Hillary Clinton Takes a Rest, How Weird is That?
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plan for 2013 was simple.
She’d embark on an epic swansong around the world as secretary of state, a dizzying itinerary of east-west and north-south flights that would take her past 1 million miles in the air at the helm of American diplomacy and perhaps break her own record of 112 countries visited while in the post. Then, there would be a long rest, time and work with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on development issues and a sequel to her 2003 memoir "Living History."
Finally, she’d make a destiny-defining decision: whether to try again to become America’s first female president.
Her health got in the way: a nasty stomach virus while returning from a weeklong trip to Europe, exhaustion, severe dehydration, a faint, a fall and a concussion that led to a brief hospitalization when doctors discovered a blood clot near her brain. The woman who’d seemed to lay the perfect groundwork for another presidential bid - indeed, who’d made a life carving out her own path - was sidelined by circumstances beyond her control.
It was a rare sign of vulnerability in what had been a carefully charted four years of often grueling overseas travel and behind-the-scenes politics, where as a peace mediator, international enforcer and global ambassador of America she fully emerged from the giant shadow of her husband. But it was not the only sign.
BURDEN OF BENGHAZI
The deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, revealed an episode of State Department miscommunication on her watch that could feed into her diplomatic legacy and give future political opponents, should she return to politics, an opening to exploit.
And so, when she testified to Congress about the attack, both the drive and the drama forever associated with the Clintons were suddenly back. In the final spectacle of a diplomatic career that ends Friday when John Kerry succeeds her, she would not be browbeaten.
Pressed perhaps once too often on why the terrorist assault was miscast as a public protest in the days afterward, Clinton went after her Republican inquisitor with her voice rising and quivering in anger. "What difference, at this point, does it make?" she demanded. "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
On Thursday, Clinton denounced those who still insist the administration lied about the attack.
"There are some people in politics and in the press who can’t be confused by the facts," she told The Associated Press in her last one-on-one interview as secretary of state. "They just will not live in an evidence-based world. And that’s regrettable. It’s regrettable for our political system and for the people who serve our government in very dangerous, difficult circumstances."
Whatever the merits of the arguments, Clinton’s responses confirmed she had lost none of the vigor that had taken her from defeated Democratic Party presidential candidate to one of the world’s most popular and recognizable women.
And, it suggested that despite her recent health troubles, the former senator and first lady was intent on keeping her political future in her own hands, even as she laughed off attempts to coronate her as a candidate-in-waiting.
"I am still secretary of state, so I’m out of politics," Clinton told CBS’ "60 Minutes" in a joint interview with President Barack Obama last weekend. She cracked: "I’m forbidden from even hearing these questions."
But as Clinton was leaving office, the very appearance of two former foes so close and so amicable only seemed to underscore Clinton’s eventual succession - if she wants it.
Even before her ailments, people close to her were debating the pros and cons of another presidential run. Would it be worth the cost in time, energy and especially money - her 2008 campaign debt was just retired in January - and would it spark a new round of personal attacks on her, her husband and her character?
Polls show her as the popular favorite for 2016; no Democrat is better placed right now to unify the party. With instant national appeal and the highest approval ratings of her political career, she would also presumably have a head start on any Republican candidate in a general election. And at age 69, she’d hardly be too old to lead. She’d be five years younger than Vice President Joe Biden, a possible party rival.
Yet any sense of inevitably is decidedly premature. After all, Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the 2008 Democratic nomination for several years, right up until Obama beat her in Iowa. Like Obama, some of the potential contenders for 2016 are largely unknown quantities whose strengths cannot yet be measured.
There’s no question Clinton’s years as a well-regarded senator and especially her statesmanship in the Obama administration have lifted her above the partisan fray and improved her standing with the public. Her favorability rating in polls is at its highest point in her career, 67 percent in a recent Washington Post-ABC survey, indicating that the polarization that marked her years in the White House, seen again in the 2008 campaign, has been overcome.
Some of that hard-earned respect would vanish the moment she re-emerges as the face of the Democratic Party and becomes a critical player in rancorous debates over immigration, abortion, debt, taxes, health care and more.
Inevitably, she would in some ways revert to the divisive personality, who - fairly or unfairly - in the 1990s inspired a massive campaign to defeat her "Hillarycare" health overhaul and became the first president’s wife to appear before a grand jury when called on by the Whitewater investigation. That probe, the White House travel office firings, her feminist positions and the many donors to her husband’s campaigns invited to stay at the White House made some voters cynical about the Clintons’ integrity and moved critics to go after her in strikingly personal terms.
Columnist William Safire, for one, famously labeled her "a congenital liar."
Clinton, of course, wasn’t one to shy away from confrontation herself.
In the 2008 campaign, she called Obama a "slum landlord" representative and called out the Illinois senator with the riposte "Shame on you, Barack Obama." A decade earlier, she dismissed talk of her husband’s infidelity as part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that had dogged him for years.
A MANGLED TALE
Now, reaction to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, in particular, is being looked at by her allies as a cautionary tale of the tone that awaits any future presidential bid. Although no investigation has specifically faulted Clinton or backed up claims of a conspiracy by the Obama administration to provide disinformation about the assault, Benghazi’s timing in the final weeks of a close presidential contest led to bitter and personal criticism of Clinton in the blogosphere, on cable television and on Capitol Hill.
It went so far that some critics suggested she was faking a "diplomatic illness," as John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador for President George W. Bush, put it, to avoid testifying on Benghazi.
"There is an obligation here, especially if Secretary Clinton decides to run for president, to indicate what happened," Bolton said.
With the country pressing for answers after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi attack, Clinton left the difficult task of presenting the Obama administration’s response to Susan Rice, America’s U.N. envoy and her would-be successor as secretary of state.
Relying on talking points drafted by U.S. intelligence, Rice delivered the now-retracted version of the consulate siege as a protest hijacked by extremists, with no evidence to suggest the attack was premeditated. Three months later, Rice was forced to withdraw from consideration to succeed Clinton because of fierce criticism from Republicans in the Senate.