Who Do You Call?
The armored black Cadillac stood waiting in the horseshoe driveway outside 3067 Whitehaven Street, in northwest Washington. Inside the three-story Georgian house, last-minute preparations were under way ahead of a first day at work. Two women talked through their schedule, checked that their BlackBerries were in their handbags, applied a last dab of lipstick. For the umpteenth time, Fred Ketchem went over the route for his package in his head. In his left ear, he could hear the chatter of his team along the way: the road was still clear. He checked alternative routes again, just in case. Until just a few weeks ago, he had been responsible for the safety of three thousand people implementing American foreign policy in one of the world’s most dangerous diplomatic missions—Baghdad. Now, he was charged with the security of America’s top diplomat. He had to remind himself that this wasn’t Iraq. There would be no hair-trigger checkpoints, no bearded gunmen, no roadside bombs planted along the way; the only hazards here were fire trucks and car accidents. Even so, he wanted the first day, the first drive, to be as smooth as possible. Standing in the crisp January cold, Fred kept his eyes on the portico. A few miles away, in a building that looked like a remnant of Soviet architecture, the crowd was gathering.
It was just a few minutes past nine in the morning on January 22, 2009, when the dark door between the two white columns swung open and a middle-aged woman with short ash-blond hair, wearing a coffee-brown woven wool pantsuit and kitten heels, emerged. She walked down the steps to the car, a young statuesque woman with flowing jet-black hair following closely behind her.
“Good morning, Fred!” said Hillary Clinton.
“Good morning, Madame Secretary.”
“Thank you for being here on our first day. We’re going to be very busy in the coming few years.”
Fred opened the rear right door for his new boss before getting into the front passenger seat. Huma Abedin, Hillary’s longtime aide, got in on the other side. Otis, the trusted government driver who had ferried Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell around the city, was at the wheel. The package, the now-full Cadillac sandwiched between a black SUV leading in front and two following, headed down the hill to Foggy Bottom. When the Department of State chose the area as its home in 1947, the swampy fog had long since dissipated from the banks of the Potomac. As the government redeveloped the area, the industrial slum, smoke stacks, and tenement dwellings at the southwestern edge of the nation’s capital gradually gave way to more government offices, luxury residential buildings such as the curved Watergate complex, and the boxlike white marble Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. But the area’s name had stuck, an inadvertent reminder of the fog of information that American diplomats often had to swim through to make their decisions.
That morning, the skies were a bright blue, and Hillary’s mind was clear. She felt excited about her new job, expectant about the contribution she could make to her country, and determined to tackle the daunting challenges facing America around the world. The chatter of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition news program provided a background hum as she went over the day’s schedule with Huma one more time.
Clinton had spent the past few weeks preparing for her Senate confirmation hearing as secretary of state in Barack Obama’s cabinet. She had to lay out her vision for American diplomacy and leadership around the world while demonstrating her loyalty to the new president, her former rival. But she also had to absorb vast amounts of information to prove she knew all the issues. It was like preparing for the bar exam again. On the campaign trail, Obama had reduced her foreign policy experience to sipping tea with foreign leaders as a First Lady. She was not exactly a neophyte but neither was she a seasoned diplomat, so the learning curve was steep. But Hillary had always known how to be a star pupil. She nailed questions about the more obscure, dry pet subjects of her former Senate colleagues and brought them to life as though she’d spent years thinking about Arctic policy and mineral-rich countries. She talked about cruise ships sailing past Point Barrow because of melting ice and Botswana’s great stewardship of its diamond riches. She outwonked all the wonks in the Senate room by mastering all the details. Clinton also explained how she envisaged the exercise of American power: it had to be “smart.” Not just soft diplomacy, with a focus on development or just hard military power, but a combination—an updated, global version of the Marshall Plan. “Smart power” was a concept coined by political scientists like Joseph Nye but had never been implemented methodically before.
