Photo by Annie Leibovitz/Vogue
As Obama's surprise (and reluctant) pick for Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton brings her star power and stamina to the global stage.
(Jonathan Van Meter reports. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.)
It is a dreary morning in early October in Washington, D.C., and perhaps because Hillary Rodham Clinton is wearing a black Oscar de la Renta suit on such a colorless day, she seems somber. I had trailed her for nearly two weeks this summer in Africa and then again in New York during the United Nations General Assembly, and I had grown accustomed to seeing her in the vivid suits she favors. Africa is nothing if not colorful, and so not only did bright red or teal or periwinkle seem situation-appropriate, but her clothes somehow matched her demeanor, which was almost uniformly cheerful. Sometimes the color/mood connection was made overt: One morning, as her motorcade arrived at the U.N. for a panel on violence against women and girls, she stepped out of a shiny black luxury sedan in a red suit and was met by Esther Brimmer, her Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, also wearing red. "Good morning, Esther," said Clinton. "I see you got the color memo."
Today's memo? Not today. When she walks into one of the many grand diplomatic reception rooms on the eighth floor of "the Building," as everyone calls the State Department, she is clutching a big mug of milky coffee and is wearing no makeup. She looks tired and cranky. She is about to tape three I'm-sorry-I-can't-be-with-you-here-this-evening videos for events she can't attend. This is obligatory drudge work, to be sure, but it's drudgery that requires her to suck it up and find that extra gear: She must be on. Clinton says hello to the group—not her usual effervescent eye-popping hello but a barely mustered blanket nicety. She sits where she is told, facing a teleprompter, and her ever-present and very chic deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin, hands her a small case filled with cosmetics. Holding a compact, Clinton puts on mascara, lipstick, blush, and a little powder. She yanks her jacket straight, affixes her mic, and signals she is ready by sitting up and staring directly into the camera. And—click!—just like that, the public Hillary appears: upbeat, reassuring, in control, wide awake, means business. She nails all three videos in one take. Done. Next.
She walks into the adjoining ballroom, where she has been keeping Katie Couric waiting, and sits down to do a lengthy and tough interview on the war in Afghanistan and President Obama's agonizing decision-making process. Not surprisingly, her mastery of the issues is dazzling. Even Couric is blown away. In fact, Clinton is so clearheaded on the subject, so eloquent, that it raises the question: Why hasn't Hillary Clinton been more out in front on the most troubling foreign-policy issues of the day?
During the first several months of Clinton's tenure, there were a lot of raised eyebrows over the fact that she seemed to have a weirdly low profile for the highest-ranking member of the president's Cabinet and the leading spokesperson for the nation's foreign policy. Some even suggested that it was the administration's intention, or that her power was somehow diminished by the fact that there were so many special envoys: Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan/Pakistan, Dennis Ross for Iran, and George Mitchell for the Middle East. "It's just dead wrong," says Madeleine Albright, who reminds me that appointing the envoys was Clinton's idea. "This is the thing that people have to understand about her. She is not into 'I have to be the one front and center.' She wants to solve the problem!"
In recent months, much of the grumbling has dissipated as she has recovered from an unfortunately timed broken elbow, gotten her bearings in the job (Ross has since left his Iran posting, allowing Clinton to take the lead with that crisis), and appeared on television with greater regularity. Although it is still hard to get the real measure of her success, her initial accomplishments and dedication to the president are compelling people to see her in a new light. From her first trip, to Asia in February, through the more than 30 countries she has visited since, Clinton has at the very least proved how focused and indefatigable she is; and while there may not have been much on the line in Africa, her itinerary just underscored the point. "You could define the trip by what she didn't do," says Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs. "No sightseeing, no museums, no shopping." There's also the fact that so many Clinton-administration veterans are on the national-security team, folks like Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross. More recently, her biggest triumph to date came during her moment of "limousine diplomacy," when she saved the Turkey/Armenia accord at the last minute. Still, over time she is going to "need a big win that's all hers," says someone who has covered Clinton for years.
But there is one other thing that lends her an aura of success, an echo from her days in the Senate: She plays well with others, especially older Republican men. The night before the Couric grilling, she did a rare joint interview with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates onstage in an auditorium at George Washington University; it aired as an hour-long CNN special. At the beginning of the interview, Gates marveled over how well the two get along. "You know, most of my career, the Secretary of State and Defense weren't speaking to one another," he said. He chalked up their fruitful partnership to his own deference to Clinton's rank. "I think it starts with the Secretary of Defense being willing to acknowledge that the Secretary of State is the principal spokesperson for United States foreign policy. Once you get over that hurdle, the rest kind of falls into place."
