In the few hours between landing after a swing through Pakistan, the Middle East, and North Africa and taking off again for Berlin, Singapore, Japan, and the Philippines, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found time on Friday to stop over in much friendlier territory: a subterranean banquet hall at Washington’s Reagan International Trade Center. There, she addressed the people who tried to make her president of the United States.
The occasion: a “policy conference”—really more of a reunion—put on by a Hillary-centric advocacy group called NoLimits.org, which her staunchest defenders had founded in the wake of the 2008 election. They wanted to preserve the sisterhood that had grown up around her campaign, and the secretary, by being there, was just returning their loyalty. “We have had some extraordinary times,” Hillary said, relaxed and smiling. “There were so many of you here who were there with me on that long, exciting, death-defying journey across our country! You’re the ones who helped put all those cracks in the glass ceiling.”
The conference drew a peculiar mix: well-preserved Hillraisers, mingling and gossiping in their blonde coifs and furs, alongside supporters of a more pedestrian stripe, many of whom came with one friend or sat alone. They had all paid upwards of $175 apiece to listen to speakers like Barney Frank and Obama aide Jim Messina talk about issues of the day. The real draw, though, was Hillary herself.
The crowd (women, mostly) sat spellbound while she narrated her travels. They shook their heads when Hillary told them, in intimate tones, of visiting rape survivors in the Congo. When she finished, they surged forward to touch her hand, catch her eye, or take her picture—flashes of recognition crossed her face as she bent down from the dais to greet them.
“Oh, you’re Tom, from Maryland!” Hillary waved to a young man.
“We love you!” a girl shouted.
“She has beautiful eyes! I’d never seen them!” one woman exclaimed.
“I knew when we made eye contact, it was like yesterday,” said Deby Zum, an aging West Villager with frizzy hair and red framed glasses, who had met and aided the then-first lady in her first campaign for senate. “Why do you think she has such diehard people? There’s a reason.”
The grand dame of this Clinton-themed confab was Ann Lewis, who has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since the 1980s and has spent most of her last 15 years working for the Clintons (both of them). After the plenary speeches, the wizened woman in a cyan blue jacket—who looks like the female version of her brother, Congressman Frank—relaxed with a glass of water.
“It became clear immediately after the election that Hillary would be going to State, that the kinds of networks and connections that she’d had, everything would be closed,” she said. “There’d be no HillPAC, there’d be no Friends of Hillary, it couldn’t be anything political. If people wanted to stay together, it could only be through a nonpolitical organization.” The inner circle got together and began thinking about a group built around a line from Clinton’s speech at the Denver convention: “With our ingenuity, innovative spirit, and creativity, there are no limits to what is possible in America.”
Lewis’s nascent organization—termed “Hillary in Exile” by Politico—began sending newsy issue e-mails after the inauguration, focusing especially on Hillary’s doings, which Lewis says people weren’t hearing about anywhere else. (That may also be a remnant of the feeling that mainstream news outlets had given candidate Hillary a rough time: “It’s good to have, let us say, information sources other than the media,” Lewis said with a sidelong glance.) Now, NoLimits claims 35,000 members online, though only about 1,641 people have created profiles at the very Facebook-like informational and social networking site (which also eerily resembles the transmutation of President Obama’s old campaign apparatus, Organizing for America).
After health care moves off the agenda, she says, NoLimits will shift into issue advocacy, probably focusing around women’s rights and middle-class economic issues, which “coincidentally, Barney is leading the way on,” Lewis notes.
What guides their agenda, other than Hillaryism? I asked.
“The defining philosophy,” Lewis started, “is one, we have a responsibility to make the world better. And two, you do it by working together with one another.”
The one thing this isn’t right now—at least after Hillary ruled out another presidential run last month—is a campaign organization. It may raise money to give to other causes and candidates some day, but Hillary herself is just an inspirational figure at this point, tying them all together.
“This isn’t just about slogans and rah rah rah. This goes deep,” says Jayne Sherman, a television producer who had served as a finance chair for Hillary’s 2000 campaign. And though it seems like Hillary’s campaigning days are over, well, a dedicated fan can always hope. “I don’t think that she’s thinking about that, but who knows what tomorrow brings?”