Hillary couldn’t remember the last time she’d had some real time off. She had gone from being First Lady to running for senator, then jumped from the daily business of the Senate to the campaign trail to her new, unexpected job. The race for the Democratic nomination had been bruising, hurtful, and ugly. She had been defeated and discredited by her loss despite the millions of loyal voters who had backed her. Campaigning for Barack Obama on the shoulders of such loss had just added to her exhaustion. Obama had urged her to accept the job with unusual candor, telling Clinton he needed her, but serving her former nemesis involved a bracing lesson in humility. Clinton didn’t know how the relationship with Obama would work out, but she knew what a president needed—team players. Her Girl Scout instincts kicked in. She was on the team and she wanted the whole team to look good. She wanted America to look good again. Hillary was ready to play, but she was also ready for some red-carpet treatment, some respect, and some camera attention to soothe her campaign wounds. New challenges invigorated her. The adrenaline had kicked in, and she felt and looked energized, ready for her grand entrance.
The package pulled up outside the main entrance of the State Department. Fred opened the car door for the secretary of state. The crowd erupted in cheers.
“Hello, hello,” she said in her booming voice as she stepped out of the limousine. She held her hands above her head, clapping, smiling, and began to shake hands with the senior officials who stood on the red carpet to welcome her. Clinton walked the rope line, greeting her new staff, shaking hands with some of them. One man screamed “Yeah, Yeah!” as though he’d just won something. She shook hands with the two guards standing by the glass doors before walking into the Harry S. Truman building and being engulfed in a crowd of hundreds of State Department employees. Colin Powell, a deeply respected and personable former general, had been greeted with applause in the State Department lobby when he arrived in 2001, and even Condoleezza Rice had received an unexpectedly warm welcome in the midst of the Iraq debacle in 2005.
But no one could pack a room almost half the size of a soccer field like Hillary. A polarizing, controversial politician, she was also a celebrity with the ability to elicit fervent support and admiration. The three-story-high lobby of the State Department echoed with rapturous applause, punctuated with cries of “We love you, Hillary!” Across the whole floor and the steps leading to the mezzanine on either side, dozens of people craned their necks, stood on their toes, or leaned over the glass-and-aluminum railing to catch a glimpse of her. People waved their cell phones to snap pictures, and camera crews beamed the event to television networks around the country and beyond. Hillary waded through the human mass pressed against thirty-foot-tall marble and granite columns. Three diplomatic security agents cleared the way in front of her, Fred and another agent following behind. Even a friendly crowd of overexcited Foreign Service officers could crush the secretary. She smiled, excited but poised, shook hands, paused to speak to those who didn’t let go quickly enough.
In the State Department lobby, there were young women who had voted for her in the primaries and older women who’d always admired her as a trailblazer for women’s rights and a fighter who had defied the odds and overcome adversity in her personal life. There were those who always voted for a Democrat. And then there were all the others too—American diplomats and civil servants, men and women, who had felt sidelined during almost eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and were demoralized by the damage that the Bush administration’s high-handed foreign policy had inflicted upon America’s image. When Clinton made it to the landing of the steps leading to the mezzanine, Steve Kaskent, a representative of the Foreign Service union, introduced her to some of her twenty thousand new employees, joking that it looked like they were all crammed in the space below them. No one even tried to hide their relief that the country was moving on.
“Both you and the president have decried the neglect that the Foreign Service and the State Department have suffered in recent years,” he said. “No one knows better than the people in this room and our colleagues around the world how true that is. We are thrilled to have you here.”
In the crowd below, Lissa Muscatine looked around her and smiled, pleased to see her longtime friend bathed in affection and appreciation, a welcome change after almost two years of searing battles and disappointments. Muscatine had been Hillary’s speechwriter at the White House when she was First Lady, and she had once again agreed to craft Hillary’s speeches to the world.
Clinton waved and bowed her head, smiling. Fred, with a long, serious face and round cheeks, stood guard behind her, his dark hair parted neatly to the side, his eyes darting around.
“I believe with all my heart that this is a new era for America,” Clinton said into the microphone. In front of her, the northern glass wall of the lobby was lined with the flags of all the countries where the United States had an embassy and where she would deliver the Obama administration’s message of engagement with the world over the coming four years. She warned the crowd that it wasn’t going to be easy. She asked her new staff to think creatively about old problems. She said she welcomed debate, and she waved her right hand to emphasize each point. It sounded like a political stump speech, but this was a new campaign to lift the spirits of those who kept the American foreign policy machine running. She announced to wild cheers that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden would be visiting the State Department, or as Clinton called it, “this organic, living creature called the Building.”
