Her former staffers argue that she managed a host of important, if underrecognized, global flare-ups along the way, from freeing a dissident in China to brokering the easing of sanctions against Burma. “She helped avert a second war in Gaza by going out and pulling off that cease-fire,” recalls Sullivan of the deal she hashed out between Israel and Hamas after a week of fighting, “which holds to this day. And you don’t get a lot of credit for preventing something. Those are things that you aren’t going to measure how successful they are for another ten or twenty years.”
At the same time, Hillary used her tenure at State for a more intimate purpose: to shift the balance of power in the most celebrated political marriage in American history. Bill Clinton was an overwhelming force in Hillary’s 2008 campaign, instrumental in vouching for Mark Penn, the strategist whose idea it was for Hillary to cling to her war vote on Iraq and to sell her as an iron-sided insider whose experience outweighed the need to project mere humanity. Bill also freelanced his own negative attacks, some of which backfired. Because his staff was not coordinating with Hillary’s, her staff came to regard him as a wild card who couldn’t be managed.
But not in the State Department. “Not a presence,” says a close State aide. “And I don’t mean that just literally. But not someone who was built into the system in any way. He had a very minimal presence in her time at the State Department.
“It’s kind of jarring when she says ‘Bill,’ ” this person adds, recalling meetings with Hillary Clinton. “Well, who’s Bill? And then you realize that she’s talking about her husband. It happened so infrequently that you were kind of like, Oh, the president.”
Part of it, of course, was logistical. Though they spoke frequently by phone, Bill and Hillary were rarely in the same country. By chance, their paths crossed in Bogotá, where they had dinner together—then, owing to their massive entourages, returned to their respective hotels. “Love conquers all except logistics,” says an aide.
“I could probably count on one hand the times she came to a meeting and either invoked his name or suggested something that Bill had said,” says Nides. “I probably did it more about my wife telling me what to do.”
Hillary might have left the State Department unsullied by controversy if not for the Benghazi episode, in which the ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other consulate staffers were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate. The NATO intervention in Libya was the most important foreign intervention of her tenure, and a seemingly successful one, but the lack of security in Benghazi and the confusion over how the incident occurred set off a heated Republican attack on Clinton’s handling of the disaster, and she was roasted on the cable-news spit for weeks. In January, she took responsibility for the deaths of the four Americans before Congress—while also questioning her inquisition, snapping at a Republican congressman, “What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
Benghazi will be the go-to bludgeon for Republicans if and when Clinton tries using her experience at State to run for president. It is a reminder that Clinton, despite the cool, centrist façade she has developed in the past four years, is only a misstep away from being a target of partisan rage once again.
Regardless of the facts, Republicans are liable to use Benghazi as a wedge to pry back her stately exterior, goading her into an outburst, once again revealing the polarizing figure who saw vast right-wing conspiracies and tried ginning up government health care against the political tides of Newt Gingrich.
When asked for her prescription for partisan gridlock, Clinton sees an opportunity not unlike what Obama saw in 2008. “People are stereotypes, they are caricaturized,” says Clinton. “It comes from both sides of the political aisle, it comes from the press. It’s all about conflict, it’s all about personality, and there are huge stakes in the policies that are being debated, and I think there’s a hunger amongst a very significant, maybe even a critical mass of Americans, clustered on the left, right, and center, to have an adult conversation about how we’re going to solve these problems … but it’s not for the fainthearted.” For now, Hillary’s strategy is to sail above these conflicts, mostly by saying nothing to inflame them. “I have a lot of reason to believe, as we saw in the 2012 election, most Americans don’t agree with the extremists on any side of an issue,” says Clinton, “but there needs to continue to be an effort to find common ground, or even take it to higher ground on behalf of the future.”