Clinton’s moment

By Andrew Cohen

November 25, 2008

Barack Obama — king of composure, emperor of events — is about to lose control over both. “No Drama Obama” is writing the plot of his very own soap opera.

Its name is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It is expected that Mr. Obama will appoint Mrs. Clinton secretary of state. This is the most prestigious position in the cabinet, the face of America to the world. On the surface, the move is brilliant.

After all, before there was Mr. Obama, there was Hillary Clinton. She was the Supernova before he was the Usurper. She was the best-known woman in the country. Her success seemed inevitable less than a year ago; she would win the nomination of the Democratic party and the presidency, too.

Now Mr. Obama has apparently invited her to join his administration. Why? And she has apparently accepted. Why? For Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and the country, it’s a mistake.

Mr. Obama did not need Mrs. Clinton in his inner circle. If he had, he would have asked her to become his vice-president in August. He had more reason then; she had won almost as many votes as he did (18 million) in that long, enervating political season from January to June.

But Mr. Obama never seriously considered Mrs. Clinton for the vice-presidency. We know this because he never “vetted” her or her husband. He concluded, correctly, that he did not need her to “unite” Democrats. He could win with Joe Biden.

He had other grounds for caution then. It was thought that Mrs. Clinton would blunt his message of change and would establish a rival centre of power within his administration.

And there was Bill Clinton, whose indiscretion in his wife’s campaign diminished his carefully cultivated stature as a conscientious, philanthropic former president. Moreover, his shady business dealings with strutting strongmen since leaving office threatened to undermine Mr. Obama’s squeaky-clean image.

Having first rejected Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama seems to want her now. He knows once he chooses her he is stuck with her; politically speaking, she cannot be fired.

The appointment is hard to fathom. Her eight years in the Senate (on the armed services committee) and eight as first lady (she travelled widely in a ceremonial role) have exposed her to the world, yes, but they have scarcely made her a seasoned diplomat or a cabinet secretary, a glaring inexperience Mr. Obama noted during the primary season.

Cosmopolitan and intelligent as she is, Mrs. Clinton does not come from diplomacy, the academy, the military, the bureaucracy or the cabinet, which have produced almost all postwar secretaries of state. Dean Gooderham Acheson, George C. Marshall, John Foster Dulles, Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, James Baker, Warren Christopher and Colin Powell all brought far more expertise to the job than she does.

This hasn’t fazed Mr. Obama. Perhaps he wants to recreate Lincoln’s fabled “team of rivals.” Perhaps he wants her out of the Senate, which is why John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon Johnson as his vice-president. Perhaps he wants her international star power (not that he doesn’t have enough of his own).

He could have had Bill Richardson, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar, Bill Bradley, Sam Nunn, all successful active or former politicians. Or the creative Strobe Talbott or Richard Holbrooke.

Yet, if the appointment raises doubts, it is about judgment more than generosity. It takes a self-confident chief executive to appoint a rival to his inner circle, especially one with a flawed, egotistical husband. Mr. Obama has done it.

If the choice is dubious for Mr. Obama, it is mystifying for Mrs. Clinton. At 61, she has presumably concluded that this job (whether four or eight years) is her last in public life. She could run for president in 2016, at 69, but it’s unlikely.

Now she gives up her seat in the Senate, where she might have had a position of leadership. She might have spent the next 20 years or so there, becoming the spiritual successor to the incomparable Edward M. Kennedy.

As the U.S. enters a new liberal hour, she might have become its tribune. She might have become the champion of health care (redressing her mishandling of the file in 1993), the green economy and a multilateral foreign policy. Ultimately, like Senator Kennedy, she might have made her mark as a legislator.

Instead, she imagines herself a stateswoman, representing a resurgent United States. It may be that she and the new president have a fine relationship. It may be that Mr. Biden, who was to be chief diplomat, won’t resent the competition. It may be that Bill behaves himself.

If this doesn’t work, though, if the team of rivals becomes a clash of the titans, no one should be surprised.


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