“This is a team, and you are the members of that team. There isn’t anything that I can get done from the seventh floor or that the president can get done from the Oval Office, unless we make clear we are all on the American team. We are not any longer going to tolerate the kind of divisiveness that has paralyzed and undermined our ability to get things done for America.”
Then it was time to get down to work. Hillary had been in the building many times before, as a First Lady during her husband’s presidency and, more recently, during the transition period between Bush and Obama. Like everybody else, she rode in one of the main elevators. But now, as secretary of state, she had access to a private, wood-paneled elevator that took her straight to the foyer of her quarters on the seventh floor. She walked down Mahogany Row, a carpeted hallway that was home to the top tier of State Department officials, one of the rare plush hallways in a building that otherwise reminded some of its occupants of a psychiatric institution, all stark white corridors, white fluorescent lights, and linoleum floors. Though it was her first day at work, it was a normal workday in the building and Hillary stopped in each office along the way, shaking hands and meeting her staff. Then she walked into her light-flooded outer office with its elegant living room furniture and fireplace, and stepped into her darker, smaller study. In a drawer of the desk, a welcome note awaited her. Signed “Condoleezza Rice,” it had almost been thrown out the day before by staffers clearing the office of all things Condi, saved at the last minute by a staffer who noticed the name on the envelope in the drawer. Neither Rice nor Clinton ever revealed what the note said.
The two women had first met in August 1996, when Rice was provost of Stanford University. Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea, was deciding which university to attend, and Rice welcomed mother and daughter at the start of their tour of the university campus. The two women had spoken occasionally during the eight years and three weeks that Clinton spent in the Senate, but they were backing different teams. Clinton, like most Democrats, was a harsh critic of the Republican administration. Now Clinton found herself in Rice’s position, occupying her old office. There may have been a new president inside the White House who was all about change, but outside, it was the same unruly world that Rice had faced. Clinton had consulted all her living predecessors, but it was over a long dinner at Rice’s Watergate apartment in Washington a few weeks after the presidential election that she got the most up-to-date information about all the players on the international scene and the lowdown on every issue in her in-box. It would be the first of many conversations between the two women over the next four years.
On the second floor of the Building, around the corner from the mezzanine, Fred settled into his professional quarters. His job guarding the secretary put him in charge of a large team of Diplomatic Security agents who would protect Clinton during every move she made, both in the United States and around the world. A thin-built, meticulous man with an aquiline nose, he looked more like a banker than a security official. He kept his surroundings uncluttered—on one wall, a world map; on another, a flat-screen television; on a table, his parting gift from Iraq, the flag that had flown over the Iraqi Republican palace that had housed America’s diplomats before the new embassy was inaugurated. The flag was now folded into a triangle, resting in a flag box with a plaque thanking him for his services.
On the other side of the mezzanine, down a hallway with blue linoleum floors and a picture of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the occupants of Room 2206 were eagerly awaiting their first conversation with the woman who was the new subject of their reportage. Room 2206 housed the permanent State Department press corps: all of the major American newspapers, radio stations, and television networks had desks here (and a seat on the secretary of state’s Boeing 757). International news agencies like the Associated Press (AP), Reuters, and Agence France-Presse (AFP) were also part of the pack, telegraphing news from the American capital to the outside world. Thanks to its international reach, the BBC was admitted into this exclusive travel circle in 1993. The room was a large rectangular space overlooking a 1960s bronze sculpture—Man and the Expanding Universe—that presided over one of the department’s two inner courtyards. Cubicles lined the walls and occupied the center of the room. A couple of us were lucky enough to have windows. The rest typed away in semidarkness surrounded by gray walls and gray carpets. With only a few minutes’ notice on a drab, cold Tuesday morning, a few days after her grand entrance in the Building, the secretary arrived at our threshold, and we scurried out of our holes to shake her hand.
