Washington can be a cruel and unforgiving place. Want a friend? Harry Truman once said. Get a dog. Or maybe he didn’t say it. But it’s a good point: In this town, nobody gets a free pass from the press, the pundits and the pols.
Nobody, that is, until Hillary Clinton. At the end of her tenure as secretary of state, she alone has emerged virtually unscathed — the lone superstar of the president’s first term. A recent poll has her numbers well above the president’s and exceeded only by you guessed it — her husband, Bill. And those high favorability ratings have remained pretty consistent since 2008.
There’s no denying that Clinton has done a very good job as the nation’s top diplomat. But to read the media adulation, you’d think she was about to be admitted into the secretary of state Hall of Fame. Google Chairman Eric E. Schmidt introduced her last year as the “most significant secretary of state since Dean Acheson.” A New York Times profile earlier this year claimed her legacy was nothing less than the “remaking of American diplomacy in her own fashion.”
Unlike President Obama, she also appears to have racked up almost no deficits. Nothing seems to stick — not Benghazi, not Syria, and not the fact that she never managed to lead and succeed on a single consequential foreign-policy issue. Last week, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza nailed it: Hillary, he wrote, was “the new Teflon Clinton.”
So what is it about those Clintons, or at least Hillary, that has made her virtually untouchable — at least while running Foggy Bottom? What’s in the secret sauce? How do we explain the magic touch?
I’m not sure I fully understand it. But here’s my best take.
1. Everybody loves a star: With the exception of Colin Powell, no secretary of state in American history came to the office with more visibility, fame, fewer asterisks and more good will than Hillary Clinton. She’s even got Thomas Jefferson beat.
After all, how many of the nation’s top diplomats had already been in the White House for eight years, missed being her party’s presidential nominee by a hair and had a readymade fan base of as many as 18 million Americans who cast votes for her in the primaries before she even settled into the State Department’s seventh floor?
Add to this a dash of the bipartisanship that allows the secretary of state — alone among the key cabinet posts — to transcend politics, throw in a husband who remains the best politician in America today, and you have a recipe for success.
2. Work hard, and don’t forget the charm: By all accounts, Hillary Clinton applied the same approach toward Foggy Bottom as she did toward her Senate career. Work hard, master your brief and try not to shine too brightly and offend others gratuitously.
Her capacity to master her brief and those cumbersome briefing books is legendary. What’s more, she knows what she knows and isn’t afraid or embarrassed to find out what she doesn’t.
I had one personal experience with her as first lady that confirms it. Dennis Ross, then the State Department’s special envoy for the Middle East, and I accompanied her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 2000. This was largely a ceremonial trip — and yet she insisted on using the flight over to engage in a detailed discussion of Israeli politics and Arab-Israeli diplomacy.