“Maybe I’ll get a decorating show,” said Hillary Clinton.
It was a few weeks before the election. Clinton was flying back from an overnight trip to Peru, talking — without any great enthusiasm — about the topic that would begin to obsess the American political world as soon as the presidential ballots had been counted: Will Hillary run in 2016?
It’s more than two months until this inauguration. But the speculation is already roaring. On Friday, Politico reported that Public Policy Polling had a new survey showing that if the Iowa caucuses were held today — there’s a terrifying thought — Clinton would get 58 percent of the vote. Joe Biden limped in with 17 percent.
Every day, people approach Hillary Clinton and tell her she has an obligation to run and give America its first woman president. “Yes, they do!” she laughs, with the trademark H.C. chortle. Being asked to run for president is a kind of side career all by itself.
Clinton gives many variations on the theme of don’t-think-so. (“Oh, I’ve ruled it out, but you know me. Everybody keeps asking me. So I keep ruling it out and being asked.”) Also a thousand different forms of beats-me. (“I have no idea what I’m going to do next.”) What she does not do is offer the kind of Shermanesque if-nominated-I-will-not-run language that would end the conversation.
Instead, she veers off into a discussion of all the things she’ll do when she’s no longer secretary of state, and there’s time. That led to a mention of her favorite television shows, which are all about house buying and home improvement.
Her top pick is “Love It or List It,” in which a couple who are unhappy with their current residence gets to look at new houses while a decorator rehabs their old place. The plot arc is always the same, and in a way, it’s sort of Clintonesque. The redecorators find termites or a leaky furnace; the house search goes awry. Everybody’s upset! But after a lot of hard work and the final commercial, there’s a happy ending.
“I find it very calming,” she said.
Clinton sounded relaxed and cheerful in the way of people who are in a good mood despite a severe lack of sleep. She was sitting in the little room that serves as her private space on the secretary of state’s plane. It’s a modest accommodation for the nation’s Traveler in Chief — barely big enough for a table and a small sofa/daybed. You’d think somebody who puts in her kind of hours would get a little plusher ride. During her day in Peru she had given several speeches and multiple TV interviews, toured a textile factory, taken part in a conference on women’s empowerment and spent an evening with President Ollanta Humala and his wife, Nadine Heredia.
“It was a long dinner, but it really was a good conversation,” said Clinton earnestly, describing the president, his wife and the other officials she’d talked with, including the Peruvian minister of development and social inclusion, who she termed “very savvy.” Clinton is from the personal relationship school of foreign policy. Her approach to day-to-day diplomacy is not unlike the way she found her footing as a candidate for the United States Senate. Remember the listening tours? Lots and lots of listening tours.
“So, last night at dinner we sat down and had drinks — there were only like 8 or 10 of us — and we just talked,” she said, recounting the evening. “When somebody comes along like him who has good values, really does care about what he’s talking about, there’s no substitute for just time spent one on one in small groups.”
If Hillary Clinton ran for president again, she would probably be the best-prepared candidate in American history: one who’s lived in the White House, served in the United States Senate, a woman who knows virtually every head of state in the world and also has a strong opinion about the merits of the Peruvian minister of development and social inclusion.
Joe Biden might arguably come close. But we’re not going to talk about Joe Biden until we figure out what Hillary’s going to do.
Would all that background mean she’d be a great president? Who knows? Americans are always trying to figure out what qualities they should look for in a candidate, and we still have no idea. Republicans were sure this was the time for a successful businessman-turned-governor, but then maybe not. Going into the Oval Office, the elder George Bush was much better prepared than Barack Obama, but we re-elected the one with the shorter résumé.
And would people like a President Hillary Clinton as much as they liked the woman who lost the nomination, who won us over with her remarkable ability to bounce back from disaster?
I always wondered how she regards the arc of her own life. Controversial first lady to betrayed first lady to beloved first lady. Clumsy carpetbagging Senate candidate to New York treasure. Failed presidential candidate to international icon. The theme, it seemed to me, was that you play the cards you’re dealt.
Clinton stared for a few seconds. “I choose my cards,” she said firmly. “I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.”
So the question is, what hand does she choose next?
As everyone knows, Clinton’s remaining time in the cabinet is limited. She long ago told President Obama that she wanted to leave after his first term was up. “Obviously, if he wants to get somebody confirmed I’d be sensitive to that. But it’s not going to be much longer.”
Then she is going to chill. While there are many topics on which Hillary Clinton speaks with great passion, at this moment there are very few about which she is as intense as her desire to not do anything.
“I am so looking forward to next year,” she said. “I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun. And relax. It sounds so ordinary, but I haven’t done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired. I work out and stuff, but I don’t do it enough and I don’t do it hard enough because I can’t expend that much energy on it.”
Notice that we are less than a minute into her paean to not doing anything, and already she is planning her workouts.
It seems reasonable to assume that right now, Clinton’s lack of interest in a presidential race is genuine. Despite her legendary ability to fall asleep at will — even on that airplane daybed — she is really, really tired. And at 65, she has no way of knowing how fully her body will rebound when she stops punishing it.
If Clinton follows through on her plan to not decide anything for a year, it would put the 2016 presidential speculation on ice, at least on the Democratic side. And that would be a signal service to the American public, which needs an election break. No way should we be forced to think about who we want to see in the debates 47 months down the line.
Although we will still have to spend a long time listening to uninterrupted discussions about Jeb Bush versus Paul Ryan.
IN Lima, Clinton addressed a conference called “Power: Women as Drivers of Growth and Social Inclusion” wearing a black pantsuit and bright shirt. It brought back memories. One of her unheralded contributions to the cause of American women in politics was to wear exactly that same outfit every day during her first campaign for Senate. After a while, nobody talked about her clothes anymore, and I envisioned a glorious future in which women running for office could just toss on their black pantsuit in the morning and head for the door. But when Clinton ran for president, she went for variety. I always thought it was a shame, but she said she’d just gotten bored.
At the conference, she told the audience that she had just read a — yes! — home decorating magazine, which included a 20-page feature on textiles from the Andes, a classic example of big business springing from women’s crafts. For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.
If she really does drop out of politics and move on, this will probably be Clinton’s future. Championing the cause of women, continuing her mega-listening tours around the globe, having serious conversations about issues of great import and minimal glamour. At State, she’s dug deep into the bureaucracy, trying to ensure that American diplomacy will be promoting women’s empowerment many secretaries down the line. “We’ve created some positions,” Clinton said, making a list. “We have embedded it in the quadrennial diplomacy and development review process…”
That’s the thing about Hillary Clinton. Most famous woman in the world, but still a sucker for the quadrennial diplomacy and development review process.
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