Byline: Michael Tomasky
First lady, senator, secretary of state. How she became the most important woman in U.S. political history.
And now, as of this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes something she has not been in two decades: a private citizen. A mind-boggling thought, really, rich in amusingly prosaic implications. Will she drive a car? Is she going to pop up at the Safeway (you're supposed to bring your own bags now, Madame Secretary!) or be found standing in line at the Friendship Heights multiplex? She'll still have Secret Service protection, and she has more than enough money to send other people out on a CVS run. But even so, she is now, for the first time in a very, very long time, just one of us.
The images amuse because, of course, she's not just one of us. She's been the most famous and admired woman in America for 20 years. A December Gallup poll had her as the most admired woman in the world, and No. 2 on the list (Michelle Obama) wasn't remotely close. Not everyone is in on this love-fest, as we well know, by a long shot. But even the seething hatred has, over the years, embroidered her legend--debates about Clinton have somehow always ended up really being about us as a nation, who we are and who we want to be, in such a way that even those who dislike her are implicitly acknowledging that, yes, she is the touchstone.
She's the most important woman in America. More: she is almost certainly the most important woman in all of our political history. Already, even if this retirement proves to be permanent, which few people think it will be. No? Well, who, then? Who has been first lady, senator, secretary of state? No other woman, that's for sure. Not many men have held as many high-profile jobs and performed them as well.
And on top of the jobs themselves--in a way, far harder than the jobs themselves--was having to be that barrier breaker, having to be The Woman; the little daughter of a starchy Republican drapery-peddler who would cash in her Goldwater chips and whom fate would eventually select to embody liberation and insolence and cultural transformation, transformation that millions of Americans embraced but that a different set of millions found ruinous, repulsive; having to carry all that on her shoulders, year after year after year, watching people call her all kinds of names and accuse her of all manner of treachery (up to and including criminal behavior and sympathy with terrorists), all that on top of just the normal run-of-the-mill sexism, and knowing that she had to stay above it all and smile, smile, smile, and never take the bait? An impossible job. Who else has had to do all that?
Of course, there is Eleanor. Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian who has been a fierce Clinton supporter over the years, casts his vote for Clinton but notes that "without Roosevelt, Clinton would have been impossible." He nods, also, to the great female pioneers of the 19th century: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and the one I always thought might be Clinton's clearest antecedent, Frances Willard. But they, Wilentz notes, never had real power.
There are modern women who also never had official power but whose influence was vast--like Gloria Steinem, say. Or, on the right, Phyllis Schlafly--arguably, in my view, America's most influential conservative woman ever. These women changed American society in direct and immediate ways. Clinton, says NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein, hasn't quite: "I just don't see her laying out a new ideological or intellectual direction for the country, or putting forward a transformative vision."
Perhaps not. But Clinton has done something else: she has shown that women can wield official power and can do so with moral force equal to, and in some ways greater than, men. Mrs. Roosevelt did this, too, both through her influence on her husband, and with her own clout in the public square. She continued on, many people forget, as an important figure long after she left the White House, playing a key role in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and leading the reformers' wing of the Democratic Party in the 1950s and early 1960s.
For Columbia historian Alan Brinkley, it's a close call, but: "I do think that as a woman in government and politics, Clinton probably has been the most important woman in American politics--and may become more so. She was probably the second-most important person in the White House during Bill Clinton's presidency. She was one of the most important senators during the Bush years. And she has been one of the most powerful secretaries of state since Dulles."
To those of us who lived outside Arkansas, she came out of nowhere. I remember--it must have been 1991--when I was interviewing Harold Ickes about Bill Clinton. Ickes, then in New York, was known to journalists as the man who'd been introducing the Clintons around town. After singing Bill's praises for a while, he said, "And wait 'til you see his wife, Hillary. In some ways, she's even more impressive." I knew nothing. I still recall that when I wrote "Hillary" down in my notebook, I spelled it "Hilary." Until she came along, that was how the name was spelled.