The evening was a reminder of something about Clinton: She is tough—more hawkish than most liberals; she's comfortable with war talk in a boys'-club environment. "I think Hillary now prides herself on the fact that she's part of the gravitas team," says Chuck Todd, the NBC News chief White House correspondent. "Her, Joe Biden, Bob Gates…the over-60 crowd." But it was also a reminder of something else: She is a rock star. Students camped out in line for hours to get tickets to the event, which sold out in minutes. When she first appeared onstage the audience leaped to their feet, and the applause was deafening. "They weren't cheering Bob Gates," said a fellow in uniform sitting next to me. And despite the gravity of the occasion, a young woman bellowed at the top of her lungs, "I love you, Hilllllary!!!!," as if she were at a Lady Gaga concert. Seeming to acknowledge her superstar status, Clinton made a crack at the very end of the proceedings, saying that Gates had served most of his 43 years in public service "in secret" (referring to his CIA days). "And I have no secrets." The crowd roared with laughter.
The Harry S. Truman Building, where the State Department is housed, is a monstrosity—a huge lump of stone and glass that overwhelms and defines the Washington neighborhood of Foggy Bottom. Built in the late thirties, it occupies 2.1 million square feet and houses some 8,000 employees and has 43 elevators. The interior has all the charm of a psychiatric hospital. So when the elevator door opens onto the eighth floor—Hillary Clinton's new supersize domain—I am surprised by the grandeur, so at odds with the rest of the building. It's no White House, but it sure beats the Russell Senate Office Building.
I am relieved to hear that our interview will be held over lunch in a private dining room, the Madison Room, along with Huma Abedin and her Michael Clayton-esque image man and fixer, Philippe Reines. She will be taking her time eating, unrushed. As we sit down, Clinton tells me that she had the furniture rearranged in this room when she arrived at State so that the table would be closer to the window. "The best view in Washington," she says, and she is right. When we stepped out onto the loggia earlier, just as the sun was coming out, to take in the sweeping vista from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, I got crazy-patriotic-spooky seat-of-power goose bumps.
After a bit of spirited chitchat about the TV show Mad Men ("That's how it was!" she says. "That's why the women's-liberation movement was so shocking. It was like news from outer space") and some ill-advised foreign-policy questions on my part, which seemed to bore her, Clinton's mood turned on a dime as soon as I shifted the focus to her—her life and her feelings. When I ask her if she can walk me through her career from First Lady, senator, and presidential candidate to Secretary of State, in terms of level of difficulty, job satisfaction, and public scrutiny, she lets out an amazing peal of high-pitched giggles. "They are such different experiences!" she says, still laughing. "It's like looking at this fruit salad. Do I like peaches better than I like plums better than kiwis?" But then, like the lawyer she was trained to be, she answers me, going through each of the stages of her hugely public life, methodically, clearly, succinctly. But when she gets to the Secretary of State part, she surprises me.
"I was stunned after the election when President Obama asked me to consider this," she says. "I really was very unconvinced. I did not think it was the right thing to do. I didn't want to do it. I just really had a lot of doubts, and I kept suggesting other people: Well, how about this person! How about that person! This one would be really good! But then a friend of mine called me and basically said, 'How would you have felt if you'd been elected and you'd called him and asked him to do this?' And that really made a big impression on me. How do you say no? And so…I said yes. And here I am." She laughs and picks up her fork and stabs a kiwi out of her fruit salad and pops it in her mouth.
I ask whether she knew that Obama was going to invite her to join his administration. "Philippe kept saying, 'He's going to offer you Secretary of State.' I said, 'Philippe, that is ridiculous! It is absurd.' " "I witnessed it," says Huma.
"You witnessed it," says Clinton, shaking her head in disbelief.
"Not going to happen, not in a million years," says Philippe, gently mocking his boss's reaction at the time.
"Not going to happen," says Clinton.
"Fun days," says Philippe.
"For you, maybe," says Clinton with a mordant laugh.
As Clinton's staffers later tell me, this is the short version of the story. The long version—a drama that unfolded over about ten days—says a lot about Clinton's state of mind after the election. It is a story that has not been given a full airing until now, and one that requires that we go back for a moment, to what was one of the most exciting—and competitive—presidential primaries in U.S. history.
