Sunday, September 22, 2013
Hillary in Midair
She’s learned from her mistakes. Three years before November 8, 2016, she’s working hard to be relaxed, calm, easy. But, all the while, the old Clinton gears are whirring.
For four years, Hillary Rodham Clinton flew around the world as President Barack Obama’s secretary of State, while her husband, the former president Bill Clinton, lived a parallel life of speeches and conferences in other hemispheres. They communicated almost entirely by phone. They were seldom on the same continent, let alone in the same house.
But this year, all that has changed: For the first time in decades, neither one is in elected office, or running for one. Both are working in the family business, in the newly renamed nonprofit that once bore only Bill’s name but is now called the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which will hold its annual conference in New York next week.
"We get to be at home together a lot more now than we used to in the last few years," says Hillary Clinton. "We have a great time; we laugh at our dogs; we watch stupid movies; we take long walks; we go for a swim.
"You know," she says, "just ordinary, everyday pleasures."
In the world of the Clintons, of course, what constitutes ordinary and everyday has never been either. So the question was inevitable: Given who he is, and who she is, does Bill, among their guffaws over the dogs and stupid movies, harangue her daily about running for president?
To this, Hillary Rodham Clinton lets loose one of her loud, head-tilted-back laughs. "I don’t think even he is, you know, focused on that right now," she says. "Right now, we’re trying to just have the best time we can have doin’ what we’re doin’. "
There’s a weightlessness about Hillary Clinton these days. She’s in midair, launched from the State Department toward … what? For the first time since 1992, unencumbered by the demands of a national political campaign or public office, she is saddled only with expectations about what she’s going to do next. And she is clearly enjoying it.
"It feels great," she says, "because I have been on this high wire for twenty years, and I was really yearning to just have more control over my time and my life, spend a lot of that time with my family and my friends, do things that I find relaxing and enjoyable, and return to the work that I had done for most of my life."
Relaxing, for a Clinton, especially one who, should she decide to run, is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016, does not seem exactly restful. The day before we speak, she was awarded the Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia—presented by Jeb Bush, another politician weighted with dynastic expectations and family intrigue, who took the opportunity to jest that both he and Clinton cared deeply about Americans—especially those in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Afterward, Clinton stepped backstage, a red-white-and-blue ribbon around her neck pulled taut by a saucer-size gold medal. "It is really heavy," she said, with that plain-home midwestern tone she deploys when she wants to not appear the heavy herself. In the room with her were some of her close advisers—Nick Merrill, a communications staffer and acolyte of Hillary’s suffering top aide, Huma Abedin; and Dan Schwerin, the 31-year-old speechwriter who wrote all the words she had spoken moments ago. Local policemen with whom Clinton had posed for photos milled about behind her.
Outside was the usual chorus accompanying a Clinton appearance, befitting her status as the most popular Democrat in America: news helicopters buzzing overhead and protesters amassed across the street who raised signs that read benghazi in bloodred paint and chanted antiwar slogans directly at her as she spoke at the outdoor lectern.
Though she was officially out of the government, it was not as if she could leave it, even if she wanted to. That week Clinton had met with Obama in the White House to discuss the ongoing Syria crisis, and now Obama was on TV that very evening announcing a diplomatic reprieve from a missile attack on Syria—a series of decisions that Clinton had lent her support to every step of the way. "I’ve been down this road with them," she tells me the next day. "I know how challenging it is to ever get [the Russians] to a ‘yes’ that they actually execute on, but it can be done. I think we have to push hard."
Clinton has taken a press hiatus since she left the State Department in January—"I’ve been successful at avoiding you people for many months now!" she says, laughing. She is tentative and careful, tiptoeing into every question, keenly aware that the lines she speaks will be read between. In our interview, she emphasizes her "personal friendship" with Obama, with whom she had developed a kind of bond of pragmatism and respect—one based on shared goals, both political and strategic. "I feel comfortable raising issues with him," she says. "I had a very positive set of interactions, even when I disagreed, which obviously occurred, because obviously I have my own opinions, my own views."