We were all seasoned reporters—some of us had covered several secretaries of state—so no one applauded, though most of us couldn’t help feeling slightly starstruck, grinning widely and trying to think of something clever to say other than hello to make a lasting impression. But we were also wary, unsure about how the political machine Hillary had brought with her from the Senate and her campaign would coexist with the content and detail-obsessed world of foreign policy. The national media had clobbered Hillary during the primary race, ready to pounce on her at every corner. Americans loved her or hated her with equal passion. She said she’d felt like a piñata. Now, she slowly sized up her new press pack, about fifteen of us, probably wondering how we would treat her, whether we’d continue the battering. We introduced ourselves, and she repeated each of our names, shaking our hands, nodding mechanically with a semi-smile. She was guarded and seemed cold behind her smile, a politician on duty. She looked around at our grim quarters and said, with no trace of irony, “Your digs are better than those of the press at the White House.” Ouch. We had been hoping for an upgrade.
Clinton sat down at the head of the large conference table on one end of the room in between two rows of cubicles and faced a torrent of questions.
“Madame Secretary, what about North Korea?”
“Madame Secretary, what about Iran?”
“What about Middle East peace?”
Everything was a priority, but one task mattered most to Clinton and Obama.
“There’s a great exhalation of breath going on around the world as people express their appreciation for the new direction that’s being set,” Clinton said. “We have a lot of damage to repair.”
This had been a key message of Obama’s campaign but hearing it from Clinton’s mouth at such proximity made it real, as if it could happen. But I also wondered how different things could actually be under a new administration.
Obama’s campaign rhetoric made it sound like America had lost its way and would now return to the right path. But it wasn’t as though the United States had been a virtuous force for good or a perfect superpower for decades that had suddenly and inexplicably taken a turn for the worse during the Bush administration. The reality was more complex. The misgivings of America’s critics around the world had only been exacerbated by the hubris that the Bush administration had displayed. My own ambivalence about America had started well before the election of George W. Bush. I was a liberal, moderate secular Lebanese woman with a Dutch mother. In a country where many looked to Iran or Syria for guidance, I was more at home in the other half of the country, the pro-Western, pro-American camp. Yet I had often felt let down by the United States, whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican.
As a young woman living in Beirut, I couldn’t quite explain why and I didn’t know where to look for the answers amid the uncertainty that seemed to permeate all aspects of life in the Arab world. Now, I enjoyed living in the United States away from that chaos, though I struggled to reconcile my positive impression of this country, its people, and its diplomats, with the confusion and frustration I often felt in the face of American foreign policy. After eight years of the Bush administration, with its two wars and its “You’re with us or against us” approach to the world, I wondered if the United States would ever understand the rest of the planet. I was ready to give up for good. “Maybe America should just stay home” was a common refrain around me.
But I was willing to give the United States another chance and find out what the new president would bring to the world. And judging from the headlines around the world on November 7, 2008, and the parties celebrating his victory from France to Kenya, people everywhere expected Obama to deliver for them. Now Clinton was his envoy to the world.
An assembly line of problems was making its way through the Building, bursting into people’s offices at all hours of the day. Every issue was urgent, every crisis a priority, like triage in a hospital emergency room. There was also pressure of another kind. At the White House, when a new president moves in, he finds a mostly empty shell that he then fills with his team—advisors from the campaign, die-hard loyalists who yearn to serve, policy experts who share his vision. But at the State Department, when a secretary of state leaves, he or she takes only a couple hundred political appointees, leaving a steady cadre of twenty thousand career Foreign Service officers and civil servants at their desks in Foggy Bottom and at State Department offices across town. Inevitably, there is friction between the old and the new. With Clinton’s arrival, it was of a wholly different order.
