Hillary Clinton, in her first interview after leaving the State Department, offered a wise metaphor about the current state of presidential election madness. “This election is more than three years away, and I just don’t think it’s good for the country,” she told New York magazine, referring to the fevered speculation about her possible candidacy. “It’s like when you meet somebody at a party and they look over your shoulder to see who else is there, and you want to talk to them about something that’s really important; in fact, maybe you came to the party to talk to that particular person, and they just want to know what’s next,” she says. “I feel like that’s our political process right now. I just don’t think it is good.”
Clinton knows what it’s like to be on both ends of that exchange. She was a political spouse; the shortsighted looked over her shoulder for many years, seeing her as merely an adjunct to her accomplished husband. Now, she is the person who draws every eye in the room — away from even her husband. (When someone says “Clinton”, it may not be long before a majority of people think of the former secretary of state and not the former president).
Most presidential candidates strain for attention. They rush to Iowa, write books or take extreme positions on controversial issues. Clinton has to do the opposite, trying to flee from the circus ready to chase her down the grocery store aisle. But she’s in a bind. If she makes too much news this far ahead of the 2016 presidential election, there’s a chance people will tire of her candidacy. (Update, Sept. 24: Joan Walsh of Salon says she’s feeling Clinton fatigue already.) If she steps back, though, the unstoppable flow of Clinton stories will come anyway (especially the highly unflattering ones that feature people loosely associated with Clinton world, like the New Republic profile of Doug Band, who once oversaw the Clinton Global Initiative). Not all of these people leave a good impression.
Clinton is perhaps the first presidential candidate of the modern age who needs a Rip Van Winkle strategy — a disappearing act that removes her from the witless swirl of speculation and gossip that preserves her presidential options. But what is this strategy? Does she go on a kibbutz for a year? What about a prayer retreat? She is a woman of skill. Surely, she can find some way to escape from the clatter or at least turn it into a force for good. (Perhaps she should launch a website on mindless Clinton speculation and donate the ad revenue from the site to one of the worthy causes she’s been promoting most of her adult life).
It’s frankly hard to imagine a place she could retreat (without the aid of rocket propulsion) that would quiet the appetite of editors, gossips and TV producers. Retreating would give voters a pause and Clinton a chance to live a normal life, but there’s also a governing benefit: We get sick of our presidents pretty quickly in the age of the hyper news cycle. Who pays attention to an Obama speech these days? With candidates starting to position themselves for the presidency earlier and earlier, it’s almost certain that we’ll be sick of the next president by the time he or she is in office. If Hillary Clinton is that president, it will be particularly acute in her case.
Though Clinton worries about the country looking over the president’s shoulder at the next candidate, she isn’t exactly keeping her arms at her sides. The New York piece is full of little waves to the admirers, including an admission of the obvious: She’s thinking about running for president. The former secretary of state explains how normal her life is now. She’s just flopping about the house, laughing at the dogs. As America’s jet-set chief diplomat, she only had time to speak to her husband by phone; now she’s watching stupid movies with him.
The piece has the feel of a reset, both natural and strategic: Of course she’s the competent woman in that C-17 photograph, but she’s also normal, real and grounded. (At the start of the 2008 presidential race, the Clinton team tried to convey a similar feeling with a video to voters where she sat on what looked like a living room couch. If they’re going that route again, maybe this time she could appear in the garden with some mulch or a Pinterest account of DIY house projects.)
If you’re into tea-leaf reading, when you look into the bottom of the New York story, it spells out: Hillary 2016. Clinton positions herself as a secretary of state who was in the thick of it but independent enough to disagree with the president. “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 opportunities that we face in the world today.”
Most impressive is the way the others quoted in the story fall into perfect formation, shooting down each of her perceived vulnerabilities, one by one. They testify to her management skill at the State Department — the chaos of the 2008 campaign is gone. They testify that Bill Clinton is a figure in the distance — no meddling from the Big Dog. It’s a masterful rendition of the form. It’s the kind of story we once expected to read a year before a presidential race, not three years before. Now she just has to figure out how to manage those two long years in between.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”