WASHINGTON (AP) – All the peril and promise of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expected presidential campaign played out in high relief this past week.
In one hour, really.
There she was, in her element, enjoying a hero’s welcome at a U.N. conference on women. Cellphone cameras snapped away as she spoke with passion of women’s rights as the “great unfinished business of the 21st century.”
And there she was, a half-hour later, in her own personal hell just down the hall, carefully fending off questions from reporters asking about secrecy, ethics and whether she had played by the rules as secretary of state in using a private email account and server.
“I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by,” she insisted without apology, in a deja vu moment that revived memories of all too many Clinton dramas past.
The back-to-back events showcased the past vs. future tug of war that could be a prominent dynamic of Clinton’s campaign: the years of accumulated baggage versus the historic prospect of electing the first woman president.
For better or worse, Clinton has a long history with voters – two decades of triumph and travail related to her time as first lady, senator, failed presidential candidate and secretary of state.
In all its incarnations, the Bill-and-Hillary show has had more than its share of theatrics. While younger voters missed much of the show – Whitewater, travelgate, Monica Lewinsky and much more – the past looms large in Clinton’s profile.
But Clinton’s candidacy also dangles the making of history, the ultimate fulfillment of that “great unfinished business” for women of which she spoke at the U.N.
The mostly female audience at the conference was practically giddy to be in Clinton’s presence and burst into applause when her introducer mentioned the presence of “a future president” in the room.
Clinton does not discourage such talk.
At a forum with Democratic women earlier in the month, she looked out over those in the crowd and asked if they hoped to see more women run for offices such as school board, governor, mayor, member of Congress.
“I suppose it’s only fair to say,” she added coyly, “don’t you someday want to see a woman president?”
Clinton had hoped to spend much of March promoting her work on women’s issues. But that theme largely has been overshadowed by the email controversy and questions about the propriety of the Clinton Foundation accepting foreign contributions when she was secretary of state and after she left the Obama administration.
At 67, it will be a challenge for her to give off the “new car smell” that President Barack Obama once famously said American voters want.
Republican pollster David Winston said the idea of a female president holds obvious appeal but can only be taken so far.
“It gives her an opportunity to be listened to that will be helpful to her,” says Winston, “but she’s got to do something with that opportunity.”
Likewise, the idea of the first black president was a powerful part of Obama’s winning 2008 campaign but had limited impact in the end.
In exit polls, just 9 percent of 2008 voters said race was an important factor in their choice for president.
Andy Kohut, founding director of the Pew Research Center, said the Clintons – and they are largely viewed as a package deal – offer both dynamism and the risk of “Clinton fatigue,” from all the years of charges and allegations.
“There are so many parts to the puzzle,” he said. “They’re complicated people.”
If the past few weeks have proved anything, it’s that it will be challenging for Hillary Clinton to steer the conversation around all that and in a forward-looking direction.
“The thing about having baggage is that it’s something you always have to manage,” Winston says. “What she’s got to do, and she obviously struggled with it this week, is how do you manage it in such a way that it allows you to say the things you want to say?”
Clinton is expected to announce her candidacy within the next month. Aides think she will be able to more nimbly respond to controversies once she has a full campaign apparatus in place.
At the U.N., before giving her response to the email controversy, Clinton took a moment to speak to reporters about gender equity and tell them that despite progress, “when it comes to the full participation of women and girls, we’re just not there yet.”
If it takes her own presidency to lead the way, she had to be thinking, all the better.