It wasn't long before the double-l took over. She took off like a rocket. All of America did not endorse Ickes's enthusiasm. And she definitely made her mistakes. Came on too strong--that you-get-two-for-the-price-of-one business. That brassy Tammy Wynette putdown on 60 Minutes; who is this lady? She seemed to want to say: I am here, America; deal with me!
Just awakening at that point, unbeknownst to her and her husband, unbeknownst to nearly any of us yet: a cadre of vanguardists and propagandists dedicated to taking the country back to the days when the Hillarys knew their place. Rush Limbaugh had been on the air five years by 1993, but he'd had no Democratic president to flay. Now, with these Clintons in power, it was time to let it rip, for Limbaugh and the whole parade of imitators. In a refutation of trickle-down theory, the hysteria trickled up to respectable venues--the Times op-ed page, say, where Bill Safire made innumerable unhinged charges against the Clintons, Hillary especially, calling her a "congenital liar." And The New Republic, which published a blatantly inaccurate attack on her health-care proposal by a writer whom no one at that point had ever heard of and who has gone on to become one of the most self-discrediting political figures of our time.
Clinton was clearly unprepared for all this. The health-care defeat was chilling. She had to endure this little woodshed period of acting like she was passionate about historical preservation, trotting off to places like Edith Wharton's house and handing out plaques (her historical interests, she once told me in an interview, really extend back to ancient civilizations, marveling over questions like "How many generations it took to figure out what you boiled and put in the sun to cure a dread disease.")
Then, in incremental steps, she started writing her declaration of independence. The Beijing speech in 1995 ("human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights once and for all") marked her return to seriousness. This was her apotheosis as first lady, a powerful and substantive intervention in the real world--and one she undertook despite some fear within her husband's administration that she would do, well, precisely what she ended up doing.
But still, after health care she wasn't going to be handed any more meaty policy portfolios. And so she would have wound down the second term pretty uneventfully, until Jan. 21, 1998, when the world learned the name Monica Lewinsky.
This isn't the occasion to rehash all of that. What's important is how sturdy she was throughout that year. Pundits demanded she leave him, as if it was their business. Establishment Washington excoriated him and sniffed at her. Other women might have retreated. But it was just then--in fact, it was the very day the Senate voted to acquit her husband of the impeachment charges--that she sat down with Ickes to start plotting a career of her own.
That 2000 Senate campaign is when I started getting a firsthand look. She wasn't a good candidate at first. She was, I was told, a bundle of nerves that first day, when she appeared with Sen. Pat Moynihan at his farm. Murdoch's New York Post tried to kill her--the iconic cover with Clinton kissing Suha Arafat, and so much else. Clinton seemed downright afraid of Rudy Giuliani, New York City's swashbuckling mayor; he would poke fun at her, mock her, tie her to every loopy left-wing cause in town, and she would never even mention his name.
But in upstate New York, away from the city's bumptious glare, even when she was giving so-so speeches, I observed something else powerful going on. It was the look in women's eyes, and especially in their daughters' eyes, when they met her; waiting for hours, at a skating rink in Elmira I think it was, or a minor-league ballpark in Jamestown. How nervous they were, even overwhelmed, to meet her. How patient she was with every one of them, every last one of them, working those rope lines for hours and hours, posing for pictures, signing autographs--even obligingly signing some of those idiotic attack books, by Laura Ingraham and Peggy Noonan and so forth, if that's what people shoved under her, always smiling, smiling.
"What I've found most unique about Hillary," says Neera Tanden, head of the liberal think-tank the Center for American Progress and a longtime card-carrying Hillarylander, "is the almost weird connection people have to her. It's been that way since 1992, right at the beginning." This sounds like spin. But the other journalists following her around upstate and I saw it. It's true.
That race--winning a landslide in a state she'd never really had a thing to do with--is absolutely key to understanding her success. Not only did the "weird connection" manifest itself intensely, but she also became a real politician over the course of that campaign. Her own person, in public terms. Toward the end of the race, her opponent and the state's GOP were throwing everything at her, most of it having to do with Israel. She just handled it. It all backfired on them.