The Clinton folks say that there were some ugly moments during the campaign that really stung, things that were hard to forgive, but, says one staffer, "far fewer than you would think. The campaigns, especially the hierarchies, disliked each other far more intensely than the candidates ever did." Obama reportedly chided his staff for making fun of Clinton when she cried in New Hampshire: "Give her a break. You don't know what it's like." Another person said this: "She was a pain in the ass, taking him the distance, but she definitely made him a better candidate. And the truth is, it's that very attribute of not getting out, that resiliency, that doggedness that he saw—that's what led him to pick her. If she had left the race any earlier, I don't think she'd be Secretary of State." (On her desk at the State Department is a plaque inscribed with Winston Churchill's famous admonition: NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP.)
Hillary ended her candidacy in June and began campaigning for Obama, often with Bill. Even so, according to Clinton staffers, until the convention a lot of bad blood remained between the camps. It has been reported that it had been a nagging part of the VP-selection process for the Democrats. Obama would say, "Are we thinking enough about Hillary? Why are we dismissing her?" But there were simply too many raw feelings. Last year in early August, when I interviewed senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in her Chicago office (where she had pointedly taken down her Clinton photos), she described the political marriage as "one big happy family." Really? "I mean that! All will be…all is improving dramatically. I think both Barack and Michelle have had wonderful conversations with Senator Clinton, and she's pledged to be helpful, and he's pledged to help her with her debt. But it was a tough primary. And it was long."
At the convention in Denver, Clinton gave the speech of her life and then went down on the floor and, in a very emotional moment, called off voting, convincingly throwing her weight behind Obama. "She was sucking it up," says one of her aides. "She was doing what was right for the party and for the country. And it was so transparent. You couldn't ascribe any other motive to it." One staffer was with her in Denver when she bumped into Michelle Obama the day after her speech. "And Michelle said, 'That was great,' and they had a little moment. After that, they started to speak. Say whatever you want to say about the Clintons, but they are poster parents for successfully raising a child in the White House, and I think they started talking on that basis: I have kids; we have to uproot them." (In September, Michelle and Hillary shared their first meal at the White House. "I had lunch with her in the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, and we talked as we have in the past about how her girls were doing and getting adjusted and how the dog was doing, all the day-to-day matters of life," Clinton told me. "But we also talked about what she was doing to encourage better life habits, particularly around eating and exercise, which I think is a big deal. I think it's a very good cause for her to champion." When I ask Clinton what she thinks of Michelle's supporting young fashion designers, she says, "She can carry it off and she enjoys it, so more power to her.")
Once Clinton recovered from the disappointment of losing, she became genuinely excited about returning to the Senate. Even more, she was looking forward to going "home," as she told me. But just a few days after Obama's election, Clinton aides started hearing rumblings—from reporters and people connected to Obama's transition team—that the president was going to ask Clinton to be his Secretary of State. When they told her, she just laughed. Nonsense! And then over the weekend the rumblings turned to "credible intelligence," as one person put it. Clinton spoke to the president briefly that Sunday evening, but she remained unconvinced, partly because all he said to her was "I want to talk to you" and partly because of a misunderstanding between their schedulers that suggested a lack of urgency. So when Clinton flew to Chicago that Thursday and was offered the job, she was, as she says, "stunned."
"Even during the toughest part of the primary he told me how much he respected her," says Valerie Jarrett. "Early on in the primary I had a sense that if things worked out favorably for him, he would want to have her close."
Clinton now had to decide—quickly—whether she wanted the job, whether she could take on the job, and there were some major sticking points. For one, her campaign had been $24 million in debt. Clinton had written off the $13 million she had lent the campaign, and after raising donations she was left with another $10 million that had to be retired—a very tall order. Were she to become Secretary of State, she would be forbidden by law to campaign on her own behalf, and the best asset she had for extinguishing the debt was herself. The other impediment to Clinton's confirmation was her husband's foundation work. As one staffer told me, "The press made it about conflict of interest and their work overlapping. The truth is, she didn't want any of his good works to have to be scaled back because of what she was doing. I wasn't there, but President Clinton said something to her like 'The good you will do as Secretary of State will more than outweigh whatever work I have to cut back on.' "
All of these hand-wringing calculations took place in the span of a few days, and for various reasons—those mentioned above, others known only to herself—Clinton wavered daily. This seesaw effect created what was described to me as a "boys against the girls" dynamic among her advisers. Reines and Andrew Shapiro, her foreign-affairs adviser in the Senate, were pushing her to take the job, reportedly through occasional "E-mails that bordered on the disrespectful," someone told me. On the other side were the women who have been Clinton's most trusted advisers for years: Maggie Williams, Cheryl Mills, who is now her chief of staff, and Capricia Marshall, all urging her not to accept.
