Clinton: ‘Pragmatic and realistic’ about 2016

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.

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“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.”

The killing of bin Laden, she says, was a bonding experience. Obama’s Cabinet had been split on whether to attempt the mission, but Clinton backed it and sweated out the decision with the commander-in-chief. “I’ve seen the president in a lot of intense and difficult settings,” she says, “and I’ve watched him make hard decisions. Obviously, talking to you on September 11 as we are, the bin Laden decision-making process is certainly at the forefront of my mind.”

The statement cuts two ways—praise for her president and evidence of her deep experience in and around the Oval Office—including the most successful military endeavor of the Obama presidency. As a Cabinet member, she says, “I’ve had a unique, close, and personal front-row seat. And I think these last four years have certainly deepened and broadened my understanding of the challenges and the opportunities that we face in the world today.”

Political campaigns are built of personal narratives—and it works much better if the stories are true. The current arc of Hillary’s story is one of transformation. Being secretary of State was more than a job. Her closest aides describe the experience as a kind of cleansing event, drawing a sharp line between the present and her multiple pasts—as First Lady, later as the Democratic front-runner in 2008, derailed by the transformative campaign of Barack Obama but also by a dysfunctional staff, the campaign-trail intrusions of her husband, and the inherent weaknesses of the fractious, bickering American institution that has become known as Clintonworld.

At State, she was the head of a smoothly running 70,000-person institution, and fully her own woman, whose marriage to a former president was, when it was mentioned, purely an asset. And now that she’s left State, Clintonworld is being refashioned along new lines, rationalized and harmonized. The signal event of this is the refurbishing of the Clinton Foundation, formerly Bill’s province, to accommodate all three Clintons, with Chelsea, newly elevated, playing a leading role. The move has ruffled certain Clintonworld feathers—a front-page article in the New York Times about the financial travails of the foundation as managed by Bill Clinton brought sharp pushback—but most of those close to the Clintons acknowledge that to succeed in the coming years, Hillary will have to absorb the lessons of 2008. Currently, it’s a topline talking point among her closest aides.

“She doesn’t repeat her mistakes,” says Melanne Verveer, an aide to the First Lady who then served in the State Department as Hillary’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. “She really learns from her mistakes. It’s like, you want to grow a best practice and then always operate on that. She analyzes, ‘What went wrong here?’ ”

Of course, if Hillary’s future were to be an author, or a pundit, or a retiree, learning from mistakes wouldn’t be an issue. But other outcomes, where executive talents are prized, seem more likely. I ask Clinton the question that trails her like a thought bubble: Does she wrestle with running for president?

“I do,” she says, “but I’m both pragmatic and realistic. I think I have a pretty good idea of the political and governmental challenges that are facing our leaders, and I’ll do whatever I can from whatever position I find myself in to advocate for the values and the policies I think are right for the country. I will just continue to weigh what the factors are that would influence me making a decision one way or the other.”

Clintonworld, however, speaks with many voices­—albeit many of them not for attribution. Some of her close confidants, including many people with whom her own staff put me in touch, are far less circumspect than she is. “She’s running, but she doesn’t know it yet,” one such person put it to me. “It’s just like a force of history. It’s inexorable, it’s gravitational. I think she actually believes she has more say in it than she actually does.”

And a longtime friend concurs. “She’s doing a very Clintonian thing. In her mind, she’s running for it, and she’s also convinced herself she hasn’t made up her mind. She’s going to run for president. It’s a foregone conclusion.”

When president-elect Barack Obama asked Clinton to be secretary of State, they had a series of private conversations about her role for the next four years. What would the job entail? How much power would she have? How would it be managed?

Or to restate the questions as they were understood by everyone involved in the negotiation: What would Hillary Clinton get in return for supporting Obama after the brutal primary and helping him defeat John McCain?

Though she had ended her losing campaign on a triumphal note, gracefully accepting the role of secretary of State and agreeing to be a trouble-free team player in Obama’s Cabinet, the 2008 primary loss left deep wounds to her core staff—at least among those members who had not been excommunicated. They would discuss what happened during long trips to Asia and Europe, sounding like post-traumatic-stress victims. “The experience was very searing for them, and they would go through it with great detail,” says a former State Department colleague.

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