She wasn't in the Senate long enough to chair a powerful committee or have her name put on a piece of major legislation. But she worked extremely hard for New York. That includes, of course, the aftermath of 9/11, when she and fellow N.Y. senator Chuck Schumer fended off attempts by some Southern Republican senators to cut the city's funding. And it includes ceaseless diligence on behalf of upstate. Put it this way: after she won in 2000, Republicans swore they'd get her next time. But by 2006, no one serious could be persuaded to take her on. She won 57 of the state's 61 counties.
The presidential race? Her one failure. The one time in her career she did a very un-Hillary thing: she didn't prepare enough. Didn't ask every conceivable question. You could somehow see it in that opening video she shot, sitting on the couch, saying, "I'm in it to win it." It was a little arrogant. That's exactly what she was not in 2000. If she tries again, she will certainly remember this.
While her supporters were turning themselves into Obama-resenting PUMAs ("party unity, my ass") Clinton was doing, as she usually does, the right and responsible thing. She campaigned for Obama and delivered a terrific speech at the Denver convention, a speech aimed directly at those PUMAs and her other disappointed backers and making crystal clear to them what they had to do. "We are on the same team," she said of the Clinton and Obama camps, "and none of us can afford to sit on the sidelines." Clinton had the power, if she'd chosen to wield it, to hurt Obama in the general election--in the way she talked, in the little digs she might have let leak from her camp. But that isn't who she is. She put her ego on ice. As a Democratic senator during the Bush years, she had perspective and understood that getting the White House back was crucial.
Obama may have chosen her to be his secretary of state, as the cynics speculated, at least in part so as not to have the Clinton-Carville machinery subtly undermining him for four years. He got that, but he got much more besides.
In her White House and Senate years, Clinton's inner strength got her through the setbacks and controversies as she ultimately proved her critics wrong. Those traits that sustained her throughout all she endured--the steadiness, being the wise head in the room--turned out to be the perfect tools for her new job, at a time when a good portion of the world was literally in revolt. But something new happened, too. Now not the president's wife, and not a relatively junior senator, but the head of a huge agency, she really stepped into leadership with authority. "She's been something at the State Department that she never gets credit for," says Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton, who was Clinton's director of policy planning for the first two years. "And that is that she's really been a visionary. She is the first person to understand how foreign policy has changed in the 21st century, how foreign policy is conducted today not only with states, but with people."
Diplomacy just cannot be conducted today as it was by secretaries like George Marshall and Dean Acheson. There are so many more countries, so many more issues; so many more people in the developing world trying to assert themselves and shape their own destinies as they did not back then. Consider also the unprecedented tumult of Clinton's tenure: two U.S. wars, the dramatic bin Laden raid, the Arab spring and its continuing chaotic aftermath, the Iran confrontation, the various crises with China, the ongoing terrorist threat. These things can't be solved by four men from four great powers wearing morning clothes around a big oak table in Paris. As Clinton put it in her farewell speech, delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last Thursday: "Truman and Acheson were building the Parthenon with classical geometry and clean lines ... We do need a new architecture for this new world: more Frank Gehry than formal Greek."
Take Libya. It's understandably hard for most Americans to think of the Libya intervention as a great victory. However, it was absolutely a model of how diplomacy and intervention should happen in this multipolar world: a quick incursion, a light footprint, undertaken with regional backing. It was Clinton who lined that up, in a painstaking process. And then, crucially, she got Russia to agree not to quash the Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention. Whatever Libya's future holds, Muammar Gaddafi is gone, and Benghazi--well, before it became a fake Fox News "controversy," it's the place where thousands of lives were almost certainly saved. Clinton led the way in making it happen.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy adds that Clinton played crucial roles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan she supported the military buildup in 2009 while others like Vice President Biden were opposing it, and Riedel thinks her support was "probably decisive." Clinton also took a clear-eyed view of Pakistan. She learned a lot from Richard Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat who was Obama's special Pakistan envoy (he died in 2010 after collapsing in Clinton's office), but Riedel says that over time she "outgrew her tutor."
