the stateís issues, how to convince the folks back in Albany and beyond that she was the real deal. For at least four months, Clinton made her job into a single-minded campaign for the Empire State. "Think of her as a liberal Al DíAmato," says TIME congressional correspondent Douglas Waller, referring to the former Republican Senator whose absolute focus on even the smallest New York problems earned him the nickname "Senator Pothole."

Hillary Clinton has, at long last, become something of a free woman.
By the beginning of the summer, Clinton seemed to have found her footing on Capitol Hill. She started fund-raising in earnest for other Democrats, and began inching into the national spotlight again. Just before the Senate adjourned for summer recess, Clinton, a member of the Commerce Committee, led a successful challenge of President Bushís pick to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Defeating the nomination of Mary Sheila Gall was, in effect, Clintonís first real bid for national press.

But while her public tenure has been fairly quiet, behind the scenes, Clinton has been prolific: Since joining her colleagues in the Senate, Clinton has authored no fewer than 12 bills, 13 amendments and one resolution. Thatís more than any other freshman Senator, and, perhaps more importantly, itís reflective of more bipartisan dealmaking than most observers expected of a woman with little formal legislative experience. "Youíre starting to see her co-authoring bills with Republican senators," says Waller. That kind of cooperation, he says, is indicative of a new role for Hillary: "People are starting to treat her like one of the boys." And if that treatment means fitting in at one of the oldest and most powerful boysí clubs in the country, Clinton probably wonít resist.

Honing a solo act

Itís not that Bill and Hillary are on the rocks; on the contrary, theyíve taken several vacations together over the past few months, and reportedly talk often to discuss both politics and their personal lives. Itís just that now, unlike during her eight years as First Lady, Clinton is careful to keep her private life just that — intensely private.

More than happy to discuss the tiniest detail in a piece of legislation, or to comb through propositions geared towards her new home state, Clinton is guarded when it comes to her husband. And that disinclination to expose her much-discussed marriage seems to be serving her very well.

As much as anything, our short attention span deserves as much credit for the turnaround. "The problems connected with their leaving the White House are starting to fade," says Waller. "So you donít have a press corps following her around pelting her with questions about Marc Rich and parting gifts." (While that is largely true, the discovery of a note penned by Hugh Rodham, may renew interest in, and questions about, the First Ladyís knowledge of a few decidedly questionable pardon requests). Whatever half-life the pardon story has, however, it is unlikely to completely overshadow Clintonís new role. "She still has a press corps following her around," says Waller, "but now theyíre asking her about legislation, not her marriage."

Thatís undoubtedly a welcome change for a woman who began her professional life as a fiercely independent and ambitious lawyer, and who only now is beginning to emerge from years obscured by her husbandís all-encompassing, and often burdensome shadow. It must be a great relief for Clinton to know there will be no more apologizing for or explaining her husbandís behavior. This is a taste of real freedom — finally, she is accountable only to her constituents, and responsible for no one but herself.