Each time Clinton wavered, Obama would talk her through it again. "At the end of the day," says one of her aides, "it was the president who sold her on it. He didn't delegate it." Says another staffer, "They started talking about it substantively, looking around the globe, and they were basically in the same place. The things they disagreed about in the campaign? We didn't believe he was actually going to have coffee with Ahmadinejad. It was something he shouldn't have said in the campaign, and we pounced on it. The tiny differences in their foreign-policy ideas during the primaries evaporated during the general election."
But as the hours ticked by, it was becoming increasingly obvious to her staff that Clinton wasn't going to accept. Out of desperation and knowing that Joe Biden was "gung ho" about the idea of Clinton as Secretary of State, Reines and Shapiro lied to their boss that it was Biden's birthday (it was actually the next day) so that she would call him and he might sway her at the eleventh hour. They were throwing the kitchen sink at her, I was told, "grasping at straws."
Reines and Shapiro went to bed Wednesday night thinking she was getting ready to call the president to say she wasn't going to do it. "We went to work Thursday not just preparing for the worst but prepared," says Reines. "There was a statement. Waiting to push the button. And every minute that went by that it didn't happen, the air was coming out of it. And then you could just tell by mid-morning, something had changed. I remember Maggie Williams called. Huma said, 'This is crazy!,' which I could just tell, knowing Huma, that it was something big. And then Maggie called me and said, 'So there's been a little development…. ' " Clinton had decided to accept.
What finally changed her mind? "Obama wouldn't take no for an answer, and he was just very smart with her," says one of her aides. "He talked about it from the right place in the right way, helping her imagine what it would be like. And she said, OK, well, let's think about it some more. Eventually he was successful at convincing her. He would not let her off the hook. Knowing her and having worked with her—that button got pushed, that we-need-you-to-serve-your-country button."
The Secretary of State's plane is no Air Force One, but it's a pretty sweet ride. A reconfigured U.S. Air Force Boeing 757 that seats about 40 passengers, it is outfitted with a cabin for the secretary that is both an office and a bedroom. (Everyone wants to know: How does she do it? Turns out Clinton is a champion sleeper: She naps on command; she is impervious to jet lag.) Behind her cabin there is a secure first class-like cabin for her top staffers; this is followed by a cabin for diplomats and distinguished guests, and another where her secondary staff sit, including a traveling doctor (on this trip, a woman from Texas who looks like Jean Stapleton) and Clinton's interpreter, an eccentric little man who seems to speak every language known to mankind. And then behind that, there is a cabin for the diplomatic security team; then, in the very back, in the last few rows, the press, who are the only people on the plane who have to sit in coach seats three across—which, on this trip, an arduous twelve-day slog through seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa, means 21,496 miles. In coach.
Not surprisingly, the ten members of the traveling press are both the most fun people on the plane and the crankiest people on the plane. They also drink more, smoke more, eat more. And complain more. And obsess about what Hillary is wearing more. And discuss her good- and bad-hair days more. But most of all, they spin out theories about the imagined dynamics of Hillary's relationships with the two most important men in her life: Bill and Barack.
Our landing in Kenya—the homeland of Barack Obama's father—could not have been more perfectly scripted to drive this group bananas. Just as we are about to touch down after traveling for nearly seventeen hours, everyone's BlackBerrys glow to life, and all at once they are greeted with the news that Bill Clinton is in North Korea meeting with Kim Jong Il, negotiating the release of the two now-famous prisoners Euna Lee and Laura Ling. They are aghast. How could he? He's stealing Hillary's thunder! Obama had to have signed off on this! The timing is atrocious! Right at the beginning of her biggest trip as Secretary of State! Or so it goes in the back of the plane. But in some ways, the press reaction is all that counts, and in their world the upstaging is instantaneous and total.
