As if a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t enough of a challenge, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to spend her holiday chasing an even more unattainable ideal: peace in the Middle East.
So Clinton left her and President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas. She met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel (who was slightly more accommodating after his romance with failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney did not prove fruitful). She met with President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt. She met with leaders of the Palestinian Authority. The end result was a cease-fire that got photos of teddy bears amid rubble off the front page.
Like too many of her achievements, however, this one was soon spoiled — or at least overshadowed — by a man: Morsi, feeling empowered after delivering a Hamas cease-fire to the United States, issued a decree essentially declaring himself above the law. Clinton is used to men complicating her life, notably her husband, Bill, and then-senator Barack Obama. The latter destroyed her presidential campaign, the former her marriage (almost).
In the annals of those who pick themselves up and dust themselves off, Hillary has no peer — unless it is Bill. They now rest at (she) and near (he) the top of lists of the Most Admired Man and Woman in the World.
Hillary got there in part by merely showing up, which is a lot of what being secretary of state is about. When she touched down in Latvia in June, she became the first secretary of state to visit more than 100 countries. She gets credit for handling the crisis in Libya and took responsibility when the U.S. Consulate there was attacked.
In all, according to the State Department, she has logged 948,094 miles. Wherever she goes, she spends a few hours off-camera, visiting with staff and hosting events for her signature mission to improve the lot of women and girls around the world — a mission she will probably continue once she leaves office next year.
Clinton has been such a presence in Asia these past four years, Asians might be forgiven for thinking the president was accompanying her on this latest trip, not the other way around. Clinton was the first of the pair to visit Myanmar, formerly Burma, a year ago, when she met with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel laureate.
“This is her last foreign trip that we’re going to take together,” Obama said last week. “And it is fitting that we have come here to a country that she has done so much to support.” As they got off Air Force One, Clinton hung back to let the president be the first to greet Suu Kyi.
As a former first lady and then as the junior senator from New York, Clinton is used to standing one step behind. There has to be lingering tension between Clinton and Obama, but it is hard to find. Their troubled history unites them. The eight-hour flight between Thailand and Myanmar was spent, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, “reminiscing” in Obama’s personal office on Air Force One.
Picturing a quiet life
It’s easier now to picture Clinton kicking back. We have seen her doing so in dark glasses, dancing the night away in Cartagena, Colombia, and drinking Bellinis with journalists — her one-time enemy! — in Rome. Rather than protest or try to shut down the popular website Texts from Hillary, which showed her sending text messages to celebrities and concerned citizens alike, she invited its creators to the State Department for a visit. As one of the few people to know what the White House fishbowl is like for a family, Clinton has helped the president and his wife with their daughters, who attend the same school Chelsea did.
Before Clinton was the most admired woman in the world, she was the most fascinating. If being the first failed former- first-lady presidential candidate was hard, it was no worse than living through the impeachment of her husband for taking up with an intern not much older than her daughter.
I covered the White House in the 1990s, when klieg lights in the driveway turned night into day, and I had to constantly remind myself that “a human being lives here,” as Philip Roth wrote in his fictionalized version of Clinton’s trials. Was there anyone back then who thought the Clintons would emerge from all of it whole, much less thriving?
In an interview with CNN in May, Clinton talked about her post-public career, catching up on sleep and taking walks without an entourage. “If I want to wear my glasses, I’m wearing my glasses,” she said. “If I want to wear my hair back, I’m pulling my hair back. You know, at some point it’s just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention, and if others want to worry about it, I’ll let them do the worrying for a change.”
Spoken like a woman who has found peace in her life, if not the world. If she decides to run for president, of course, she’ll have to deal with all the political (and apolitical) trivia: whether she’s too old or too liberal or should wear a ponytail. Until then, I prefer to think of her as the woman who brought peace, or at least a week of it, to the Middle East.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.