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On the day before her husband was anointed, once and for all, as the democratic frontrunner for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton was at a synagogue in North Miami Beach, knocking 300 old Jews on their collective tush. Rapping at a podium conspicuously free of cue cards, the comely Clinton invoked the rhetorical ferocity that has made her one of the nation's top litigators, nailing key issues rat-a-tat-tat, deftly quoting from the Book of Isaiah, and, as she gained momentum, reproaching the President's awkward stabs at what he so goofily refers to as "the vision thing."
For the locals, who had arrived clucking absently about the nice lady lawyer sent to wow them, the speech lent new meaning to the term "burning Bush" - and dazzling new possibilities to the decaying role of first lady. Even the brigade of reporters on hand appeared smitten with Clinton, unable to resist rising with the crowd as she waved farewell.
At the back of the room, practically invisible behind broad, I-told-you-so grins, stood Hillary Clinton's two most loyal fans, brothers Tony and Hugh Rodham. Both men, transplanted Miamians who quietly helped Bill Clinton secure his vital win in last Tuesday's Florida primary, were hoping for a quick hello amid their big sister's blitzkrieg schedule. And quick it was.
An hour after her speech, Clinton, 44, was still pressing the flesh backstage and patiently delivering the stock answer to what has become a stock question. "No," she told at least three doting seniors, "I don't plan to run for president. But remember, a vote for Bill is a vote for me." By the time she caught sight of her brothers, in the glaring sunlight outside the synagogue, Clinton was already being hustled to her next gig. "My God, you've lost weight," she cried out to Tony, hugging him before whisking off. "I didn't even recognize you."
Bill Clinton may well be the moderate Southern Democrat to finally put GOP officials on the defensive, and recapture the White House after twelve years of monarchal Republican rule. But allegations of marital infidelity, draft dodging, and most recently, financial improprieties, have left the Arkansas governor with a nagging image problem.
Voters, guided by a media forever whacking at the stimulus bars of innuendo and scandal, have begun to detect a twang of insincerity in his downhome delivery, a come-on as oily, perhaps, as it is smooth. So too has George Bush been battered by his inability to shake demagogue/columnist Pat Buchanan and his self-immolation on the domestic front.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton has emerged from the grim and tawdry primary prelims as a cult of personality. First spotted sitting by her man for a weepy 60 Minutes interview, Clinton's adamant support quickly dispelled comparisons to Gary Hart's puffy-eyed wife Lee and, some political analysts contend, saved her spouse's campaign from a crash and burn. She is viewed, rightfully, as the antithesis of a pushover, a high-powered attorney and children's advocate who is amassing a growing stack of reportorial love letters.
Her blazing style on the campaign trail thus far suggests she will be a crucial asset in Clinton's predicted race against Bush, and as a first lady she promises to be a quantum leap in quality over anorectic power freak Nancy Reagan, frumpy hausfrau Barbara Bush, and ice-maiden-on-standby Marilyn Quayle. A woman with the brains of Eleanor Roosevelt and the looks of Jackie O. Pundits already have knocked around the notion of Hillary Clinton as the nation's first female attorney general.
None of which comes as a surprise to her kid brothers, who have regarded her with unmitigated awe since their earliest days in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. Back then, family speculation was that Hillary would be the first female Supreme Court justice. "She's never tolerated injustice," says 41-year-old Hugh Rodham, an attorney who has worked at the Dade County office of Public Defender since 1980. "I remember one instance, a snowball fight, where some kids from another neighborhood hit my little brother Tony in the head with an ice ball, and Hillary just took off after them, chased them away. She must have been eight or nine."
Both Rodhams recall the elaborate neighborhood Olympic games their sister used to organize. "She'd set up a long jump with the sandbox as the pit, and run the marathon around the block," says Hugh. "She had an incredible imagination. We used to listen to a record album called Fudini and Pinhead Go to Mars, and we'd sit in the basement on a bench and Hillary would draw a viewing screen, like on a spaceship. And we'd put on our helmets and fly off to the moon. Then mom would call for lunch and Hillary would say, `You can stay down here until lunch is over. I'll tell mom you're on the moon.'"
As a student Hillary Rodham was the quintessential nightmare older sibling. "A tough act to follow," groans Tony, 39. "I don't remember her ever receiving anything lower than the highest mark in class." She was student body president in high school, extracurricular all-star, and in a community of bedrock Republicans, a loyal Goldwater girl.