There seems to be consensus among the reporters about something else: All of the worst things and all of the best things about being Hillary Clinton are in play as she leads the State Department into a new era. Many people, not just this group, think her Clinton baggage is a distraction, as evidenced by the fixation on Bill's North Korea trip. (This was also one of the worries many had about her becoming president.) Hill and Bill are ostensibly the first presidential couple to come of age in the OK! magazine era: We obsess over every scrap about their private lives in the same bizarre, compulsive way we do with Brad and Angelina.
In Africa, where Clinton has been on long multicountry trips three times in fifteen years, she is practically a deity. (The fact that she wrote a huge best-seller, It Takes a Village, based on an African concept does not hurt.) "I love the vitality and energy of the people of Africa, almost despite the circumstances that many of them find themselves facing," she tells me. "I'm absolutely engrossed in the fact that we all came from Africa. I find that just an amazing thought. I like the positive energy that a lot of people are projecting. But I also recognize that in some of the places we visited, you really are on the thin veil of what's best and what's worst about us as human beings."
As her 24-car motorcade sped through Nairobi, thousands lined the streets. Adoring crowds of women—dancing, singing, ululating, and holding handmade signs expressing their gratitude—were present at nearly every stop. Both of the Clintons are beloved across much of the continent, but it was the women turning up to touch Hillary who were so moving. I asked one woman in Cape Town why she loved Hillary Clinton. "Because she is an African woman," she said. "She stayed with her husband, she works hard, and she keeps her family together."
One of the refrains I kept hearing from reporters was Condi would never do this. Clinton, a woman from politics, knows how to work a crowd. Sometimes her motorcade would arrive and she would jump out and just plunge right in, getting out ahead of her security team, who often looked a little panicked. She danced her funky little dance at the dinners held in her honor (as seen on YouTube). In Cape Town, she threw a party for the press and drank with the best of us, talking for more than two hours, into the night, with surprising off-the-record candor about everything from her husband to her disdain for certain world leaders. She's fun. She laughs at herself. And she is full of surprisingly sharp, pointy little retorts, barbs, and comebacks. On several occasions she drifted to the back of the plane, allowing zesty debates to flower, often asking, "What's your take?" of different reporters, who hung on her every word. One of them told me his opinion of Hillary had completely turned around: "My parents hated her, and I thought she was a bitch who surrounded herself with horrible people. But she's nice! She's really frank and blunt and funny. One time she said to me, 'We need China.' Condi would never do that. I like her." Condoleezza Rice, I was told, almost never even came out of her cabin.
At one point I tell Clinton about the Condi-would-never-do-this mantra. "I don't know," she says with a look of distaste at the whole concept. "I think it's important in these jobs to be yourself. I believe very much in people-to-people diplomacy, getting beyond the leaders. I went to Uzbekistan about twelve years ago, and the then-ruler, Islam Karimov, who is still the ruler, was fascinated by my husband. He kept saying, 'Well, I see him on TV, he's always making speeches, he's always shaking hands. What's he doing?' I said, 'Well, that's a democracy, President Karimov. He works for the people, so you go out and see the people.' A lot of the people in some of the countries we've been in, they're not unabashed fans of the U.S., but you've got to reach out. You pick up all kinds of senses and feelings from doing that."
Does being a Clinton help?
"It helps enormously. Around the world, people will say, 'I remember when your husband came' or 'We haven't really made any progress since your husband was here.' There's just a lot of very positive feedback. It's a great door opener. And I have political experience that enables me to look at a leader and say, 'I understand your political problems. I've been in politics. I've had to run for election.' So when a leader tells me that he can't do something because a certain group wouldn't like it, I say, 'But that's what politics is about.' Look at what President Obama did. He organized from the grass roots; he created a political organization. That's what you have to do."
This was Clinton's message all over Africa: Stop complaining and get organized. It was a tough-love message delivered most forcefully (and successfully) in Kenya, in private with the leaders of the country; and she delivered it at the University of Nairobi, where the crowds outside were perhaps the biggest of the entire trip and where the students inside received the message with enthusiasm. In that auditorium, I was struck by Clinton's tone. It sounded like a speech that only a mother could give. Clinton has this innate ability to be almost but not quite hectoring, the sort of "Come on, get your act together, let's go!" that mothers deliver to children so effectively. Perhaps some countries are prepared to hear certain things only from a woman?
