WASHINGTON – On a recent Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked with her husband onto a stage at the New York Sheraton to cheers and whoops and a standing ovation that only got louder as she tried to quiet things down.
It was a friendly crowd — the annual meeting of her husband’s foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative — and people may have been eager to hear her speech about using U.S. aid to target investment barriers such as old land tenure laws. But really, they were there to see her.
“She’s just looked so sad and so tired,” said Ritu Sharma, a women’s rights activist, referring to Clinton’s appearances in the days after the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
They wanted to defend her, to rave about her, to say how sick they were of people talking about her hair, and then to talk about her hair, which, several men and women offered, definitely looked best in a simple chignon.
Mostly, though, people wondered what the woman walking across the stage — now smiling as a soaring, presidential-sounding score began playing — would choose to do next. Maybe now, in her final months in office, she would provide a clue.
Bill and Hillary Clinton looked at each other and laughed. He rolled his eyes.
Then she began talking about how effective development can advance global peace and prosperity — the sort of long, detail-laden speech that Clinton has given a thousand times, the kind that says exactly nothing and everything about her future.
In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has reiterated that she will not stay on for President Barack Obama’s second term, unleashing fresh waves of speculation about her plans.
Period of hibernation?
There is hypothesizing that she is merely entering a hibernation period before a 2016 presidential bid. There is talk that she will start her own women’s rights initiative.
There is the prospect, too, that this might really be it for one of the most iconic figures in American political history.
What is clear is that despite lingering questions about Benghazi, Clinton is more beloved than at any point in her long and at times controversial career, commanding soaring approval ratings, a vast fundraising machine and supporters who gush more than ever that she should run for president again.
The truth is, though, that no one is sure what Hillary Clinton will do, possibly not even Clinton herself, who has said her plans include sleeping and watching the home-improvement show “Love It or List It,” which she finds calming.
But there is one way to figure out what Clinton may ultimately decide, and that is to examine what she has already done — not the obligatory things such as jetting to the Middle East as she did last week, but those things that as a first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state she has chosen to do.
Beyond carrying out the Obama administration’s foreign policy and troubleshooting global crises, Clinton has deliberately carved out her own agenda during her four years as secretary of state, making an array of choices that reflect who she is after more than 30 years in public service.
Of these, the first was her decision to sublimate any resentment that had come between her and Obama during their fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The most controversial may be her push for “expeditionary diplomacy,” the idea that diplomats should engage more with people beyond embassy walls, which Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, exemplified.
The rest are more obscure. They include promoting a milk cooperative in Malawi and low-pollution “clean” cookstoves in China and attending an environmental summit in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. They include decidedly unglamorous events, such as a conference devoted to gender-specific data collection, and thousands of kilometers traveled to often-overlooked places.
“I’m very happy that my 100th country was Latvia,” Clinton told students in Riga in June.
From the start, Clinton has explained her agenda as part of a new “21st-century diplomacy” that demands the United States be more attuned to the grassroots of the world and relies on development and civilian power as much as military might, an approach foreign policy gurus will debate for years to come.
Some say that Clinton diluted her energy and failed to achieve any signature triumphs, such as an end to the Syrian crisis.
Others argue that through a thousand lesser-known efforts and initiatives, she has achieved nothing less than a transformative shift toward a more effective and modern American diplomacy.
What is certain is that Clinton’s choices tell a story about who she is, how she thinks and perhaps what she will decide to do in the future.
And so the answer to the question of whether she will run for president in 2016 might begin on a trans-Atlantic flight this summer, the first leg of one of her longest trips as secretary.
As is her habit, Clinton walked to the back of the cabin to chat with the traveling press. It was early, and she seemed relaxed in a track suit and sunglasses.
The 12-day odyssey would include meetings in Paris, Kabul, Tokyo, Hanoi, Cairo and Jerusalem. But the stop Clinton was really looking forward to was Ulan Bator, where she once downed a glass of yak milk in the spirit of diplomacy.
A reporter mentioned that she was scheduled to visit with Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj in his ceremonial yurt, the traditional Mongol dwelling. Clinton smiled.
“It’s not a yurt,” she corrected, noting that Mongolians prefer not to use the Turkic term. “It’s a ger.”
By the time Clinton’s plane landed at Genghis Khan International Airport, she had already grabbed international headlines.
In Paris, she had blasted Russia and China for “blockading” a solution to the Syrian crisis. In Kabul, she had declared Afghanistan a “non-NATO ally.” In Tokyo, she announced U.S. aid to the Afghan government. There had been red carpets, photos with presidents and dinners under chandeliers.
