The U.S. secretary of state has been making the media rounds saying she’s ready to leave—to be a grandma, to travel for fun, to teach and, above all, to sleep. But nobody quite believes that she isn’t planning another run for the White House. “I really don’t believe that that’s something I will do again,” Hillary Clinton told interviewer Barbara Walters recently. But, asked whether, at the age of 69, she’d be too old to run, she bristled: “I am, thankfully, knock on wood, not only healthy, but have incredible stamina and energy.” Clinton’s hospitalization on Sunday for a blood clot may have cast a shadow on that optimism. The clot stemmed from a concussion she sustained after fainting from dehydration due to a severe stomach virus, and doctors were confident about her recovery. But the string of illnesses has forced her to cancel most of her engagements for the better part of a month, and is an unforeseen setback as she wraps up her tenure as secretary of state.
Of course, Clinton has more than optimism on her side. She exits with one of the highest approval ratings on the national stage, 66 per cent (10 points higher than President Barack Obama), and 57 per cent of Americans say she should run again, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
“Stamina” doesn’t do it justice either. In the past four years, Clinton has logged more than 950,000 travel miles, according to an official tally. She has visited a record 112 countries.
And the former first lady travels no-frills. She sleeps on a fold-out couch in a spartan private cabin aboard a government Boeing 757 equipped with extra fuel tanks for her marathon trips. Her small room has a desk, a TV monitor and a full-length mirror. No shower.
And no stylist. When Clinton let her hair grow long on the job, the Washington Post called it her “latest act of defiance.” “It was a fine rebuke to the accepted adage that a woman of a certain age must cut her hair—a symbolic gesture that she is leaving sex appeal and youthful flirtatiousness behind,” opined the paper’s fashion writer. Her ponytails and ’80s-era hair accessories were scrutinized. One official was quoted confiding, “Some of us are looking to ban the scrunchies.” Clinton just laughed. “I do not travel with any hairdresser, or anybody to help me do that, and I’m not very competent myself,” she told Walters. “And so it became simpler to just grow it so that I can pull it back, and I can stick rollers in.”
That kind of no-nonsense sensibility, reflected in her iconic pantsuits, have endeared Clinton to the kind of voters who just couldn’t relate to the suave Obama or the millionaire Mitt Romney: the hard-working “waitress moms,” as political consultants labelled them in the 2012 elections. Or, as they proved themselves to be in the closely fought 2008 Democratic primary contest, the Hillary voters.
After she was elected a junior senator from New York in 2000, Clinton took a small basement office and worked across the aisle on nuts-and-bolts issues, earning grudging respect from Republicans. That approach prepared her for the job in Obama-land, which was largely enemy territory, thick with fears that she would plot to undermine the new President or that her husband’s global foundation would present conflicts of interest. But she won over the Obama loyalists.
“I think that she has done an extraordinary job,” says David Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Canada. “I say that as someone who, quite frankly, spent two years of his life working on a campaign to keep her from being the Democratic nominee for president. She knows that, and despite that she has been unfailingly kind and gracious and co-operative with me—and when I talk to colleagues around the world who were in the same position I was in, they tell me the same thing.”
Foreign policy analysts saw no discord. “Everybody was saying, ‘This is going to be a mess, there is bad blood, wheels are going to come off,’ ” recalls Charles Kupchan, an international affairs professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “And I would say it’s been one of the smoothest, most effective teams in a very long time.”
Clinton pledged to transform America’s role abroad through “smart power”—a marriage of development and diplomacy. She emphasized her lifelong concern for women’s and children’s issues. She sought to put a civilian face on U.S. actions abroad by empowering diplomats to take a leading operational role while working alongside U.S. military and intelligence personnel.
“The idea was to make the ambassador into a CEO—to give the ambassadors more training and tools to effectively manage the situation,” said Jordan Tama, who teaches at the School of International Service at American University in Washington. Clinton also changed internal job evaluations to reward diplomats who take risks.
The result has been a more assertive diplomatic corps, says Kupchan: “We came off a decade in which American foreign policy was over-militarized and in which the State Department had lost a good bit of influence to the Pentagon, and I think under Clinton’s tenure two things have happened: the State Department clawed back power from the military, and now there is a more balanced relationship between the two; and the State Department’s portfolio, which during the [George W.] Bush years was more traditional, has been diversified. Women’s issues, human development issues, questions of good governance, a lot of things that were in the shadows are now front and centre.”
Jacobson agrees, saying he observed “a focus on areas such as ‘economic statecraft’ that she refers to, that have been very important here in Canada.”
But for all that, Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, says Clinton remained focused on hard power. “She was a very traditional, realpolitik secretary. She was focused first and foremost on the country’s core security interests and core relationships, and I think she did that well. It’s not a tenure marked by a breakthrough with any country or problem. It was a very pragmatic, workmanlike, solid legacy.” O’Hanlon adds,
“People will think of her as one of the hardest-working, best-prepared, most meticulous secretaries of state—and one of the least naive about how the world works.”
Clinton helped drive the administration’s “pivot to Asia”—and its policy toward China. There, “she might have had her greatest direct impact, and a big hand in setting the tone,” says O’Hanlon.
The biggest black mark on her tenure, of course, was the Sept. 11 attacks on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. Clinton commissioned an inquiry into security lapses, which concluded that there was a failure of leadership on diplomatic security, but did not name names. “Because those flaws occurred during secretary Clinton’s watch, they represent chinks in her armour,” says Kupchan. Three State Department officials resigned in the wake of the report. Clinton was scheduled to testify before Congress in December, but cancelled due to her injury. So far, Clinton herself has avoided being tarred by the debacle, but Republicans are sure to raise it if she runs in 2016.
The landscape certainly looks inviting: one recent poll showed that 61 per cent of Democrats want her as their next candidate. But people close to Clinton have said she has not made any decisions. Wisely so. Back in 2007, she had the support of 51 per cent of Democrats, more than double that of a little-known senator from Illinois who won a year later. And there are still four years to go.