In the Building, most were willing to overlook Clinton’s faults, forget the acrimony of the campaign, and embrace her as a rock star because she was now the emissary of the president of change. But Clinton didn’t arrive alone. There was far less forgiveness for Hillaryland, Hillary’s often chaotic, chronically late, and occasionally dysfunctional political machine made up of fiercely loyal friends, campaign advisors, and Senate staffers, people like Huma, Lissa, or Philippe Reines, Hillary’s gatekeeper and media advisor. Their job was to serve her as Hillary the woman as much as the secretary of state, to make sure she had everything she needed to do her job, to make sure she looked good. But Hillary’s close aides were met with skepticism, suspicion, and occasional disdain. What do they really know about foreign policy, people thought. “Hillaryland” originated from Hillary’s days in the White House, the first time a First Lady occupied her own offices in the West Wing. The term described Hillary’s staff, and the name stuck, though the size and lay of the land had changed over the years. Once again Hillaryland would grow and morph into something new.
When he gave her the job, Obama had agreed that Clinton could choose the political appointees who would fill the vacant seats in the Building to help her implement American foreign policy. The president’s team bristled at such latitude: no other cabinet member was being given such freedom in this administration. Why should a woman who had wrestled him for the Democratic nomination be allowed to reward her friends with plummy jobs? Presidential campaigns are divisive, all consuming, and emotional—and the fighting for the Democratic nomination had been drawn out, malicious, and messy. Obama too was surrounded by loyalists, and some were never able to lay the campaign mind-set aside. These key policy positions, they felt, should go to Obama supporters, to those who had sided with Obama and with change from the beginning, not to the woman who had challenged him.
Although he had belittled her foreign policy experience during the campaign, Obama knew that only Clinton came with the built-in international stature and credibility that allowed her to instantly board a plane and stand in for him while he fixed the economy at home. He had decided to ask her to do the job well before the election of November 4. She had not expected the offer, but the call of public service was strong, and she agreed to support his mission to restore America’s lost face in the world. You don’t say no when the president asks you to serve, she kept telling her friends. There were also more narrow political considerations. Obama didn’t want to risk having her as a critic in the Senate, and she was uncertain how much more she could rise as a senator. Obama and Clinton decided to trust each other. It would take them some time to find their groove, but they saw themselves as teammates, even if their respective squads did not share this vision.
Obama’s advisors formed a close bubble around him in the confines of the West Wing. The newcomers in the Building were quickly swallowed up by a massive, unwieldy bureaucracy. It was hard to maintain a coterie around Hillary when the political appointees she brought with her weren’t in the office next door but housed somewhere in the Building’s 4,975 rooms, down one of the eighty-four hallways, on one of the eight floors, connected by twelve elevators. Hillary and her team had always worked in small, agile offices where staffers devoted more time to substance than process. She had never worked in an office where she didn’t know everyone’s name, and now she was in charge of thousands. Every paper her team wrote, every memo they issued, seemed to zing around the building for hours, up and down the hallways and elevators to various floors, before it would finally be approved. The Building was a place, but it was also a massive operation that groaned under the weight of dated habits. Dozens of copies of the New York Post arrived every morning because this paper had been Colin Powell’s favorite, never mind that his last day on the job had been in January 2005. Clinton started her workday at 8:00 in the morning, but her special assistant, left over from the Rice era, had been showing up every day at the predawn hour of 4:30. That’s how it had worked under Rice, who showed up at work at 5:00 on most days. Working hours were promptly adjusted.
Hillary’s team had to figure out how best to serve Hillary in her new role, how to find their way to the cafeteria on the first floor and make it back to their desks again in the labyrinthine building, how to fit into the system or bend it to their needs. And every day, they had to ask, “Who do you call?” Who did you call if you wanted to translate an opinion piece by the secretary of state into dozens of languages and have it published in 139 newspapers and on websites in sixty countries? Who did you call if you wanted to plan media coverage of her next speech? Who did you call if you needed a printer? Who did you call if you wanted to get anything done?