Now it was a gray Monday in Mongolia, a country on China’s doorstep booming with coal, copper and gold mines, and because Clinton had decided it was important to be there, her motorcade was zipping along a potholed highway past grazing cows and construction cranes.
In the capital, she trotted up the marble stairs of a government building, greeted Elbegdorj and ducked into his ger. Like so many things Clinton did during the trip, this was not something she was obliged to do.
After that, she gave a speech to an international women’s group about political liberalization that was clearly aimed at China, but which also emphasized the role of women in politics, words she did not have to utter.
And after that, Clinton moved to a beige conference room for an event that was decidedly unnecessary to attend, but for which she had traveled more than 10,000 km.
“It’s a pleasure to be with all of you this afternoon to help launch the LEND Network, a new tool that will help countries navigate the transition to sustainable democracy,” she began.
Her aides started checking their BlackBerrys. Some reporters took a breather. Yet Clinton, sitting at a table full of officials, seemed more energized than ever.
She spoke enthusiastically about the new online forum and how exciting it was to be able to provide “on-demand democracy support” to new leaders in places such as Kyrgyzstan.
“And in a minute,” said Clinton, uttering words that would make no headlines, “we’ll get to see the network in action when the foreign minister of Moldova conducts a live video chat with his former counterpart from Slovakia.”
Clinton listened and watched a computer screen as the faces of the Slovakian and Moldovan participants were beamed in, the latter from his vacation house.
“I’m so happy to be part of this launch,” Clinton told them.
And it was clear from her expression that she was, that this was the kind of thing that mattered to Clinton, who considered it a tiny step toward the larger goal of promoting democratic leadership, and thus a tiny step toward global peace and prosperity.
Asked about it in an interview later, she lit up.
“It’s really one of the big gaps I see around the world,” Clinton said. “I mean, who do these people have to talk to? I mean, one day they’re a political prisoner or they’re in exile or minding their own business in their job or at the university they teach at and the next minute they’re a president or a prime minister or a foreign minister? I mean, imagine!”
She continued: “And there’s no real opportunity for them to feel comfortable because they don’t want to show weakness, don’t want to show ignorance — to say, ‘How does this work? What am I supposed to do?’ It’s fascinating to me.”
Of all the things that Clinton’s friends say about her, opinions bend toward two essential facets of her character.
The first is that in the time they have known her — as a student leader in the 1960s, as a first lady, as a U.S. senator or now — Clinton has not really changed except to become more of the person she has always been: a deeply optimistic Methodist who believes that government can advance human progress and a hopeless wonk who knows her yurts from her gers.
The second is that while Clinton is a famously shrewd political operator, she is never more energized or relentless as when she is pursuing a cause that she believes will improve people’s lives, however incrementally.
This has often been Clinton’s most polarizing quality. It is what her detractors have at times interpreted as self-righteousness and a precursor to classic big-government liberalism. It is what her admirers have viewed as the doggedly pragmatic, in-the-trenches quality that makes Clinton an almost heroic, if also at times tragic, figure.
“This job has just amplified things that have always been there,” said Betsy Ebeling, a friend of Clinton’s since their childhood in Chicago, when they read novels about knights in shining armor, heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and canvassed Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. “It’s given her a great stage for the many things she’s always cared about, only now she has the whole world.”
At the State Department, Clinton has used her power to create an array of new offices and positions devoted to long-standing causes: for civil society and emerging democracies; for global youth issues; and for the one for which she is most often noted, global women’s issues. She is widely credited with changing how the department thinks about women.
In March, Clinton issued a document titled “Promoting Gender Equality to Achieve Our National Security and Foreign Policy Objectives,” which directs the entire department to include women in everything from budget plans to peace negotiations. Naturally, she backed up the decision with data showing that doing so can advance conflict resolution and unlock economic potential.
“Now, I am sure when you received an invitation to a conference on data you probably thought, ‘Oh, boy, how exciting!’” Clinton said to an audience this summer. “But I think you would agree — this really is an exciting time for data.”
Changing the world
While Clinton’s initiatives have not led to major foreign policy shifts, they have resulted in project after project.
“People roll their eyes when she talks about clean cookstoves,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s policy planning chief until last year. “But if the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves succeeds” — an initiative Clinton launched to get 100 million homes to ditch toxic fires for clean-burning stoves — “we will have reduced carbon, improved women’s security and saved millions of lives, and that is enormous.”
Clinton has cast her choices as a response to a changing world where power and threats are more diffuse, requiring the United States to pay more attention to jobless youths in North Africa and grinding poverty across the globe.
