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Hillary in Midair

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Hillary Clinton receiving the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, September 10.   

The killing of bin Laden, she says, was a bonding experience. Obama’s Cabinet had been split on whether to attempt the mission, but Clinton backed it and sweated out the decision with the commander-in-chief. “I’ve seen the president in a lot of intense and difficult settings,” she says, “and I’ve watched him make hard decisions. Obviously, talking to you on September 11 as we are, the bin Laden decision-making process is certainly at the forefront of my mind.”

The statement cuts two ways—praise for her president and evidence of her deep experience in and around the Oval Office—including the most successful military endeavor of the Obama presidency. As a Cabinet member, she says, “I’ve had a unique, close, and personal front-row seat. And I think these last four years have certainly deepened and broadened my understanding of the challenges and the opportunities that we face in the world today.”

Political campaigns are built of personal narratives—and it works much better if the stories are true. The current arc of Hillary’s story is one of transformation. Being secretary of State was more than a job. Her closest aides describe the experience as a kind of cleansing event, drawing a sharp line between the present and her multiple pasts—as First Lady, later as the Democratic front-runner in 2008, derailed by the transformative campaign of Barack Obama but also by a dysfunctional staff, the campaign-trail intrusions of her husband, and the inherent weaknesses of the fractious, bickering American institution that has become known as Clintonworld.

At State, she was the head of a smoothly running 70,000-person institution, and fully her own woman, whose marriage to a former president was, when it was mentioned, purely an asset. And now that she’s left State, Clintonworld is being refashioned along new lines, rationalized and harmonized. The signal event of this is the refurbishing of the Clinton Foundation, formerly Bill’s province, to accommodate all three Clintons, with Chelsea, newly elevated, playing a leading role. The move has ruffled certain Clintonworld feathers—a front-page article in the New York Times about the financial travails of the foundation as managed by Bill Clinton brought sharp pushback—but most of those close to the Clintons acknowledge that to succeed in the coming years, Hillary will have to absorb the lessons of 2008. Currently, it’s a topline talking point among her closest aides.

“She doesn’t repeat her mistakes,” says Melanne Verveer, an aide to the First Lady who then served in the State Department as Hillary’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. “She really learns from her mistakes. It’s like, you want to grow a best practice and then always operate on that. She analyzes, ‘What went wrong here?’ ”

Of course, if Hillary’s future were to be an author, or a pundit, or a retiree, learning from mistakes wouldn’t be an issue. But other outcomes, where executive talents are prized, seem more likely. I ask Clinton the question that trails her like a thought bubble: Does she wrestle with running for president?

“I do,” she says, “but I’m both pragmatic and realistic. I think I have a pretty good idea of the political and governmental challenges that are facing our leaders, and I’ll do whatever I can from whatever position I find myself in to advocate for the values and the policies I think are right for the country. I will just continue to weigh what the factors are that would influence me making a decision one way or the other.”

Clintonworld, however, speaks with many voices­—albeit many of them not for attribution. Some of her close confidants, including many people with whom her own staff put me in touch, are far less circumspect than she is. “She’s running, but she doesn’t know it yet,” one such person put it to me. “It’s just like a force of history. It’s inexorable, it’s gravitational. I think she actually believes she has more say in it than she actually does.”

And a longtime friend concurs. “She’s doing a very Clintonian thing. In her mind, she’s running for it, and she’s also convinced herself she hasn’t made up her mind. She’s going to run for president. It’s a foregone conclusion.”

When president-elect Barack Obama asked Clinton to be secretary of State, they had a series of private conversations about her role for the next four years. What would the job entail? How much power would she have? How would it be managed?

Or to restate the questions as they were understood by everyone involved in the negotiation: What would Hillary Clinton get in return for supporting Obama after the brutal primary and helping him defeat John McCain?

Though she had ended her losing campaign on a triumphal note, gracefully accepting the role of secretary of State and agreeing to be a trouble-free team player in Obama’s Cabinet, the 2008 primary loss left deep wounds to her core staff—at least among those members who had not been excommunicated. They would discuss what happened during long trips to Asia and Europe, sounding like post-traumatic-stress victims. “The experience was very searing for them, and they would go through it with great detail,” says a former State Department colleague.


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