Jake Sullivan wasn’t even certain what needed to be done or where to start. A pale, blue-eyed, young Minnesotan lawyer, he was a newcomer, arriving at the State Department a few hours after Clinton’s raucous welcome. He rode the elevator to his new cubbyhole office on the seventh floor and turned on his computer. Hillaryland was new territory for him. He had met her only two years earlier, when he joined Clinton’s campaign as a deputy policy advisor. It sounded like a grand title, but he was just one of the many players in the massive campaign machine. After Clinton lost the Democratic nomination, he jumped to the Obama team, helping with the presidential debate preparations and later working on the transition team. Jake had been planning to head back to Minnesota when Cheryl Mills, a key figure in the Clinton White House who was going to be Hillary’s chief of staff, called to say Clinton wanted him with her at the State Department. He didn’t know Hillary well, but he had liked her instantly when they met for his job interview at her campaign headquarters on Seventeenth and K Streets in Washington in March 2007. He found her impressive but down-to-earth, as keen to connect with people as she was to discuss ideas—a real, three-dimensional person. “Holy cow,” Jake thought to himself that day. “You make a joke, she laughs; she asks you a question, she listens to the answer; she makes eye contact.” He did not expect an exalted figure to behave this way.
Most of all, Jake had loved the way she talked about America on the campaign trail, and about how and why she wanted to be president of the United States. If there was one reason why he had ever wanted to serve in government, it was because Jake believed in America’s ability to be a force for good. The pull of home was strong, Jake was not a fan of Washington, but when Cheryl, and later Hillary, told him he would regret not serving at a time of historic change in America, he agreed to be Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. He didn’t really know what that would involve, precisely. It was a new position in the building, and he didn’t know how the State Department worked either. But on this first day, here he was, sitting across the hall from the secretary of state’s office on Mahogany Row, his e-mail in-box already overflowing.
The phones were ringing incessantly. The world was calling. Countries around the world had always obsessively and irrationally craved attention from America, but now it seemed that everybody wanted to be touched by Obama and his secretary of state. European countries competed for an audience with Clinton at the State Department. The British and German foreign ministers both arrived for visits on the same day, February 2. David Miliband got to go first. After the talks, he declared before the cameras that the United Kingdom admired and respected Clinton as an ambassador of America and “everything good it stood for.” She lunched with the Germans. Then came the French. They all pleaded for her to visit the Old Continent on her first visit abroad. The Europeans believed that a quick visit from Clinton would perfectly seal the reconciliation with America that had only just started toward the end of the Bush administration after the deep rift caused by the Iraq War. The reconciliation could only feel real with a proper visit from the new Democratic administration. No promises were made and most visitors left with a signed copy of Hillary’s autobiography, Living History. Clinton spoke to the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on the phone.
“Hi, this is Hillary, how are you, Mr. Minister?” she began. They talked about the close ties between Italy and the United States, and by the time the call ended, she was calling him by his first name.
“I look forward to seeing you in Washington, Franco,” she ended. On the other side of the Atlantic, the minister was startled by the rapid transition in tone and by the unexpected warmth of this woman who had always seemed cold and distant on television.
In her first few months in office, Clinton took all the calls and welcomed all the visitors her schedule could accommodate from South Africa to Brazil, Lithuania, and Afghanistan. She believed that part of repairing America’s standing in the world meant both reaching out to leaders she had known for years as well as making new connections, to ensure they knew they had access to her. She was making a very conscious investment for the future, when she would need these leaders. And for days on end, grown men would gush and beam at the cameras as they stood next to the politician turned diplomat. If there was one thing Hillary didn’t need to learn, it was how to be in the limelight: she slid seamlessly into the role of a popular secretary of state, reveling in the attention of her foreign counterparts, attention that came with none of the bitter sniping of American politics.
The world was nearing a state of hysteria as governments everywhere waited for Washington to announce which country Clinton would visit on her maiden voyage as secretary of state. Newspapers around the world were full of speculation and advice about where Secretary Clinton should go first.