“We cannot assume that we are going to be understood and appreciated when so much of the world is young, without much of a sense of the historical antecedents of who we are, where we came from, what we did,” she said in the interview. “So we have to be everywhere.”
A more personal explanation for Clinton’s choices relates to her own struggle to be understood, she said, and “how important it was for me as a young woman to truly feel I had a place at the table.”
Another has to do with the faith she has embraced since she was a girl.
“As a Christian, part of my obligation is to take action to alleviate suffering,” she told the United Methodist News Service in 1992. “Explicit recognition of that in the Methodist tradition is one reason I’m comfortable in this church.”
Sitting in her office two decades later, Clinton said her faith still drives her.
“It is very much fundamental as to who I am and how I see myself,” she said.
A few days after Mongolia, Clinton’s plane touched down in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, a country that saw more than 580,000 bombing runs by the United States during the Vietnam War, a war that Clinton protested in college.
Although she met with the prime minister on matters related to the U.S. “pivot” toward Asia, Laos was another unnecessary stop — so unnecessary that no U.S. secretary of state had visited in 57 years.
Clinton rode down a road past palm trees and monks in bright orange robes and a countryside still haunted by unexploded American bombs.
She had wanted to see a local prosthetics center that had become a sort of museum of the unresolved horrors of the war, and now she walked inside.
She looked up at crude wooden and metal limbs dangling from the ceiling and maps dotted with locations of bombs. She asked why there isn’t better technology to remove them.
Then she made her way to Phongsavath Sonilya, who lost his forearms and eyesight to a bomb on his 16th birthday. He had been sitting in a chair in a far corner waiting for her. Clinton reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Hello,” she said, keeping her hand there as they spoke for a few minutes. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
Later, Clinton flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where she met with a group of women who were trying to unionize the hotels and textile factories where they work. Clinton looked particularly regal in a purple dress and sparkling necklace, and some of the women called her “your highness,” although she ignored it. She was becoming slightly irritated because she was having trouble understanding a young woman who was describing her brutal working conditions but was getting confused by the voice of the translator in her headset. The woman kept starting and stopping. No one was helping her.
“Tell her to take off her earphones when she’s talking so she doesn’t hear the sound,” Clinton said. “It’s confusing her.”
Someone whispered to the young woman, who still did not understand what to do and now looked more nervous.
Clinton smiled at her. She gestured for her to take her headphones off, which she finally did. Then the woman continued with her horrifying story, saying at the end that she was not sure she had the courage to face the perils of union organizing.
“Thank you,” one of the most powerful women in the world said to one of the least. “But I disagree. You are very courageous. I want you to know that.”
Life on public stages
In small rooms, it is often easy to read what Hillary Clinton is thinking. But the fact is that most of her adult life has been lived on public stages where she has often seemed harder to figure out.
Two days after the attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi, for example, Clinton stood in the State Department’s ornate Franklin Room, having decided to go ahead with an evening reception marking Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday. After hours of comforting employees and calling relatives of the dead, Clinton faced the Washington diplomatic corps and talked about another one of her choices.
“I’m the one who sent Chris to Benghazi during the revolution,” she said in a deliberate tone.
There would be questions about whether Clinton’s department had failed to provide adequate security for the diplomatic mission, whether procedures were followed and whether politics had entered into explanations of the attack.
But for now, Clinton had to listen as a colleague said nice things about her, about all the great work she had done, about how inspiring she was, how good.
Clinton looked out at the crowd. She smiled vaguely. Then she stared up at the ceiling and tried to keep her composure.
Another example came at the New York Sheraton this fall, when Bill Clinton introduced his wife as a “walking NGO” and explained her choices as secretary of state in simple terms. She had not just tried to defuse crises and stop bad things from happening, he said, “she tries to make good things happen.”
As Hillary Clinton moved to the podium, the audience cheered and whooped. She smiled and gave her speech, a Clinton classic touching on evidence-based analysis, building capacity in poor nations, women as economic agents, self-sufficiency and throwing out old development orthodoxies.
It was a speech she did not have to give, one filled with the kind of in-the-weeds detail that only a wonky Methodist who believes she is supposed to make good things happen would spend an hour giving. Clinton barely looked at her notes. She seemed to be having a blast.
“Thank you for devoting your energy, your efforts and your resources to improving our world one day at a time,” she said before heading off.
All of which explained that the answer to the question of whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016 — whether she will seek the job with the most power to do the most good of all — is another question: whether she can keep herself from it.