I was trying to steal a quote from New York's junior senator the day after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer took a cheap shot at Clinton in a White House press conference. Like the rest of the vultures in the Capitol press corps, I staked out the Senate chambers, and when Clinton walked out, I stuck my tape recorder in her face.
She instinctively scurried toward the elevator to brush me off, but when I told her I was with Salon.com (The Stranger is too closely associated with the Drudge Report for Hillary's tastes) she nodded slightly, frowned at my tape recorder, and invited me to come talk "off the record" in the "Senators Only" elevator. We continued our conversation on one of the Senate's private rinky-dink subway cars (like a ride for kids at Disneyland), Hillary's foot errantly sweeping across my leg as we talked. When it did, an invisible barrier was shattered. It was like having a fictional character you've watched for years on television reach out through the screen and grab your arm. I struggled to focus on my questions.
Clinton obviously understands the effect of star power, and uses it to her advantage. While she is supposedly dishing off-the-record info to me, the information itself is worthless. She has identified me as a friendly reporter, and talks me up accordingly, asking me about Seattle, how I'm liking Washington D.C., what neighborhood I'm living in. I tell myself that I am being manipulated, but I can't help but fixate on the fact that Hillary Clinton (who has deep creases on her face that you don't notice on television) is asking me about my personal life. I'm tempted to ask her how Bill is adjusting since leaving the White House, how Chelsea is doing overseas. "My God," I tell myself, "I am totally being played, and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it."
We say goodbye with a handshake outside her office, and I can't help but feel ashamed. I have allowed myself to be taken in the same way many reporters allowed themselves to be taken in by John McCain and George W. Bush on the campaign trail. I look over my notes and realize that even on background, she has told me absolutely nothing.
That afternoon, my mother calls me, and I tell her about my morning. "Oh my gosh!" she says, her voice hurried as a schoolgirl's. "So what's she really like?"