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.”
Clinton has been the most popular woman in the world in Gallup polls for 16 of the past 19 years. Forbes magazine calls her the second most powerful woman in the world, after Angela Merkel. She’s the most popular member of Obama’s cabinet, with approval ratings in the high 60s.
Books have been written about Clinton as a “polarising figure”. Yet she no longer polarises. In 1995, the New York Times writer Todd Purdum called her “the Rorschach test first lady,” after the ink blots whose interpretation is supposed to define one’s personality. Clinton herself, and a slew of commentators, have seen public reaction to her as an indicator of society’s attitude towards women.
As the United States became more accepting of empowered women, Clinton mellowed. Public and stateswoman grew accustomed to one another. Twenty years ago, when Bill stood for the presidency, conservatives described Hillary as “the Lady Macbeth of Little Rock [the capital of Arkansas”]. Today, Republican critics such as Prof Feaver give her the highest marks in Obama’s cabinet and say she’s a good secretary of state, if not a great one.
Clinton’s election to the US Senate in 2000 seemed to liberate her. She started showing her sense of humour in her 2003 autobiography, Living History, in which she described her own laugh – which the press call a cackle – as “the same big rolling guffaw that can . . . send cats running from the room”.
At the 2010 American Ireland Fund gala, Clinton delivered a gentle putdown to an effusive buildup by her then economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Declan Kelly. “Thank you Declan. You have once again proven the truth of one of my husband’s rules of politics,” she deadpanned. “Always be introduced by someone you have appointed to high office.” The audience erupted in laughter.
Diplomats give Clinton rave reviews. “She’s had an open door into the State Department for Ireland,” says Ambassador Michael Collins. “I can’t tell you how important that is and has been, not just for people from Dublin, but also for people from Northern Ireland, all of whom she has made very, very welcome there. This hasn’t always been like that.”
Collins credits Clinton with being the first secretary of state to make an official, bilateral visit to Dublin, helping to resolve the last difficulties in the Northern Ireland peace process, holding an investment conference for Northern Ireland and partnering with Ireland on development projects.
Joao Vale de Almeida, the European Union’s ambassador, discounts reports that the Obama administration has neglected Europe to execute its “pivot” to Asia.
“On the contrary, in the two years I’ve been here, the transatlantic relationship has grown closer,” he says. In particular, de Almeida praises the “very good personal chemistry” between Clinton and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy. “They meet, talk on the phone and exchange text messages quite often.”
Clinton has endeavoured to forge the sort of relationship with Asia that the US constructed with Europe in the decades following the second World War. Last year, she was the first US secretary of state to visit Burma in 56 years – she met again with Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this week – and she obtained the harshest sanctions yet against Iran.
Democrats and diplomats attribute the total absence of movement towards peace between Israel and Palestinians to Obama’s need to secure re-election, and hope he’ll do better in a second term.
Although Clinton bridled at the nickname “Amazons”, she and several women prominent in the Obama administration reportedly persuaded the president to intervene to avert a massacre in Libya.
When Cairo rose up against its pharaoh, Clinton called the Mubarak regime “stable” 17 days before it fell. She and Obama have been stymied by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to leave power.
Clinton nonetheless looked likely to leave office on a high note, until riots broke out across the Arab and Muslim world and several US diplomatic posts were breached this month.
“The people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia did not trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob,” she said when the remains of the murdered US diplomats were returned. Yet it was unclear what the US could or would do to counter “the tyranny of the mob”.
Officials are braced for a long period of Arab unrest, while it’s become apparent that, despite pious wishes for democracy in the Middle East, the US lost influence – and control – with the fall of the dictators. Clinton risks being blamed for that unsolved conundrum.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON ON...
“It is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights . . . Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
(As first lady, to the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995)
“Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side-by-side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.”
(International Crisis Group’s awards ceremony, 2012)
HER NEW-FOUND POPULARITY
“I’ve just been around now a long time. There’s a certain consistency to who I am and what I do, and I think people have finally said, ‘Well, you know, I kinda get her now’. I’ve actually had people say that to me.”
THE MONICA LEWINSKY SCANDAL “As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill’s neck. But he was not only my husband, he was also my president.”
(Her 2003 autobiography, Living History)
WHY SHE STAYED WITH BILL
“No one understands me better and no one can make me laugh the way Bill does. Even after all these years he is still the most interesting, energising and fully alive person I have ever met.”
“Of all the jobs I’ve had, sliming fish was pretty good preparation for life in Washington.” (Living History)
HER PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
“I’m in, and I’m in to win.”