Riedel also credits her role in the bin Laden raid. It was really State's job, Riedel argues, to tell Pakistan that we'd found UBL. But of course, telling Pakistan where he was could well have meant that Pakistan would tell bin Laden, giving him time to leave. "The evidence is overwhelming that she felt there was no point," Riedel says; a slight breach of diplomacy but one "with which most of us would agree."
There's much more. Clinton's work on Burma helped bring that nation around to shedding its military dictatorship, and her two meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi signaled U.S. support for the notion that the famed dissident must play a central role in the country's future. In the "pivot to Asia," she made unprecedented overtures to the Pacific Rim states to counter China and secure America's role as a Pacific power.
She's launched a range of global initiatives as well (not limited to a particular country or region). The department's use of social media has expanded dramatically: as Clinton noted in her farewell speech, State runs its Twitter feed in 11 languages. Her Internet Freedom project, to establish programs that will promote technology and openness and fight censorship around the world, may prove to be the most enduring of these initiatives. Slaughter points to Clinton's speech on the subject in early 2010, when she invited six courageous Internet journalists from global hotspots to Washington and spoke in detail about how only technology could conquer today's Berlin Walls of oppression, as a true highlight. "That was the one time," Slaughter says, "I really felt I was touching history."
But it's in the area that has been her longest-held passion--that of the hardships faced by women and girls across the world--that her impact has been most profound. What she started in Beijing in 1995 she picked up with brio at State. She persuaded Obama to let her create an ambassador-at-large position for women's issues, and she gave it to her capable aide-de-camp Melanne Verveer, who worked for her back in the White House days.
Across the world, in diverse and deeply reactionary cultures, Clinton and Verveer have spoken and fought to liberalize attitudes on women's role in the economy, girls' schooling, women's health, domestic violence, issues arising from war and conflict, and myriad other concerns. "I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century," Clinton told Newsweek in 2011. "We see women and girls across the world who are oppressed and violated and demeaned and degraded and denied so much of what they are entitled to as our fellow human beings."
Verveer today recalls many powerful moments, such as the testimonial from Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, who spoke to the secretary after a meeting with women and girls in her country, "And Tawakkul said, 'Mrs. Clinton, the women in this country were asleep,'" Verveer recalls. "'Today, they are awake and are not about to go back to sleep.'" Right before Clinton (and Verveer) left office, Obama signed an order making the women's position permanent, a testament to its effectiveness and importance.
"I know what it's like," Clinton said at CFR, "when that blue and white airplane emblazoned with the words 'United States of America' touches down in some far-off capital and I get to feel the great honor and responsibility it is to represent the world's indispensable nation." She expanded and changed the indispensable nation's mission in an astonishing number of ways.
The other thing about her State years is that they took her out of politics. Just think: without that appointment, she'd likely still be in the Senate (she'd have been up for reelection last year), still be daily throwing her body into that unseemly scrum. Instead, she has spent four years as a stateswoman rather than taking positions on every issue under the sun and maybe losing her patience with some of her Tea Party-ish colleagues. The Republican National Committee couldn't attack her to raise money. And she no longer had to be on every day for the Washington circus-masters. This author of dozens of different hairstyles over the years started clearly spending no more than five minutes on her hair. She put on glasses again, just like in the Wellesley days.
She's sitting down to write a book, and what else, no one quite knows. Intimates say that it's true she isn't really sure about 2016. If she does it, it's hard to see how the nomination won't be hers for the asking. And if the economy is good and the Republicans are still crazy, she'd have to be thought the odds-on favorite.
But even if that doesn't happen, she has been one of the most remarkable Americans of our time. In the 20 years she's been on the stage, the country has gone from wondering whether women could handle the toughest jobs to knowing they can. That is a huge cultural change--barriers that were a given for most people a generation ago are just completely socially unacceptable now, and thousands more women know they can aim for the top. No one is more responsible for that change than Hillary Clinton.
Michael Tomasky is special correspondent for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.