I have 20 minutes in a hotel room with one of the most famous and best-prepared minds on Earth. What can you ask the former first lady, senator and secretary of state that will elicit something that approximates earnestness? There’s no question the Yale Law School grad hasn’t answered, no testimony she hasn’t given, no political storm she hasn’t weathered, no journalist-induced whiplash she hasn’t suffered. Health care, Whitewater, impeachment. Does them in her sleep.
She has survived the Etna-like persistence of multiple bimbo eruptions, forgiven her husband for them, and even excused President Barack Obama for running a sexist campaign against her during the 2008 Democratic nomination battle. (Forget the Oval Office: It’s her presidential pardons that really count.) She can laugh at herself, cry with heart, but also curate and viciously prosecute an enemies list of people who transgressed her in 2008. There is no dictator or Democrat-manqué she hasn’t gone nose to nose with. She isn’t a wily survivor over three decades for nothing.
Now she may be back for the big prize. Or behind the curtains, waiting to collect it. Whether or not she runs, she has kicked off the 2016 election with her memoir, Hard Choices. She’s on the first campaign – a warm-up for another possible warm-up in the midterm elections this fall – and I have 20 minutes to figure out if she’s a priestess on the high altar of authenticity or a prepackaged, reissued presidential candidate-in-waiting. My clock is ticking.
Sitting in a suite at New York’s Peninsula Hotel, Mrs. Clinton is warm, impressive, speaking in hushed, familiar tones and catching herself as she becomes too grandiose. One on one, she is lively, approachable – intense eye contact, gesticulation, appreciative smiling. Sometimes this doesn’t make it all the way to the television screen or to the quotes on a page, but it’s there in person. Still, I just want to take away something personal I didn’t know before, something all the days of prepping couldn’t teach me. A souvenir, a telling detail.
In my 20th minute, I go for broke and ask a question suggested by our travel editor.
“I have a profound question,” I say with slight archness.
“Oh,” she says, raising the irony meter a notch. Either she read my mind or detected my abject sheepishness.
“I’d love to know your packing technique,” I say.
She pauses momentarily, then jumps in. “I probably overpack, because I’m always concerned that the climate is going to change despite the predictions,” she says, her tone shifting into the yadda-yadda of vague Seinfeldian irony. “It’s either going to be too hot or too cold, so I’ll always throw in a coat even though supposedly we’re going into summer. You know, a scarf in case I need it.”
Mrs. Clinton tells me something that ended up on the cutting-room floor of her 632-page memoir. “I landed in Kabul one time – I had meetings the next day – and somehow my clothes did not get off the plane. The plane had to go to Bagram. It couldn’t stay overnight in Kabul. And so I had no clothes. For a woman who is unfortunately as photographed as I am, it’s a minor crisis. It doesn’t rise to the level of War and Peace, but it’s a problem,” she says.
To my surprise and elation, the subject has struck an authentic chord. “Packing has always been one of my most difficult tasks,” she says, her words punctuated with knowing nods. “I do try to plan for a lot of contingencies because I don’t have time to go shopping. I can’t tell the press or the president of a country, ‘Wait until I figure out what I’m going to wear.’ I just want to have enough choices that I can get through the week.”
Of course, this kind of knowledge becomes dangerous, a convenient analogy you could stretch across five decades of public service. Mrs. Clinton’s book is, frankly, overpacked, the baggage of an earlier era of politics, the overfreighted briefing document before a presumed election run. Even though no one questions her gravitas, the idea of a heavy, traditional campaign book in an era of authentic politics is strategically questionable. Plus, the cover of Hard Choices is the identical twin to that of the memoir she wrote more than a decade ago, Living History.
But there are tactical strengths, too. Hard Choices creates sharp points of daylight between her and her president in the event that she runs for his job and is called upon to defend the Obama administration’s lack of muscularity abroad. While she will interminably be on the hook for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, wasn’t she correct in urging that Washington lightly arm the Syrian rebels? Of course. Didn’t she voice doubt over swapping Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl? Definitely. Isn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin one of the scarier men on the planet? No doubt. And wasn’t she way ahead of the curve on building new relationships in the East, a move called the Asia Pivot?