POLITICAL SUPERSTARDOM was a phenomenon with which Hillary Rodham Clinton was intimately familiar, of course. She knew the upsides and downsides of it, the pleasure and the pain, as well as anyone in American life. For more than a decade she had been in the spotlight and under the microscope ceaselessly and often miserably, and in the process came to dwell on a rarified plane in the national consciousness: beloved and detested, applauded and denounced, famous and infamous, but never ignored.
Now, at fifty-six and in her fourth year in the U.S. Senate, Clinton was still the bête noire of the Republican right. But she was also one of the most popular Democratic politicians in the country—more so than her party's presidential nominee, John Kerry, and more so than her husband, whose public image was still in rehab after the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio and the Marc Rich pardon scandal.
The trajectory that delivered Hillary to this place was remarkable in every way. In the White House she had been, from the start, a profoundly polarizing presence. (Much to her bafflement, too; what she'd done to provoke such a lunatic corps of haters was a mystery to her.) Her time as First Lady was marred by a horrid cascade of defeats, humiliations, and conspiracy theories: health care and cattle futures, Vince Foster and Whitewater, Lewinsky and impeachment. Yet somehow Hillary emerged from all of it a larger, more resonant figure. The Lewinsky affair, for all its awfulness, marked a turning point, rendering her sympathetic and vulnerable-seeming, a woman who had behaved with dignity and fortitude in the most appalling circumstances imaginable. Her decision to run for the Senate in New York in 2000 went against the advice of many of her friends; some political prognosticators predicted confidently that she would lose. Instead, she won the race in a canter, by a thumping twelve-point margin. Weeks after Election Day, Simon and Schuster agreed to pay $8 million for her memoirs, at the time the second-biggest advance ever for a nonfiction tome (just slightly less than the sum handed to Pope John Paul II). But when the book, Living History, was published in June 2003, it earned back every penny, selling out its first printing of 1.5 million copies and then some. And the tour to promote it was a sensation, with her fans camping out overnight to get her autograph and the media comparing her to Madonna and Britney Spears.
The Simon and Schuster paycheck allowed Hillary and Bill to buy her dream house in Washington, a $2.85 million, six-bedroom, neo-Georgianmanse that was nicknamed after the leafy, secluded street on which it sat: Whitehaven. But Living History did more than that. It sparked the beginning of a flirtation with the idea of running for president in 2004—a flirtation at once serious and so shrouded in secrecy that even the bestinformed Democratic insiders knew nothing about it.