Hillary's 'no' may be good just for now

Hillary Clinton came to a Monitor breakfast the other morning and made it abundantly clear that she wasn't running for president. She said the Democrats had a "strong field of candidates" and that she believed President Bush was vulnerable to defeat. She emphasized that she was not supporting any individual candidate and that included Gen. Wesley Clark.

So the 59 journalists who met with the New York senator had to be a bit disappointed. They'd hoped Mrs. Clinton might open the door just a crack, that she might have at least teased them with a few words about possibly running. But no. Instead, she raised questions about the president's handling of the peace in Iraq. And she focused on domestic problems that were calling for attention.

Clinton was very impressive as she responded to a steady beat of questions for an hour. One should never forget how well-informed, articulate, and intelligent this senator is. She has shown the capacity, too, to anger a lot of voters, particularly conservatives. But on this particular morning she wasn't dealing with any of her antagonists.

At the end of the session, I tried to nudge the senator into providing some enlightenment on her presidential thinking. "I can see how interested you are in doing your job as senator," I said, "but aren't you intrigued that just by saying one word - 'yes' to running - you could immediately lead the pack of Democratic candidates for president?"

Clinton laughed - a laugh that said she was not to be moved. Then she repeated that she was supportive of the current field of candidates and added that she was completely behind the "process" by which this field would be narrowed down to the winner. "Could nothing draw you into this process?" I asked. Her answer: "No."

So that's the end of a Hillary Clinton in the 2004 race. Or is it?

Process is an interesting word. I recall Bobby Kennedy was telling reporters in 1968, also over a Monitor breakfast, that it was "inconceivable" that he would enter the process of running for president - much as we thought he would and much as we pushed him to say he would.

Then during breakfast someone brought news about North Vietnam's Tet offensive in South Vietnam (a messenger from one of the news bureaus brought in the story, which we passed around) and all of a sudden Kennedy's attitude toward running changed. First, he softened his adamancy by saying his running wasn't "foreseeable." And then, before we left, it was clear we had a candidate. In just a few minutes Kennedy had jumped from outside to inside the process of running for president.

What had happened? Had Kennedy been lying or kidding us? I don't think so. But circumstances changed. Bobby suddenly saw a growing Vietnam-war problem that he felt he might, as president, do something about.

I may be among a dwindling number who think this way, but it seems to me that Hillary Clinton could still be drawn into the process.

That doesn't mean I don't think she's leveling with us now. I think that her intent is to sit this one out, that she feels she owes it to her New York State voters to serve out at least one term. I think she has her eye on 2008 as her best shot at winning the presidency.

But the circumstances - the political backdrop - could change. Say in a month or two, it becomes obvious that none of the Democrats now running, including General Clark, has the pulling power to defeat the president. Say that happens. Then I think that Clinton might do a Bobby Kennedy and jump into the race to help her party.

She would be doing it because she felt deeply that the nation needed new leadership and that she was the only Democrat who could bring it about.

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