On the seventh floor, Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines, Cheryl Mills, and the deputy secretary of state Jim Steinberg were drawing up a list of options. Europe was a traditional destination for the first visit, but the new administration wanted to signal change. The Middle East was still roiled by the Israeli military campaign code named “Cast Lead” against the radical militant group Hamas in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. The war had erupted in December 2008, right after the American presidential election, and had stopped just before the inauguration. Obama had signaled his commitment to the Middle East on his second day in office, but there was no reason to plunge Clinton into the quagmire of this conflict so quickly when all the talk was still of hope. The options were narrowed down to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan was going to be “Obama’s war,” and having its neighbor Pakistan on board to tackle al-Qaeda and the Taliban would be key to any progress. In a town where everyone’s favorite pastime is to speculate about who’s up and who’s down in the administration and in the political world, people were already murmuring about how much power Clinton really had on Obama’s team. Her old friend Richard Holbrooke had just been appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Middle East file had been handed over to the quiet former senator from Maine George Mitchell, at Clinton’s own suggestion. A trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan would show the world that Clinton had a say on the big issues. But for some on her team, even these choices were too traditional. The twenty-first century was taking shape in the East. If America wanted to be part of the future, the country needed to up its game in Asia.
The world was still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis. In her many phone calls to leaders around the world, Hillary had picked up on a strange combination of hope and anxiety. People still wanted American leadership, but the economic crisis had further tarnished the veneer of American invincibility.
“What is America going to do? What are you going to do about your own economy? If your economy goes down, how many more are you going to take down?” they asked her. Their questions implied more troubling concerns: “What do you stand for? Who are you?”1
Clinton believed deeply in American leadership. She was pained by the questions, and the world’s perception of her country.
What better way to signal confidence and try to get the world economy back on track than by sending the chief diplomat of the biggest economy in the world to visit the countries with economy number two, China, and economy number three, Japan? Suddenly, Asia moved to the top of the list. Jeffrey Bader, the man in charge of Asia at the National Security Council at the White House, had been advocating for this as well, and Hillary needed no further convincing; the choice resonated with her own priorities. During her presidential campaign, she had said America’s ties with China would be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in the twenty-first century. Huma, Jake, Cheryl, and the rest of the team started to painstakingly put together the itinerary. Japan, neglected by the Bush administration, forgotten even by Bill Clinton on his last presidential trip to the region, won top honors: the golden first visit. Indonesia was to be the second stop, followed by South Korea and China. Not since Dean Rusk in 1961 had an American secretary of state chosen Asia for a first trip. Rusk had gone to Thailand.
The Japanese were ecstatic though surprised, and the foreign ministry was flooded with media inquiries about why Clinton had chosen Tokyo as her first stop. What did it mean? They pored through their records to find out if an American secretary of state had ever chosen to visit Japan first but found nothing. There was no precedent. The Japanese foreign minister then declared the new U.S. administration clearly prioritized the Japan-U.S. alliance, and the visit was a “significant move.” Every country on the itinerary made the exact same declaration. If showing up is half the battle, this battle had already been won before takeoff.
The detailed schedule still had to be fleshed out. What would happen on arrival; whom would she meet; where would she go? Huma and Philippe, the guardians of Hillary’s image, wanted her trips to be different from anything the world had seen before. In the first two years of her tenure, Condoleezza Rice had indulged in town hall meetings with young people and cultural diplomacy events, but overall she conducted her trips like one might conduct business meetings: short jaunts, quick stops, mostly formal talks with officials. But Hillary wasn’t simply a secretary of state: she was Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was a political powerhouse in her own right, and she was bigger than the job of secretary of state—the job would have to fit her, not the other way around.
The Asian visit was also a key moment for American leadership and the country’s status as a superpower. The world had become allergic to U.S. leadership by the end of the Bush administration. America’s influence was waning, and without relentless work, the new beginning ushered in by Obama’s election would quickly be wasted. The country needed to repair old alliances and build new partnerships around the globe that would help position America once again as a sought-after partner. But in a world deeply interconnected by technology, where popular opinion had increasingly more impact on national policy—even in countries that were not democracies—it was no longer enough to talk to governments. Hillary’s team wanted America to connect with everyday people using twenty-first-century technology, and they were going to deploy their best asset to make that connection: the secretary of state.