"It's a really interesting question," says Clinton. "In our country, having had Secretary Albright and Secretary Rice and now my filling this position, it's no big deal, having a woman do the job. But in much of the rest of the world there is a strong message. You can go to some countries and there's not a woman in the room. They don't even make the effort to give me the token woman minister. None. But whether it's true or fair, when women get elected to office, they believe they are imposing a different mind-set on the political and business climate of their countries. There's a lot of evidence that women are more focused on the future, more willing to see investments actually deliver results. And in lots of African countries the honorific for women is 'Mama.' So I had lots of people say to me, 'Mama, what about this; Mama, what about that?' "
There is a corollary to this aspect of Clinton that I noticed in Africa: She mothers the people around her. Janine Zacharia, a reporter for Bloomberg News, had burned herself while cooking a couple of days before the trip. As soon as Clinton saw her bandaged hand she made a fuss, asked her what happened, and wanted to know if she had everything she needed to take care of it. Another time, we were in Goma, in eastern Congo, at an outdoor press conference, and I was getting scorched under the hot sun. While Clinton was speaking, I tried to stealthily move under a tree for shade. When she was finished, she stepped off the stage and walked up to me. "Where's your hat?" she said, sounding just like my mother. "I forgot it," I said sheepishly. "Well, we'll get you one. Someone get Jonathan a hat!" On another occasion, I had foolishly eaten a salad in Liberia, and Clinton heard I was in my hotel room, very ill. The phone rang: "The secretary would like us to bring you some Cipro." A few minutes later her physician appeared at my door with drugs. She handed me the Cipro and another pill given to chemo patients so that they can stop vomiting long enough to take more drugs. "This stuff is very expensive," she said in her Texas drawl, "but we made sure to always travel with it ever since Bush, the father, puked all over the prime minister in Japan. I said, 'Not on my watch.' " After the doctor left, an aide appeared. "The secretary asked me to bring you this." It was a Sprite and a few slices of white bread.
There were so many strange and sublime moments on this trip: a woman farmer in a cornfield outside Nairobi squealing with delight when she met Clinton, "I am one of the women you speak about all the time! You are meeting me! And I have met Hillary Clinton!" A handshake from Sheikh Sharif, the president of Somalia, that clearly moved Clinton. "He was very touching," she says. "He had immense dignity, coming to me publicly, a representative of both the United States and a woman." A moment in Pretoria when a reporter asked the South African minister of foreign affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane (who oddly enough looked a bit like Clinton in her robust bearing and bright colors), what has changed about South Africa's relations with the United States and she shot back with an edge in her voice, "The zeal and passion that Hillary Clinton brings to the relationship is what has changed!" Clinton speaking to a group of African businessmen: "Because people are poor doesn't mean that they don't have any money."
The most extraordinary day of the entire trip was a testament to this very idea, what Clinton calls "smart power," and it is something she is very passionate about: that the micro-economies of the poor are deeply important, and when the so-called soft issues—violence against women, food safety and agriculture, sustainable development—are not tended to, the result is chaos, instability, conflict, and war. The Victoria Mxenge housing development, a project outside Cape Town started by a few homeless women who were living on the side of the road with their children, has grown through microloans into a sprawling 50,000-home development. Clinton had visited as First Lady in 1997 and then brought President Clinton back a year later. When her motorcade arrived there on a glorious Saturday afternoon, she was met by a ragtag brass band that had a New Orleans vibe, women ululating at the top of their lungs, choral singers, and dancers, and it all added up to an explosion of joy—a happy chaos. Hundreds of people behind barricades screamed and pushed and reached out to touch Clinton as she ran along the line; some of the women were in tears. One of them yelled, "It is so nice to see you again!" Clinton was ebullient. Caroline Adler, a young State Department staffer, said, "She gets crowds wherever she goes. But this? This is unique. This feels like euphoria."
Two days later, the euphoria turned to hostility. Kinshasa was the only place in Africa where Clinton's charm and star power were useless—where the very fact of her being a Clinton worked against her. For more than a decade, the country has been devastated by war; 5.4 million people have died, the world's deadliest conflict since World War II. There is a lot of distrust of America among the Congolese people and bitter feelings about some of the Clinton administration's policies. So when Clinton appeared at a town-hall meeting with the former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo and launched into her tough-mother-love shtick, it seemed tone-deaf. When the students were given a chance to speak, their questions were uniformly angry and filled with suspicion. One of Clinton's advisers told me that Clinton often mirrors whomever she is addressing, and here was Exhibit A. Onstage in a hot, fetid room, she became testy. Just before the famous "meltdown" seen round the world, she said to one student, very sharply, "I'm only here to make a very simple point: We can either think about the past and be imprisoned by it, or we can decide we're going to have a better future and work to make it. That is the choice. We're not going to work with people who are looking backward, because that's not going to get us where we want to go."
