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Hillary Reborn

At State, as in the Senate, she often talks softly—but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t carry a big stick.

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Illustration by Andy Friedman  

Hillary Clinton was on the trot again this week, with an itinerary that took her from Zurich to London to Dublin to Belfast to Moscow and a nonstop schedule of diplomatizing on topics ranging from the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations to the Iranian nuclear crisis. But the headlines Hillary generated back home—and there were plenty of them—had precious little to do with her official duties as secretary of State.

They were about her disclamation of any interest in a future presidential bid. About her insistence that she really (really!) is Barack Obama’s foreign-policy supremo. About the new Gallup numbers showing that Hillary is now more popular than Obama, which represents a truly stunning nineteen-point swing since the start of the year. About Hillary qua Hillary, in other words.

The sudden Clinton clamor in the media strikes the ear as especially cacophonous in light of how quiet she has been for most of her nine months in her new job. And the sound of silence out of State, in turn, has given rise to a clear conventional wisdom about Hillary’s role in Obamaville, which is part of what she was reacting to in her interviews with NBC and ABC this week. The CW, put succinctly, is that Hillary is a virtual nonentity in the administration: that in terms of political status, she ranks in the second tier, and that when it comes to policy sway, she has been out-barked and out-bitten by the pack of alpha dogs that the president has installed around her.

It’s easy enough to understand this interpretation of Clinton’s standing. After her soap-operatic campaign, the absence of drama around HRC creates cognitive dissonance for the punditocracy and other Beltway tea-leaf readers. Yet the truth is that the conventional wisdom is wrong, I think, in both its particulars and its overall verdict. And not just wrong but illustrative of a set of misapprehensions about how the woman thinks and operates—or, at least, how she’s learned to do so, especially with respect to the navigation of new terrain. Indeed, one need only look back as far as her time in the Senate to understand how she now sees and plays the game, and why, on everything from the battle over U.S. policy in Afghanistan to the shaping of her future, she’s perfectly likely to win.

To get a fuller sense of the Clinton CW in Washington, it helps to start by taking a gander at GQ. In its new issue, the magazine offers a list of “the 50 most powerful people in D.C.,” on which Hillary ranks eighteenth. That might not sound so bad, all in all, except it puts her in tenth place in the administration, behind Rahm Emanuel, Bob Gates, Peter Orszag, David Axelrod, Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Eric Holder, Valerie Jarrett, and Leon Panetta. Worse, the list slots six players on Capitol Hill (Max Baucus, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, David Obey, Henry Waxman, and Barney Frank) ahead of Clinton, too—at least three of whom she would certainly have outranked had she remained in the Senate.

The matriarch of the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits probably doesn’t give two whits about what such a magazine has to say about her mojo. But not so the perception that her influence over foreign policy is de minimis—a view summed up by a recent piece in the Washington Post, which argued that Hillary is “largely invisible on the big issues that dominate the foreign-policy agenda, including the war in Afghanistan, the attempt to engage Iran, and efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

When NBC’s Ann Curry, citing that assessment, asked Clinton this week on the Today show if she’d been “marginalized,” Hillary deemed the suggestion “absurd” and then went on: “I’m not one of these people who feels like I have to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on the TV every moment of the day. I would be irresponsible and negligent were I to say, ‘Oh, no. Everything must come to me.’ Now, maybe that is a woman’s thing. Maybe I’m totally secure and feel absolutely no need to go running around in order for people to see what I’m doing.”

It’s possible, of course, that gender studies is the appropriate prism through which Clinton’s behavior should be viewed. But for my money, history provides more insight—in particular, the history of Hillary’s ascension to the upper chamber on the Hill in 2001.

Though it wasn’t all that long ago, people still often forget just how peculiar and challenging her insinuation into that world was. After eight years in the skin-blanching spotlight, she arrived with a degree of fame far greater than any of her peers—and also totally out of proportion to her official status as a freshman in a body where seniority is all. How did she deal with it? By scrupulously avoiding the cameras. By being wonky and learning the ropes. By enacting a degree of deference and obeisance to her colleagues, almost all of them male, that must have been painfully hard for her to swallow. (Remember, please, the stories about how she ritually poured the coffee for other senators, always recalling who took cream or sugar.) By establishing an image, as Robert Byrd famously put it, as a “workhorse, not a showhorse.”


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