A downtown restaurant to which Tina Brown has invited Hillary Rodham Clinton and a handful of notables, including Caroline Kennedy, filmmaker Michael Moore, and former U.S. Senator George McGovern.
What is immediately striking is Mrs. Clinton’s youthful appearance. Her bright laugh. Her blue eyes, a little too round, that gaze at you with curiosity. Sometimes that gaze 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 feelings, reactions, privacy, and bed linens were scrutinized by everyone. 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. She can expound on her notion of the role of the senator from New York, a role with which she pretends to be content. Still there persists an idea (of dubious political correctness) that it is impossible to push out of one’s head, one that I, at any rate, cannot resist the temptation of entering into the travel journal that I am writing for The Atlantic. Both to avenge her husband and to take revenge on him, to wash away the affront to the family and to show what a Clinton presidency free of stain might look like (Philip Roth’s great novel, The Human Stain, has just come out) this woman will sooner or later be a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Hillary Clinton will strive in her turn to enter the accursed Oval Office that was the theater of her inner, outer, and planetary misery. And the most likely outcome, my article will conclude, is that she will succeed.
March 2011. Paris. Hotel Westin.
The senator from New York has become Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Her new aura dominated the just-concluded G8 Summit hosted by France. It is 10 p.m. I am waiting at the lobby elevators with Mahmoud Jibril, one of the leaders of the Libyan insurrection who has made a special trip to Paris to plead the cause of his people.
“I thought you were in Libya!” she exclaims when she sees me. “I was,” I respond, indicating Jibril, “I’ve just now returned.”
“Really, hidden in a vegetable truck with him?” That triggers one of those great bursts of laughter that, as I first noticed in Boston, raise still higher her already high cheekbones.
Then, suddenly serious, and accompanied by a man whom I notice for the first time and who turns out to be Christopher Stevens, the young U.S. ambassador to Libya (and soon a heroic martyr to jihadism), she leads Mahmoud Jibril to her suite for an interview that lasts nearly an hour. When he reemerges, Jibril is convinced that the conversation went badly. He grumbles that she hardly opened her mouth, which to his mind means that he did poorly and that his plea on behalf of the civilians whom the Kaddafis, father and son, had promised to drown in rivers of blood obviously did not go over well. In fact, it had.
The secretary of state was deeply moved by the picture Jibril painted, riveted by the horror of the regime’s tanks grinding toward Benghazi at the very moment she was listening to Jibril’s account. And, though she betrayed none of her inner thoughts at the time, in the hours that follow she convinces the president not to bow to his non-interventionist secretary of defense, Robert Gates.
Emotion and composure. Humanity and compassion, coupled with an acute sense of the iron discipline required for effective governance. Two reflexes revealed that day by an impeccable stateswoman.
February 2012. Washington, DC.
A paneled conference room on the seventh floor of the Department of State. The war in Libya is over. I am wrapping up my documentary film about the conflict. I have come to gather Mrs. Clinton’s recollections, as I had already done with Nicolas Sarkozy and 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. Mrs. 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 most is that she sees, even then, the beginnings of the tribal conflicts and the contest among the future Islamists to outdo each other 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 about the fact that nothing in history ever 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, patience and audacity, respect for others and for oneself.
Was this concern for “nation building” a warning?
Was it her ideological contribution to the end of an administration which, though she did not know it at that time, would continue without her?
Was it a plan for a Hillary Clinton presidency, the broad strokes and ambition of which she was laying down that day?
One thing is sure: Of the three encounters this third was the one where I found her the most passionate and strong, the most thoroughly imbued with the meaning and the flavor of the great American pastoral. If we meet again I will not be surprised to be addressing her as Madame President. Nor will I be surprised, with regard to Ukraine, if this great lady joins, and heads, the club of the truly effective friends of the country.
(Translated by Steven Kennedy)