And then came the question about China and the World Bank that included this: "From the mouth of Mrs. Clinton, can you tell us what's on the mind of Mr. Clinton?" Clinton pulled out her earpiece and snapped, "Wait! You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" She glared at the student. "My husband is not Secretary of State; I am." She paused and then let rip again. "If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband." It was not so much what she said but her tone that seemed to signal a sensitive nerve had been struck.
Clinton was brutalized in the press for days. Two words summed up the gist of the criticism: very undiplomatic. She has barely said a word about it since. When a reporter from The New York Times asked about it in a press conference in Liberia, he practically ducked. She didn't even bother to answer. But when we were still in Africa I asked her about it, reminding her that this wouldn't be published until December. "Well, it was a very aggressive mood in that auditorium," she said, surprising me. "The looks on people's faces…." She caught herself. "But on the one hand, I got it because they are so despairing. On the other hand, I just sensed a real disappointment in everybody, including the United States. Forget it. There's nothing anybody can do. Why are you even here? It was a very intense experience." I tell her that the question from the student made me cringe. "I'll tell you, it made me cringe. As you saw. And the actual text of the question was pretty clear in the way it was translated. But, you know, it was just one of those moments."
One aspect of the incident that went unreported is that Mutombo, a national hero in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has invested millions in his country, swooped in and rescued Clinton from the long, awkward, stunned silence that followed her outburst. He defended her and put the students oh so gracefully in their place. "Madam Secretary say hope is something is in the sky," he said in his broken English. "Don't you hope that maybe one day you will have a better house and you'll have a better job, maybe you can go and find the way to help your mother and your father? My dad worked as a teacher making only $37. All he did is stress the education. And we used the education as a vehicle to move us forward, and that's why I'm here today sitting here. So you better have hope."
A speech right out of the Clinton playbook. As everyone was rushing out of the auditorium, Clinton came offstage and was approached by the student, and they had an amicable exchange. Outside, Clinton ran into Mutombo and said, "Oh, my God, I'm in love with you! I want a transcript of what you said. That's the message."
One Friday in late September I spent a day following the secretary through endless meetings during the United Nations General Assembly. It was the day of high drama at the U.N.—the day the world found out that Iran had a hidden nuclear facility in Qum. Clinton's good mood was unfazed. She joked at one point that the U.N. during this week, an annual occurrence, is like "a mosh pit." She walked around obsessing bemusedly about the fact that the same chemicals used to dye hair can be used to make a bomb, asking at one point, "Well, do you need a whole vat of it?"
I was also happy to see her taking delight in a favorite new colleague, David Miliband, the tall and dashing 44-year-old British foreign secretary. When I mentioned to her over lunch that I had spoken with him, she lit up. "Oh, my God!" I joked that I got a crush over the phone in about five seconds partly because of his accent, and she said, "Well, if you saw him it would be a big crush. I mean, he is so vibrant, vital, attractive, smart. He's really a good guy. And he's so young!"
For his part, Miliband seems smitten, too. "She applies intellect but also psychology to the dossiers that she's studying. She uses her experience in a very impressive way. She brings it to bear in a way that enriches a conversation but doesn't swamp it. She learns from history without being trapped by it. I think it's also important to say that she's delightful to deal with one on one. She's someone who laughs and can tease, and she's got perspective as well."
Early in the day Clinton's motorcade crept across town to the Sheraton, where her husband was putting on his annual Clinton Global Initiative. Hillary was to give a speech about food safety and was the day's big draw. When we arrived and went into the Green Room, she disappeared up a flight of stairs. About a half hour later she appeared with Bill and Chelsea. When she walked in and saw the faces of her staff, people who have worked with the Clintons for years, she said loudly, "Oh, my God! It's like a family reunion!" For this family, that is the strange truth. As they waited to go onstage together, the TV monitors showed a montage of video clips being played in the auditorium, many from speeches by both Clintons. Chelsea, looking so soigné in a flirty black dress and killer shoes, stuck close to her mother; Bill stood on the other side of the room, alone, staring at his notes.
