Washington can be a cruel and unforgiving place. Want a friend? Harry Truman once said. Get a dog. Or maybe he didn’t say it. But it’s a good point: In this town, nobody gets a free pass from the press, the pundits, and the pols.Nobody, that is, until Hillary Clinton. At the end of her tenure as secretary of state, she alone has emerged virtually unscathed — the lone superstar of the president’s first term. A recent poll has her numbers well above the president’s and exceeded only by — you guessed it — her husband Bill. And those high favorability ratings have remained pretty consistent since 2008.
There’s no denying that Clinton has done a very good job as the nation’s top diplomat. But to read the media adulation, you’d think she was about to be admitted into the secretary of state Hall of Fame. Google Chairman Eric E. Schmidt introduced her last year as the “most significant secretary of state since Dean Acheson.” A New York Times profile earlier this year claimed her legacy was nothing less than the “remaking of American diplomacy in her own fashion.”
Unlike Obama, she also appears to have racked up almost no deficits. Nothing seems to stick — not Benghazi, not Syria, and not the fact that she never managed to lead and succeed on a single consequential foreign policy issue. Last week, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza nailed it: Hillary, he wrote, was “the new Teflon Clinton.”
So what is about those Clintons, or at least Hillary, that has made her virtually untouchable — at least while running Foggy Bottom? What’s in the secret sauce? How do we explain the magic touch?
I’m not sure I fully understand it. But here’s my best take.
1. Everybody Loves a Star: With the exception of Colin Powell, no secretary of state in American history came to the office with more visibility, fame, fewer asterisks, and more good will than Hillary Clinton. She’s even got Thomas Jefferson beat.
After all, how many of the nation’s top diplomats had already been in the White House for eight years, missed being her party’s presidential nominee by a hair, and had a readymade fan base of as many as 18 million Americans who cast votes for her in the primaries before she even settled into the State Department’s 7th floor?
Add to this a dash of the bipartisanship that allows the secretary of state — alone among the key cabinet posts — to transcend politics, throw in a husband who remains the best politician in America today, and you have a recipe for success.
2. Work Hard, and Don’t Forget the Charm: By all accounts, Hillary Clinton applied the same approach toward Foggy Bottom as she did toward her Senate career. Work hard, master your brief, and try not to shine too brightly and offend others gratuitously without just purpose or cause.
Her capacity to master her brief and those cumbersome briefing books is legendary. What’s more, she knows what she knows and isn’t afraid or embarrassed to find out what she doesn’t.
I had one personal experience with her as first lady that confirms it. Dennis Ross, then the State Department’s special envoy for the Middle East, and I accompanied her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 2000. This was largely a ceremonial trip — and yet she insisted on using the flight over to engage in a detailed discussion of Israeli politics and Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
Hillary’s persistence continued once we landed: At each of our meetings in Israel, she insisted on introducing us as if we were somehow of equal rank and importance. She has that Clinton touch, the capacity to connect and to make people feel that they matter and are worth investing in. Madeleine Albright, another strong secretary of state, once quipped to me during the Camp David summit that President Clinton ought to add Hillary to the negotiating team so that we might have a better chance to seal the deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.
3. Be a Team Player … and Very Careful: Hillary’s political skills have been on display for years — how she’s managed to gain such a stellar reputation as a great secretary of state is another matter. The accomplishments don’t justify the hype: She’s been a loyal and pretty effective implementer of what the president wanted, but hasn’t taken many risks or led on any big issues.
Her legacy has three parts: She has promoted a kind of 21st-century planetary humanism, consisting of women’s rights, LGBT issues, press and Internet freedom, and the environment. She has reorganized and fought for resources for the State Department. And she has relentlessly traveled the globe to improve her nation’s image — and while she hasn’t been successful everywhere (see: the Middle East), she has won enough victories in enough places to mend some of the disaster that was the George W. Bush presidency.
All of this is fine, but none of it gets her into the company of some of her more illustrious predecessors, like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, or James Baker. And forget comparing her to the giants — George Marshall and Dean Acheson. When it comes to issues of war and peace, or matters of high strategy, she really hasn’t left a mark.
To be fair, this isn’t all Hillary’s fault. Barack Obama — the most withholding foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon — hasn’t delegated any major issues to her either.
But here’s the paradox: I think Hillary made a choice early on to keep her head down on the most contentious issues and find her own niche. The president wants to dominate and not delegate? Let him. All of the consequential issues — Iran, Syria, Israeli-Palestinian peace — seemed like losing bets anyway, fraught with the risk of tarnishing her political star. She found her role in the play — not the lead, to be sure — and filled it brilliantly.
(It’s also worth noting, ahem, that the issues she did own all had safe domestic political resonance and could be useful for building coalitions and constituencies should she decide to make another run for the Oval Office.)
As she winds down her term, Hillary Clinton does not have any spectacular successes to call her own — but she has no spectacular failures, either. On Libya, she was willing to fall on her sword, but Susan Rice fell on hers instead. (Why Hillary didn’t sign up to read those famous talking points that fateful Sunday isn’t clear. Maybe she took one look at them and decided to steer clear.) On Syria, it’s the president who seems to be taking the heat for not doing more. And on Israel, it’s again Obama who’s seen to be in a face-off with Bibi.
4. A President in Waiting: The last secretary of state to ascend directly to the presidency was James Buchanan. And there’s a reasonable chance that within a few short years, we may witness another such political passage. Indeed, the president-in-waiting trope may well provide a partial clue as to why nobody really wants to cross her.
Everyone in Washington knows Hillary’s run may not be over. So what’s the point in taking her on? Key Republicans seem to like her. Listen to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is no fan of the president’s foreign policy: “She is extremely well respected throughout the world, handles herself in a very classy way and has a work ethic second to none.”
Nor do the reporters who travel with her have a stake in making enemies. Back in the day, I was on many of those trips: The quarters are close, and your access depends on not pissing people off. It’s just too uncomfortable to travel with a secretary of state and their staff if you do. And besides, if you really start being tough, you may not make the access list back home.
Finally, let’s be clear. She shines because not that many others do. We face a galactic leadership deficit in America today. There are plenty of celebrities, to be sure. But not that many politicians with substance, charisma, and class.
Hillary simply doesn’t have much competition — aside from perhaps Michelle Obama, whose favorability ratings top Hillary’s and the president’s too.
So stick with the playbook, Hillary. You may actually be a star. And in an age of dashed expectations, disappointment, and rising cynicism toward America’s political class, that’s no small accomplishment.