First among equals
PROFILE:Long decried as a polarising influence in US politics, Hillary Clinton is now seen as a safe pair of hands, and a strong contender for president in 2016, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington
That 3am phone call came this month, when Chris Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya, and three other US diplomats were killed by an angry mob that stormed the consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11. It was the first time since 1979 that an American ambassador had been murdered. Foreign policy suddenly moved centre stage in the US presidential campaign.
President Barack Obama and secretary of state Clinton, once bitter rivals, confronted the crisis together. Clinton announced the deaths first, just before 10 the next morning. Wearing a dark suit and triple string of pearls, she projected powerful, controlled emotion: “Today, many Americans are asking – indeed, I asked myself – how could this happen?” she said. “How could this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?” An hour later, Clinton stood beside Obama as he made a similar speech in the Rose Garden.
As riots and demonstrations multiplied across the Muslim world, Obama seemed to use Clinton as a shield. Mitt Romney’s campaign attacked the president for a statement by the US embassy in Cairo denouncing an anti-Muslim film. The administration was paralysed. If Obama criticised the offensive film, he’d be accused of being a Muslim, of “apologising” for America’s freedom of expression.
Finally, it was Clinton, in a meeting with her Moroccan counterpart two days after the assault on the consulate in Benghazi, who said what needed to be said: “The US had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message . . . To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible.”
Obama and Clinton received the bodies of the four dead diplomats at Andrews Air Force base. Clinton’s words touched the deepest chord among the victims’ families, perhaps because they were her employees. When Obama finished his speech, Clinton reached over and clasped his hand. As they left the podium together, he put his arm around her. All week, Clinton stood gravely by Obama’s side, looking every inch the commander-in-chief-in-waiting.
The previous week, when the Democrats rallied in Charlotte, Clinton was a powerful presence, though she’d gone abroad, saying the secretary of state must be a non-partisan public servant. Her husband Bill’s speech was credited with giving Obama a post-convention “bounce” in opinion polls. The unstated assumption was that regardless of who wins on November 6th, the Democratic nomination next time is Clinton’s for the asking.
This week, as Mitt Romney’s campaign floundered over a video in which he appeared to disown nearly half the US population, Obama’s re-election looked more likely. “If Hillary does run in 2016, Obama will owe her and her husband,” says a Clinton friend and former fundraiser. “The respectful working relationship benefits them both; it’s worth their while to keep it going.”
“Barring an act of God, she’ll be the Democratic nominee in 2016,” predicts Peter Feaver, professor of political science at Duke University and a former adviser to the National Security Council under George W Bush. “I cannot imagine a Democratic challenger who could defeat her, unless she was ill. She will be a juggernaut in 2016.”
Clinton has long made it clear she will leave the State Department in January, before Obama’s term ends. She has talked of setting up a foundation, or working with her husband’s Clinton Global Initiative.
Terry McAuliffe, the former head of the Democratic National Committee who chaired Bill’s 1996 re-election campaign and Hillary’s 2008 campaign, swears that 2016 “is the furthest thing from her mind today. She is looking forward to spending a couple of years relaxing. She has earned it.”
Would he chair her campaign again, I ask McAuliffe. “It’s a long way off and she’d have to ask,” he says, before showing the mettle of true believers. “But let me put it this way: I would do anything Hillary asked me to do. I love her.”
Clinton will turn 69 a week before the 2016 election – Ronald Reagan’s age when he assumed office. “She’ll take time off and the political fire will return,” he predicts. “She’ll have a hard time resisting.”
If Clinton wins the White House four years from now, “first woman president” will crown her list of “first” achievements.
In 1969, she was the first member of a graduating class at Wellesley women’s college to deliver the commencement address. Her criticism of the Vietnam war was covered by national media. Hillary earned more than her husband for 15 years before he became president. She was the first first lady to hold a postgraduate degree, the most travelled, and the first to be elected to public office – the Senate, in 2000 – while still living in the White House.
Clinton was also the first former first lady to become a cabinet member, breaking all records for travel as secretary of state. In the week the US began bombing Libya in March 2011, she clocked up 20,000 miles flying back and forth between Washington, Europe and the Middle East. The adjective most used to describe her is “tireless”.
It’s not uncommon to hear Americans say, “I wouldn’t have voted for Hillary in 2008, but I would vote for her today”.
“She hasn’t changed,” her friend stresses, as if annoyed by a fickle public. McAuliffe, too, is both galled and gratified by Clinton’s change of fortune.
“People now see her as I’ve seen her for 30 years,” he says. “Smart, energetic, funny, sweet, personable, outgoing, gracious, generous . . . The press tried to define her and her husband negatively. Now, through her tenure as secretary of state, people see the real Hillary Clinton.”
The Clintons started dating when both were students at Yale, 41 years ago. Their marriage continues to fascinate.
“It’s a mystery to a lot of people. It’s probably a mystery to them too,” jokes the friend, who compares Bill and Hillary to Franklin D and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Roosevelts stayed together while leading largely independent lives.
McAuliffe insists the marriage is more than a political and intellectual alliance rooted in shared ambition. “People go through tough times,” he says. “But you can tell they care so deeply about one another. My wife and I spent some time on vacation with them a couple of weeks ago. You know, you watch them walking down the beach, holding hands, and oh my goodness, yes: it’s love, affection, admiration, respect.”