GIVING UP THE CAMPAIGN
“Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before.”
“Peace may be officially established by a vote or an agreement, but it is the real life experiences of people day after day and year after year that cement it, that create what de Tocqueville called the habits of the heart.”
(American Ireland Fund gala, March 2010)
“Gay rights are human rights. It should never be a crime to be gay.”
(The UN, Geneva, December 2011)
THE DEATHS OF FOUR US DIPLOMATS
“So we will wipe away our tears, stiffen our spines, and face the future undaunted. And we will do it together, protecting and helping one another . . .”
(Transfer of Remains Ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, September 14, 2012)
A life transformed by the Clintons
SHARON HAUGHEY WAS a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Armagh when then president, Bill, and first lady, Hillary Clinton, visited Belfast in December 1995.
“It was the first time a US president or anybody of such a high profile had come to Northern Ireland,” Haughey (pictured below with Clinton) says. “For too many years, nobody wanted to know about our Troubles.”
The Haughey family watched the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony on television. Sharon describes them: “A stay-at-home mum who brought us up. Daddy was a construction labourer who was unemployed a lot. We lived in a housing estate.
“When Bill Clinton said, ‘This is a letter from Sharon in Armagh,’ my family were laughing and joking, ‘It’s you, Sharon,’ as he started to quote me in his speech. And I said, ‘It is me’,” Haughey recalls. She hadn’t been sure Clinton had received her letter, which was prompted by the murder of her mother’s cousins, the three Reavey brothers, in White Cross. Masked gunmen shot them in their beds. “They were innocent victims. The only way they were identified as Catholics was they played for the local GAA club. I had seen too many things I didn’t want for the future of our country.”
The White House asked Haughey to introduce the Clintons onstage when they visited Armagh in 1998. It was Hillary who reassured a nervous Haughey, then 17, before she delivered her speech. The US president asked, ‘Is your family here?’ “He said, ‘Go and gather them up and bring them because I want to meet them.’ At no point did I ever feel rushed with them. They spent a lot longer than I ever would have expected, and the fact they stayed in touch with me until now shows the mark of them as people. This wasn’t just a PR stunt for them.”
The Monica Lewinsky scandal had just broken. Journalists kept asking the Irish teenager what the Clintons’ relationship was like. “I really wasn’t interested in that,” Haughey says. “President Clinton did so much good for Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular, for the peace process. I felt that whatever was going on in his personal life was between him and Hillary to sort out. But for me, that didn’t take away from the good he had done in Ireland.”
Haughey says Hillary “played a very important role and carved out a unique agenda for herself during these visits. She put the spotlight on ordinary, working class women. People were saying, ‘We want peace. We want lasting peace.’ It was the power of the people that made peace possible.”
Inspired by the Clintons, Haughey joined the SDLP in the late 1990s. In 2003, after a degree in communications, advertising and marketing at the University of Ulster, she was selected by the Washington Ireland Program for one of 30 annual internships and ended up in Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s office.
Kevin Sullivan, the current chair of the WIP, says Bill Clinton had to overcome the objections of the Secret Service to Hillary Clinton having WIP interns in the White House. She continued the tradition on Capitol Hill, hosting eight WIP interns in her eight years as a senator from New York. Hillary’s staffers assigned Haughey to relations with Irish-American constituents and Irish matters in Congress. Clinton “would come and go in the office, and she had such a presence about her. She was always so well dressed and turned out. Whenever she walked into the room, everybody’s eyes would be on her,” Haughey says.
Clinton took time out of a demanding schedule to meet dozens of American interns working for her, as well as WIP scholars assigned to the supreme court, law firms and other congressmen. “I was very aware that Chelsea would have been a year or so older than me,” Haughey says. “When she looked at this group of young people, she was probably thinking of her own daughter.”
Haughey returned to Armagh and won a seat on the local council in 2005. In 2007, she stood for the Northern Ireland Assembly. “Unfortunately, I just didn’t make it,” she says. But like her mentor and role model, Haughey will not give up. Hillary quoted Haughey’s now famous 1995 letter to Bill on receiving an award from the American Ireland Fund in March 2010: “Both sides have been hurt. Both sides will have to forgive,” the schoolgirl had written.
Last June, Armagh was accorded a Lord Mayor’s office in honour of Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee. “It’s a big profile for Armagh because only three Irish cities – Belfast, Dublin and Cork – had it,” Haughey says proudly.
The Lord Mayor is none other than herself, Sharon Haughey, now 31. And she wants her old friends, Hillary and Bill, to return to Armagh before she gives up the title next June.