They went out onstage to a standing ovation and roaring applause, and then Bill said, "I want to begin by expressing my extreme indebtedness to CGI, to all of you who have participated, for giving me the first chance I have had in a week to see Hillary." And then he said, "Most of what I know about what I do today I learned from her. She has become the best public servant our family has produced. I am very proud of her."
As I stood there, my mind wandered back to the end of the trip to Africa. The last stop was Liberia; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the only woman president on the continent, and the two women have a deep affection for each other. Clinton gave a speech to the legislature that absolutely killed. "I spent two years and a lot of money running against President Obama, and he won. And then I went to work to elect him. And then, much to my amazement, he asked me to be his Secretary of State." The room erupted in applause. "And I must say that one of the most common questions I'm asked around the world, from Indonesia to Angola, is, How could you go to work for someone you were running against? I said, 'Because we both love our country.' " The audience leaped to its feet and cheered for nearly two minutes. As I looked around the room, there were men with tears running down their faces.
On the way home we land in Cape Verde to refuel and stay the night. We check into an all-inclusive resort that feels like a Sandals. The next morning, I am up at the crack of dawn. I wander down a long path to the ocean and take a swim. I am the only person in sight. On my way back, I see Clinton in the distance with just one security guy, heading toward the ocean. She, too, is going for a swim. It is a bittersweet moment: Hillary Clinton is doing something purely for pleasure, for herself, but she is doing it alone, in a place designed for couples.
Two hours later, my phone rings. Clinton would like to do the interview, the one that I've been requesting throughout the trip, now. I am picked up in my room and taken to an empty restaurant. A table is moved and staged, just for us. She comes into the room and is…a different person. For the first time in eleven days, she is no longer the Secretary of State, with coiffed hair and a brightly colored suit on. She is Hillary, a woman who just went for a swim in the ocean. Her hair, still wet, is pulled back with a white braided headband. She is wearing a navy blazer with white piping on the lapel and a silver-and-pearl choker. She is radiant. When I tell her she looks pretty, her thank-you is so heartfelt that I blush. Everyone around her—her staff, the press—talks about how she has become more attractive with age and that photographs do not tell the story. When you are around her you are constantly struck by her charisma, her vitality, her confidence. Everywhere she goes people tell her that she is prettier in person. It never ceases to amaze her staff. "People think it's a compliment," says one aide. "And then when they walk away, she's like, 'Well, what did they think before they met me?' "
As Clinton and I sit and talk, she begins to rearrange everything—the cups, the silverware, the napkins, the creamer for her coffee—until it is just so, all the while listening and talking and not missing a beat. Remembering my illness, she asks me how I am feeling and then says, "Let's get some Sprite for Jonathan." Still mothering!
I bring up something I have been thinking about during the whole time we have been in Africa: Why is Hillary such an inspirational figure to so many women? Mary Beth Sheridan, a reporter on the trip from The Washington Post, said to me one day, "Margaret Thatcher ran a whole country. No one would ever describe her as an 'inspiration.' " Clinton seems amused by the comparison and then ponders it for a moment. "Well, I don't really understand it myself," she says, finally. "But it may in part be because people feel like they know me; they have watched me on the world scene for seventeen years now. They've seen my ups and my downs." She lets out a dark little chuckle. "They've seen my best and my worst. They've seen my public and my private—they've seen everything.
"So many women feel like I'm on their side," she says. "I somehow, through my life or their perception of me, give them courage to do things. And I think it's also that, whether I am meant to or not, I challenge assumptions about women. I do make some people uncomfortable, which I'm well aware of, but that's just part of coming to grips with what I believe is still one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in human history—empowering women to be able to stand up for themselves.
"I try to live my life in a way that I think has meaning," she continues. "I was raised to believe that I have to give back, that I was incredibly blessed to be an American, to have a good education, to have an intact family with two parents who encouraged me. I never felt in my family that I couldn't do anything I set my mind to because I was a girl, which was unusual even when I was growing up. I have a great partner who has been enormously supportive to me. I have a wonderful daughter. I have a 90-year-old mother who lives with us. I have so many blessings. And yet I know how hard it is even for people in today's world who have all of the attributes of education and income. Life is challenging for everybody." She takes a deep breath, leans back, and looks at me with those bright-blue eyes. "That's the best I can come up with!"
"Her Brilliant Career" has been edited for Vogue.com; the complete story appears in the December 2009 issue of Vogue.