By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton came closer than any other woman to winning the White House on Tuesday but fell short for a second time, a bitter disappointment for a pioneering but polarizing American political figure.
Seeking to win election to the office her husband Bill Clinton held from 1993 to 2001, Clinton, 69, lost her battle for the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008 and lost on Tuesday to Republican Donald Trump, 70.
Trump told supporters at a rally early on Wednesday that Clinton had phoned to congratulate him on his victory. A Clinton campaign aide confirmed the phone call.
In 2000, Clinton became the only first lady to win elected office, as a U.S. senator from New York. In 2009, she became the third female secretary of state. In July, she became the first woman to claim a major U.S. party's presidential nomination.
The presidency turned out to be a bridge too far.
Accepting her party's nomination in July, she embraced the historic nature of her candidacy, saying that "when any barrier falls in America it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky's the limit. So let's keep going. Let's keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves to have."
During four decades in public life, Clinton withstood such controversies as an FBI investigation of her use of a private email server as secretary of state, probes into past business dealings, her husband's infidelity and an unsuccessful Republican effort to remove him from office.
Two American women, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, were nominated by major parties as their vice presidential nominees, but fell short in the general election.
After losing to Obama in the 2008 race, Clinton deferred her White House ambitions, and served as his secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
'BETWEEN YOU AND THE APOCALYPSE'
Clinton's admirers consider her a tough, capable and sometimes inspirational leader who endured unrelenting efforts by political enemies to chop her down. Campaigning for her on Monday in Michigan, Obama called Clinton "a candidate who is smart, a candidate who's steady, a candidate who's tested - probably the most qualified person ever to run for this office."
Her detractors consider her an unscrupulous and power-hungry opportunist. She was detested by many Republicans and conservatives, and in 1998 during her husband's presidency bemoaned a "vast right-wing conspiracy."
Against Trump, she portrayed herself as guarding the country from the threat she said he posed to American democracy.
"As I've told people, I'm the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse," Clinton told The New York Times in October.
When she entered the race last year for the Democratic presidential nomination, she was considered such a prohibitive favorite that others in her party shied away from challenging her. But she was an establishment figure and a Washington insider at a time when voters were smitten with outsiders.
She secured the Democratic nomination in July only after beating back a surprisingly stout challenge from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who appealed to young voters and mustered the kind of excitement that Clinton sometimes failed to generate.
As secretary of state, she dealt with civil wars in Syria and Libya, Iran's nuclear program, China's growing clout, Russian assertiveness, ending the Iraq war, winding down the Afghanistan war, and an unsuccessful bid to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Congressional Republicans spent years investigating allegations of State Department security lapses related to a 2012 attack by militants in the Libyan city of Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador.
She testified during marathon congressional hearings in January 2013 at the end of her tenure at the State Department and in October 2015, while already a candidate for president, facing Republican criticism of her handling of the incident.
Another politically damaging issue came to light during the lengthy congressional investigation into the Benghazi attack: accusations that she broke the law in her handling of classified information while corresponding through the private email server for her government work as secretary of state.
The U.S. Justice Department in July accepted FBI Director James Comey's recommendation not to bring criminal charges against her, although he faulted her "extremely careless" handling of classified information.
Comey announced 11 days before the election that the FBI was investigating a new collection of emails as part of its probe, but said two days before the election that a review of those emails produced nothing that would change the decision not to bring charges.
Trump called her "Crooked Hillary," said he would seek to put her behind bars if elected and encouraged his supporters to chant "lock her up." Clinton called Trump as a racist hate-monger, a sexist and a tax-dodger enamored with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She defended her lengthy service in government, dismissing Trump's contention that she had produced no real accomplishments.
Born in Chicago on Oct. 26, 1947, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the eldest of three children of a small-business owner father she called a "rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican" and a mother who was a closet Democrat.
She attended public schools, then enrolled in 1965 at all-female Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she headed the Young Republicans Club. Her political views changed during the 1960s civil rights struggles and Vietnam War escalation and she switched parties.
At Yale Law School, she met a similarly ambitious fellow student from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and they became a couple. She moved to Washington to work for a congressional panel in the impeachment drive against Nixon, who resigned as president in 1974 during the Watergate scandal.
She moved to Arkansas to be with Bill, married him in 1975, and was hired by a top law firm. He jumped into politics, eventually being elected governor, at age 32, in 1978. She gave birth to the couple's only child, daughter Chelsea, in 1980.
As Arkansas' first lady, she was a high-powered lawyer in the capital Little Rock and a Wal-Mart corporate board member.
Most Americans were introduced to her during her husband's bid for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination. Bill Clinton said voters would get "two for the price of one" if they elected him. She unapologetically said she was not a woman who "stayed home and baked cookies."
After a woman named Gennifer Flowers accused Bill Clinton during the campaign of a sexual affair, Hillary Clinton appeared on TV with her husband and referred to singer Tammy Wynette's song, "Stand by Your Man."
"You know, I'm not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," she said, adding that she loved and respected her husband. "And you know, if that's not enough for people, then heck, don't vote for him," she added.
Conservative critics painted her as a radical feminist and a threat to traditional family values.
Bill Clinton defeated incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush in November 1992. As first lady from 1993 to 2001, unlike many of her predecessors, she was an active part of policymaking.
Critics assailed her unsuccessful effort to win congressional passage of healthcare reform, deriding it as "Hillarycare."
She and her husband faced a long investigation into past business dealings but ultimately no criminal charges were brought. A real estate venture known as Whitewater faced scrutiny, spawning an independent counsel investigation that later encompassed Bill Clinton's sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, a figure in the Whitewater controversy and a close friend of the Clintons from Arkansas, was found dead of a gunshot in 1993. His death was ruled a suicide. In a 2003 memoir, Hillary Clinton blasted "conspiracy theorists and investigators trying to prove that Vince was murdered to cover up what he 'knew about Whitewater.'"
In 2000, the independent counsel investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to show the Clintons had been involved in any criminal behavior related to Whitewater.
In December 1998, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to impeach a president for only the second time in U.S. history, charging Bill Clinton with "high crimes and misdemeanors" for allegedly lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.
The Republican-led Senate acquitted Clinton in February 1999. Hillary Clinton called the impeachment an abuse of power by Republicans with a "Soviet-style show trial" and condemned what she called "an attempted congressional coup d'etat."
She also said she "wanted to wring Bill's neck" for the affair and upbraided him privately. Ultimately, she said, she decided she still loved him and remained after they went through counseling.
She launched her own bid for elected office and won election in 2000 as a U.S. senator.
The 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination pitted America's foremost woman politician against the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother. After vanquishing Clinton, Obama made history when he defeated Republican John McCain to become the first black U.S. president.
(Writing and reporting by Will Dunham in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)