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The Closest of Frenemies

In all the dizzying personal and political complexities of Hillary at State, one thing is clear: Obama has nerve.


Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio  

It wasn’t a done deal when these words were written, but there’s an extremely good chance that by the time you read them, Barack Obama will either have named or be on the verge of naming Hillary Clinton his secretary of State. The job would seem to be hers if she desires it, with her spouse vowing to do “whatever they want” to eliminate potential conflicts of interest posed by his promiscuous globe-trotting and buckraking. Although I’m told by people close to Hillary that she’s ambivalent about exiting the Senate, she craves a new challenge and sees a grand one in being America’s ambassador to the world at this hinge-of-history moment. And, hey, let’s be blunt: Were the idea, having coming this far and become this public, to fall apart now, the ensuing humiliation would be grievous and mutual for Obama and Clinton. Too grievous and too mutual, that is, for them to let it happen.

So it appears that we’re about to embark on a new chapter in the Obama-Clinton saga. Motivating the characters is a blend of cold-eyed calculation and gauzy idealism; selfishness and selflessness; the good, the bad, and the ugly—all the stuff that’s made the drama in which they have co-starred as operatic, twisted, and riveting as any in modern political history. What is different now is where Obama and Clinton might be headed: toward a kind of reconciliation that eluded them even after the hatchets were supposedly buried once their nomination fight was over.

No one disputes that the implications of this putative development are huge: for Obama and the Clintons, for foreign and domestic affairs. And opinions differ wildly over whether the pairing would be a stroke of genius or a match made in hell. But what strikes me as most interesting about it—along with the other appointments Obama has made so far—is what it suggests about the president-elect, from his conception of his embryonic administration to the size and contours of his ego.

The sheer improbability of the thing is striking, too, of course. All the happy-pappy posturing of the general election—the emphatic endorsements, the labored “unity” in Denver, the energetic stumping by Hillary for Barack, the two-way tongue bath between 42 and the soon-to-be 44 at a rally in Florida in the campaign’s final week—did little to alleviate the bedrock enmity between the two sides. The Clintons continued to regard Obama as a featherweight, a phony, a usurper. Obama neither liked nor trusted nor thought he needed Hill or Bill; he bridled at their apparent insistence that he kiss their rings.

For some, such as Tom Friedman, who argues that an “airtight relationship” is “required for effective diplomacy,” the sour Obama-Clinton history is reason to worry that installing Hillary in Foggy Bottom would be a one-way ticket to disasterville. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius frets over “subcontracting foreign policy” to a “big, hungry, needy” figure whose visibility would make quiet statecraft “almost impossible.” David Broder is nervous about the presence of the Maximum Canine—“Foreign leaders would inevitably see Bill Clinton as an alternative route toward influencing American policy”—and even more so about Hillary “carving out an independently based foreign policy.” Obama, writes Broder, “needs an agent, not an author.”

But for Obama and his inner circle—notably Rahm Emanuel, his new chief of staff, whose fingerprints are all over the Clinton gambit—Hillary brings an array of strengths to the table, and many of what critics see as her problematic qualities can be viewed instead as assets. Her existing relationships with world leaders and her global star power would allow her to walk into foreign capitals and deal with the president or prime minister on level footing. And in the face of a cratering economy likely to consume the first year (or more) of Obama’s term, handing off the foreign-policy legwork to a savvy, tough, high-profile surrogate with roundly acknowledged expertise on the relevant issues holds no small appeal.

Then there are the more subtle advantages to picking Hillary. Foreign policy is prone to internecine conflict in any administration, with the secretaries of State and Defense, the national-security adviser, and often the vice-president all jockeying for position. And Obama’s regime—with Joe Biden in the building and Robert Gates likely to remain atop the Pentagon—will be no exception. But Clinton is much closer to Biden than most people realize; that campaign gaffe of his about her making a better V.P. than him was more like a Freudian slip. And Gates, like many Republicans, is said to respect Hillary immensely; indeed, no Democrat is regarded more highly by the opposition and the generals.

Little of this, it should be noted, is true of the other shortlist candidates to run State. John Kerry and Bill Richardson are both fine men, qualified on paper for the job. But Senator Pompous has long had an intensely competitive relationship with Biden (“They’re like brothers—in every sense,” reports a Biden confidant) and is unbeloved by the GOP. And does anyone really think that Governor Doofus (or, if you prefer James Carville’s formulation, Governor Judas) possesses anything close to Clinton’s candlepower? Or gonads, for that matter? You can bet your last dollar that Emanuel, for one, does not.


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