It is Boston, July 2004. The setting is a downtown restaurant to which the editor Tina Brown has invited Hillary Clinton and a handful of notables, including Caroline Kennedy, filmmaker Michael Moore, and former Senator George McGovern. What is immediately striking is Clinton’s youthful appearance, bright laugh, and blue eyes that appear a little too round when she gazes at us with curiosity.
Sometimes her expression is briefly clouded by a streak of stifled pain, obstinate and not wholly contained. Five years earlier, she was the most humiliated wife in America, a woman whose private life was thrown open – fully and relentlessly – to public scrutiny. So she can talk national and international politics until she is blue in the face. She can sing the praises of John Kerry, whom her party has just nominated in an effort to deny George W. Bush a second term. And she can expound on her role as the junior senator from New York. Still, there persists an idea that I cannot push out of my head, and that I enter into the travel journal that I am writing for The Atlantic.
The idea is this: to avenge her husband and to take revenge on him, to wash away the stain on the family and show what an unblemished Clinton administration might look like, this woman will sooner or later be a candidate for the presidency of the United States. This idea brings to mind Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, published a year after the Senate acquitted her husband of perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges, with its searing portrait of how indelible even an undeserved blot on one’s reputation can be. She will strive to enter the Oval Office – the theater of her inner, outer, and planetary misery – on her own terms. And the most likely outcome, my article will conclude, is that she will succeed.
Fast forward to Paris in May 2011. The senator from New York has become President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Her aura dominated the just-concluded G-8 summit hosted by France. It is ten in the evening, and I am waiting at the elevators in the lobby of the Hotel Westin with Mahmoud Jibril, one of the leaders of the Libyan insurrection. Jibril has made a special trip to plead on behalf of the civilians whom Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and his sons have promised to drown in rivers of blood.
“I thought you were in Libya!” she exclaims when she sees me. “I’ve just returned,” I respond, gesturing toward Jibril. “Really, hidden in a vegetable truck with him?” That triggers one of those great bursts of laughter that, as I noticed in Boston, raise her high cheekbones still higher. Then, suddenly serious, and accompanied by a man whom I notice for the first time and who turns out to be J. Christopher Stevens, the young US ambassador to Libya who will be murdered a little more than a year later, she leads Jibril to her suite for an interview.
When, after nearly an hour, Jibril reemerges, he is convinced that the conversation went badly. He grumbles that Clinton hardly opened her mouth, which he interprets to mean that his plea was not well received. In fact, Clinton was deeply moved by Jibril’s testimony, riveted by the horror of the regime’s tanks grinding toward Benghazi at that very moment. In the hours that follow, she convinces Obama not to bow to his anti-interventionist secretary of defense, Robert Gates.
She displays emotion and composure, I note. Her humanity and compassion are coupled with an acute sense of the iron discipline required for effective governance. These are the reflexes of an impeccable stateswoman.
By February 2012, the war in Libya is over, and I am wrapping up my documentary film about the conflict. I am in Washington, DC, in a wood-paneled conference room on the seventh floor of the Department of State’s headquarters, to gather Clinton’s recollections, as I had already done with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron. This is the moment for conclusions and perspective, the always-fascinating moment when the actors in the drama, who have sometimes operated in secret, turn up their last cards.
Clinton lends herself graciously to the exercise. She evokes her interview with Jibril, a conversation at the White House or the Elysée Palace. She remembers everything and regrets nothing. She feels that, in acting as she did, she was faithful to her most cherished values and beliefs. And she has no doubt that the West, in responding to the Arab League’s entreaty to intervene, avoided a replay of Srebrenica in North Africa.
What strikes me the most is that she sees, even then, the beginnings of the tribal conflicts and the coming contest among Islamists to outdo one another in fundamentalist purity. She worries about the early violations of human rights, particularly women’s rights, which she fears will multiply. She has no illusions that history turns out the way reason tells you it should. Time is needed, she says, to build a state and construct a democracy – time and a mixture of pragmatism and faith, of patience and audacity, of respect for others and regard for oneself.
Was this concern about “nation building” a warning? Was it her ideological contribution to an administration that, though she did not know it at the time, would continue without her? Was she laying down the broad strokes and ambition of her own presidency?
One thing is certain: Of my three encounters with Hillary Clinton, this third was the one where I found her the strongest and most passionate, thoroughly imbued with the meaning and pitch of the great American pastoral. If we meet again, I will not be surprised if I am addressing her as Madam President.