Clinton already had her own style on the road, developed during her tenure as First Lady. She had visited clinics, villages, schools, sat down with women and girls, talked about education, human rights, empowering the disenfranchised. As secretary of state, she wanted to continue engaging with people on a personal level: connecting was what she did best and what she loved doing most. Clinton particularly wanted to use her new position to advance the rights of women and children everywhere, a project that stemmed from her deep belief that the world would never be a better place until half the population was no longer neglected. No matter how many wars, peace efforts, missile launches, or nuclear crises lay ahead, women’s rights had to be part of the agenda. There would be much eye rolling at the State Department for four years, but the men on the team would eventually buy into Hillary’s vision about American smart power.
Jake, the thirty-two-year-old Yale graduate from Minnesota, was thinking big thoughts with big words, long-term strategies and abstract concepts. He was a brain. His sixty-one-year-old boss was a brain too, but she added her gut instincts and heart. She knew how to translate dry concepts into a language that made sense to real people. Huma and Philippe began to search for the right mix of events for this new campaign for America, a combination of public diplomacy and traditional foreign policy that would ensure Hillary did not appear as though she was slipping back into the soft role of a First Lady. Together, with Jake, they were going to expand the frontiers of American power and beam Hillary into living rooms, computer screens, and Twitter feeds everywhere. They were going to make the discussion about American foreign policy accessible to everyone.
A few weeks after Clinton’s arrival in the Building, it was time for her team to consult the occupants of Room 6205. The Asia experts, the bureau deputies, the desk directors for each country on the itinerary were taken aback when they were asked to contribute ideas for the agenda and schedule of the trip. Where should Clinton hold a town hall in Seoul? Who should she meet in Tokyo? Which television show was most popular in Indonesia? No one had consulted them for a while, it seemed. The final word on foreign policy decisions has always come from the White House, but the decision-making process can include varying levels of input from the State Department. Rice, a former national security advisor, had relied little on the Building, and Colin Powell had often been left out of the process.
When she had stood in the mezzanine on the day of her arrival, Clinton had promised to look for everyone’s input, but no one had really expected she would tap them all. Clinton wanted to use the Building’s considerable brain power and years of experience to inform her own decision making, and—perhaps learning from her past mistakes—she wanted to be inclusive. Just as they had expected her to be a prima donna in the Senate, so too people at the State Department were bracing for a diva. Instead, she was the one pouring the coffee.
The meetings under the new leadership were yet another surprise. After eight years out of office, Democrats seemed out of practice when it came to the daily business of government. Rice and Powell ran meetings with military precision; schedules were final unless a crisis erupted and plans were set well in advance. The newcomers ran their meetings like cocktail parties—filled with lots of air kissing and talking, the gatherings often ran overtime, and there was not always a clear action plan at the end.
The Democrats had also arrived en masse in Washington. America was proud to have elected its first African American president, but it was also divided: just over half the population had voted for Obama. But as the Obama’ites descended onto the capital, they found a city that seemed in the grip of the same euphoria that had swept the world on election night. Around town, folks excitedly reported sightings of Obama administration officials who had attained mythical status. David Axelrod, the brain behind the campaign, was seen having brunch at Commissary, a popular restaurant just east of Dupont Circle. BlackBerries beeped and vibrated everywhere as the news spread like wildfire. The White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was swimming at the YMCA at five in the morning. Or was it Timothy Geithner? Was that Obama’s speechwriter Jon Favreau moving in next door? Was he really only twenty-seven? How many profiles of the Obama team could you run in a week in the New York Times?
Washington is a quiet, provincial town with Parisian-like avenues lined with trees, hundreds of federal employees in ill-fitting suits, and barely a handful of memorable restaurants. But with the arrival of Obama and his entourage, the capital of the world’s superpower was suddenly the new capital of cool. Everyone wanted to move to the District and be part of history. Every evening, anxious journalists watched their in-boxes for the e-mails sent out by the White House with the schedule of the president for the next day. He was going to attend a service at the National Cathedral; he was going to sign an executive order to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay; he was going to visit members of Congress on Capitol Hill. For months, every Daily Guidance e-mail sent reporters around the city into a tizzy.
The second week of February rolled around, and in the Building Hillary’s Asia schedule was finalized. Well, almost. Either way, a plane with a State Department seal attached to its door with Velcro was waiting on the tarmac of the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland for a Special Air Mission.
Copyright © 2013 by Kim Ghattas