WASHINGTON -- Last December, I was a presenter at a ceremony celebrating volunteers. The final presenter was first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was only three weeks after the election, and she was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong.
She mused, in a clear allusion to her party's trouncing, that there had always been forces trying to stop the journey to the Promised Land and urging a return to Egypt. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of the first lady. She clearly believed -- and still believes, even though the rhetoric has been honed to match Dick Morris' re-election strategy -- that the first couple had been leading us to the Promised Land, only to be thwarted by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his back-to-Egypt party.
What makes the metaphor so interesting is that it identifies Mrs. Clinton as the true believer that she is. Her enemies are all wrong when they describe her as driven by power and consumed by ambition.
I don't think that she particularly cares about being first lady, about living in the White House or about the pomp and circumstance of her role. What she cares passionately about is saving the nation. When she moved from the cookie-baking East Wing to the policy-making West Wing, this was not a grab for the symbols of power but a smart move for someone determined to set the legislative agenda.
Mrs. Clinton's political salvationism -- whether she knows it or not -- is rooted not in the American Revolution but in the French. After the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the French National Assembly proclaimed the "natural and improscribable" right of every citizen to liberty, equality and security.
It is a thin line of apostolic succession from a government that guarantees security and equality of outcomes -- as opposed to equality of opportunity -- to a federal takeover of health care. More than the Atlantic Ocean separated the French from the American revolutionaries, whose declaration of self-evident rights began and ended with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Hillary Rodham told her Wellesley class in her 1969 commencement speech, "We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction. . . . We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living." Paralleling the European revolutionaries' political gospel, she has continued to talk of her "burning desire" not just for a new society but for a new humankind -- through politics.
She told the Washington Post last year that "there are things that government can do that create a condition for more people to be secure enough to take responsibility for themselves and therefore participate fully in the search for meaning." So in the first lady's government-centered, topsy-turvy world, even the search for meaning -- the end of human existence -- is predicated on government creating certain conditions.
The "suspecting glance"
Underlying her demands for a sweeping package of federal children's programs was the same passionate conviction that through more and better government programs, we would reach the Promised Land. The tone of her writings is that of defender of humanity through the beneficence of government. She lacks the "suspecting glance" -- the recognition of how easy it is for despotism to pass from kings to government bureaucracies -- that is at the heart of the American Revolution.
So Mrs. Clinton judges policies -- and this is the hallmark of her speeches during the health-care debate -- not by results or by the details of executing them, but by pious intentions. Even after the debacle, she kept focusing on her intentions: "The fundamental goal was a worthy goal. There is absolutely nothing to apologize for."
For her, the goal is the thing. What matters is that government policies and proposals be based on moral principles and embody social ideals. Indeed, the mere holding and proclaiming of the ideal eclipses the need to achieve it. This incidentally was for years a strategy conspicuously successful in the case of Marxism in general and the European socialist parties in particular.
The history of our century has consisted of a series of unfulfilled political promises, and all the promises have been proved false in the same direction; the political Promised Land persists in eluding us. But Mrs. Clinton -- unlike her husband, who has the vision of a mole and the conviction of his latest political consultant -- can both see the Promised Land and remains absolutely sure she can get us there, if only we would quit mistrusting government and stop electing politicians determined to get us back to Egypt.
Arianna Huffington heads the Center for Effective Compassion at the Progress and Freedom Foundation. She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.