Maureen Dowd / Madam President? Candidate Hillary must be able to leave the foolery behind

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Please don't ask me this anymore.

It's such a silly question. Of course Hillary is running. I've never met a man who was told he could be president who didn't want to be president. So naturally, a woman who's told she can be the first commandress in chief wants to be.

"Running for president is like sex," James Carville told me. "No one ever did it once and forgot about it."

Joe Biden wants the job. He's human (very). But he's a realist. He knows the Democratic Party has a messianic urge to finish what it started so spectacularly with the election of Barack Obama -- busting up the world's most exclusive white-bread old boys' club. And he knows that women, both Democratic and Republican, want to see one of their own in the White House and became even more militant while listening to the GOP's retrogressive talk about contraception and vaginal probes last year.

Also, Joe genuinely likes Hillary. These two have no appetite for tearing each other apart.

As long as there are no more health scares -- the thick glasses are gone -- Hillary's age won't stop her. The Clinton scandals and dysfunction are in the rearview mirror at the moment, and the sluggish economy casts a halcyon glow on the Clinton era. Hillary is a symbol and a survivor, running on sainthood. Ronald Reagan, elected at 69, was seen as an "ancient king" gliding through life, as an aide put it. Hillary, who would be elected at 69, would be seen as an ancient queen striding through life.

She was supposed to go off to a spa, rest and get back in shape after her grueling laps around the world. But instead she's a tornado of activity, speaking at global women's conferences in Washington, D.C., and New York; starting to buck-rake on the speaking circuit; putting out a video flipping her position to support gay marriage; and signing a lucrative deal for a memoir on world affairs -- all as PACs spring up around her, Bill Clinton and Mr. Carville begin to foment and Chelsea lands on the cover of this week's Parade, talking about how "unapologetically and unabashedly" biased she is about her mother's future.

"I can't see her taking it easy and sitting on the couch eating a bowl of popcorn," said Randall Johnston, a 25-year-old New York University Law School student who helped pass out "Ready for Hillary" signs Friday outside Lincoln Center, while her icon was inside enthralling the crowd at Tina Brown's "Women in the World" conference.

Hillary jokes that people regard her hair as totemic, and just so, her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention: She has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a KGB villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous.

In a hot pink jacket and black slacks, she leaned in for a 2016 manifesto, telling the blissed-out crowd of women that America cannot truly lead in the world until women here at home are full partners with equal pay and benefits, careers in math and science and "no limit" on how big girls can dream.

"This truly is the unfinished business of the 21st century," she said. But everyone knew the truly "unfinished business" Hillary was referring to: herself.

"She's gone to hell and back trying to be president," Mr. Carville said. "She's paid her dues, to say the least. The old cliche is that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. But now Republicans want a lot of people to run and they want to fall in love. And Democrats don't want to fight; they just want to get behind Hillary and go on from there."

The real question is not whether but whither. Does Hillary have learning software? Did she learn, from her debacle with health care, to be more transparent and less my-way-or-the-highway? Did she learn, after voting to support W.'s nonsensical invasion of Iraq without even reading the intelligence estimate, that she doesn't need to overcompensate to show she's tough? (No one, even Fox News, thinks she's a Wellesley hippie anymore.)

Did she learn, from her viper's nest and money pit of a campaign in 2008, how to manage an enterprise rather than be swamped by rampant dysfunction? Did she learn, when she wrapped herself in an off-putting and opaque mantle of entitlement in the primary, that she's perfectly capable of charming reporters and voters if she wants to, without the obnoxious undertone of "I'm owed this"?

Even top Democrats who plan to support Hillary worry about her two sides. One side is the idealistic public servant who wants to make the world a better place. The other side is darker, stemming from old insecurities; this is the side that causes her to make decisions from a place of fear and to second-guess herself. It dulls her sense of ethics and leads to ends-justify-the-means wayward ways. This is the side that compels her to do anything to win, like hiring the scummy strategists Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and greedily grab for what she feels she deserves.

If Mr. Obama is the kid who studies only on the night before and gets an A, Hillary is the kid who studies all the time, stays up all night and does extra credit work to get the A. She doesn't know how not to drive herself into the ground.

As Carl Bernstein wrote in his Hillary biography, "A Woman in Charge," her insecurities grew from her herculean effort to win paternal praise: "When Hillary came home with all A's except for one B on her report card, her father suggested that perhaps her school was too easy, and wondered half-seriously why she hadn't gotten straight A's. Hillary tried mightily to extract some unequivocal declaration of approval from her father, but he had tremendous difficulty in expressing pride or affection."

Hillary was an indefatigable secretary of state -- she logged 956,733 diplomatic frequent-flier miles -- and a star ambassador, especially on women's issues. But many experts feel, as John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker, that, compared with the work of more geopolitical secretaries, her "signature achievements look like small beer."

Still, the job allowed her to get out of her husband's co-dependent shadow and develop a more authentic aura of inevitability. Mr. Obama allowed his former rival to take Hillaryland into the State Department and then build it out, burnishing her own feminist brand around the world.

The idea of Hillary is winning, a grand historical gender bender: first lady upgrading to president. But is the reality winning? The Clintons have a rare talent for finding puddles to step in. Out of public life, can she adapt and make the leaps needed, in a world changing at a dizzying tempo, to keep herself on top?

Her challenge is to get into the future and stay there, adding fresh people and perspectives and leaving the Clinton mishegoss and cheesiness in the past.

The real question about Hillary is this: When people take a new look at her in the coming years, will they see the past or the future -- Mrs. Clinton or Madam President?

opinion_commentary

Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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