Clinton's next act: The show goes on

Hillary Rodham Clinton has a favorite expression for turning setback into opportunity: “Bloom where you’re planted.”

Her three-decade career on the public stage has produced countless examples of Clinton sprouting a flower in a pile of manure.

Few of them are more vivid than this week’s official announcement that she is the nominee to serve as secretary of state to Barack Obama — the man whom she initially refused to talk to on the Senate floor two years ago when he first made clear he would challenge her for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Clinton’s planned ascension to Foggy Bottom is the culmination of a strenuous effort over the past several months to fashion a next act in a career that long has been defined by two distinct halves: flamboyant celebrity on one side and dogged, often lonely, distance runner on the other.

After losing the nomination to Obama last spring, months after the trajectory of the race seemed clear, her associates made it known she was eager to be considered for vice presidential nominee. When Obama made it plain early on that he wasn’t interested in that, Clinton maneuvered for a central role in health care reform, but found that path blocked by more senior Democrats.

Through it all — while Bill Clinton and many of her political hands nursed their resentments toward unfair fate in general or Obama in particular — Hillary Clinton put on a mask and campaigned for him vigorously, while also attending to more mundane particulars such as extracting herself from the onerous long-term lease of her Arlington, Va., campaign headquarters.

“She has a remarkable ability to move on from adversity, focus on the next task at hand and adapt,” said former Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson.

Both Clintons long have labored with a strong sense of grievance against political foes. Over the years both have spoken in unusually public terms about their struggles to overcome resentments and find the right balance between, as Bill Clinton once put it, “the light forces ... and the dark forces in our psyche and our makeup and the way we look at the world.”

Her ability to accept a subordinate position to a man she once believed, according to campaign aides, was too callow and inexperienced to be president is a sign of her determination, at age 61, to not let time slip away preoccupied with old battles.

In this sense, the campaign of 2008 — both the failed effort to be president and the successful effort to claim a sterling consolation prize — is the latest extensions of a much longer campaign.

Through a kaleidoscopic array of different public roles and public images — would-be co-president, humiliated spouse, self-effacing junior senator — there has been a constant: extraordinary self-discipline.

It is the animating theme of her life, and what has allowed her to sustain multiple misfortunes, reversals, and self-inflicted wounds and yet still keep rising. She does not have Bill Clinton’s instinctual feel for the political stage, but nor does he have her instinctual talent for candid self-appraisal, or her ability to tune out what she calls “the background noise” of her life and focus on the next mission.

For all the seeming zig-zags, there is actually a line of continuity in Clinton’s life over the past 16 years that leaves her well-positioned as the likely secretary of state, an appointment that even many Republicans are applauding as a shrewd choice.

It was after the defeat of the proposed Clinton health care overhaul in 1994, and the massive Republican victory in congressional elections that soon followed, that Hillary Clinton first turned her attentions abroad in a sustained way. A lightening rod for criticism at home, she found that she was a powerful magnet and drew admiring crowds on the road, especially in the developing world.

She liked the independence and substantive dimension — talking about micro-credit initiatives for Third World women entrepreneurs, for instance — that foreign travel gave her. By contrast, aides noticed that when she traveled with Bill Clinton she would often be in a crabby mood; she disliked being relegated to the role of spousal appendage and the traditional teas and other ceremonies that came with that.

The same pattern — self-discipline amid embarrassment — repeated itself a few years later. During the Monica Lewinksy scandal, even close friends said they were struck, even worried, by her iron-willed discretion. She plotted political strategy for dealing with the scandal like a lawyer working on a case. Never mind that she and her wayward husband were themselves the clients and were living in a tabloid frenzy. She never discussed her personal feelings, even with people who considered themselves intimates.
The public support that flowed to her amid scandal in 1998 produced ecstatic crowds when she toured upstate New York that summer on a tour to promote historic preservation. That, in turn, led directly to the most improbable event in her public career: election to the Senate as a sitting first lady from a state where she had never lived.

Clinton’s Senate performance, meanwhile, suggested skills that could be important as secretary of state. Defying predictions that she would be a Senate show horse, she proved instead to be a work horse. She worked well with Republicans, even some who had tried to evict her husband from office during impeachment proceedings. She showed the trait that may be the most important to success in both legislative and diplomatic battles: iron pants, the willingness to sit and concentrate for hours at a time on tedious discussions.

As it happens, her presidential campaign suggested she may not have been well-suited for the chief executive role. She let factional wars between top aides like campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and pollster Mark Penn continue unabated for months, and she switched slogans and strategies like they were flavors of the month at an ice cream parlor.

“When she was running the entire show for herself, she convened a team that was totally incompetent and when it came time to fire people who weren’t getting the job done, she couldn’t pull the rip cord,” said one longtime Clinton confidant. “You could say that running a campaign is like running a little nation, and she failed. Maybe State will be a better fit.”

The State Department, by contrast, relies on a huge, highly organized army of career foreign service officers, so the executive skills of the person at the top are less of an issue.

Clinton’s post-campaign team is leaner and meaner, by necessity and design. She now relies on handful of tough, tight-lipped and loyal survivors led by longtime aide Maggie Williams and former Clinton impeachment lawyer Cheryl Mills, whose under-the-radar style belies a powerful influence in Hillaryland.

It was Mills, those close to Clinton say, who directly negotiated the most sensitive details of the Clintons’ nine-point agreement with Obama over the appointment, and Mills who urged Clinton surrogates to push back against press reports accusing the former president of withholding key documents from Obama’s transition team.

Known for her combative style and suspicion of the media, the 43-year-old Mills has for years been a key player for the Clintons on sensitive issues where legal and political interests intersect. “She’s the kind of person who makes sure your ass is covered,” said one Clintonite who is cool to Mills personally but respects her professionally. “That’s why Bill and Hillary both love her.”

Mills is rumored to be in line for a State Department appointment, although she has reportedly told friends she isn’t interested. Andrew Shapiro, Clinton’s top foreign policy aide in the Senate, is expected to join her at State, as is Huma Abedin, Clinton’s omnipresent traveling assistant and confidante. Others rumored to be considered for posts: Clinton adviser and press aide Philippe Reines; her former White House chief of staff, Melanne Verveer; and Lee Feinstein, a former State Department official serving on the transition team.

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