Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton

Hillary Rodham Clinton has accepted perhaps the highest profile cabinet position in American government: Secretary of State. The position held now by Condoleeza Rice and by Colin Powell before her and by Madeleine Albright before him, will now go to the junior Senator from New York who is married to the most popular, if also the most controversial, living ex-president, William Jefferson Clinton. It is a surprising move, and the first bold decision of the Obama presidency has been made before it even begins.

Why is it bold? Hillary Clinton is undeniably intelligent, hard-working, and hard-nosed. In its let-bygones-be-bygones symbolism it paints Obama as bigger than petty rivalries, and forces Clinton to eat her words about Obama being unprepared: if she is going to work for him, she is tacitly admitting she was either wrong or playing politics in a way that merely endorsing him never could. So what is the reason for the gasps from some observers?

Well, there have long been behind-the-scenes murmurs that Clintonian team-building and leadership, on the organizational level, is based on creating an us-versus-them mentality which spreads to all areas of interaction with the "outside" world. The worries are that the Clintons, who built their own powerful machine largely separate from and superior to the shriveled labor-left dinosaur of a party that failed presidential candidates from an incumbent Carter to an ill-starred Dukakis, might form a faction within the government that plays its own games and keeps its own score.

The Clintons introduced elaborate, PR-infused, focus-group-based, obsessive polling and aggressive, media-circus spin to American politics. In conjunction with the development of the 24 hour news cycle, the emergence of the internet, and a new spirit of take-no-prisoners partisanship, the Clinton administration changed politics forever. And not just in the United States. Tony Blair and New Labor were unabashedly in the new, centrist Democratic party's mold in both policy and public relations. To a great extent Sarkozy is possible because of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Like Clinton, both Blair and Sarkozy are personally polarizing, exciting passionate responses to the men themselves. That is, a politics of personality that transcends the policies they personify, useful both in maintaining the initiative and obscuring the real issues.

What does all this have to do with Hillary Clinton? If we believe her most ardent supporters -- and her most rabid detractors -- Hillary Clinton wasn't merely present at the creation of the new politics, she was instrumental in its formulation.

Mrs. Clinton was by many accounts equal partners with her husband in his rise to the highest office of the most powerful nation in the world. This rise, which was accomplished largely out of the public eye -- how many people knew who the governor of Arkansas was before 1992? -- was masterful and Machiavellian. Hillary was the first female partner at the Rose Law Firm, the oldest west of the Mississippi River, whose Clinton-era clients included Walmart, Tyson Foods, and the Arkansas Gazette. She was consistently ranked as one of the most powerful lawyers in the nation. Her husband was State Attorney General and a player in Democratic politics. The Clintons, like the Obamas, were not wealthy people by Bush standards when they left school, and yet their political climb was mirrored by an impressive financial success accomplished exclusively through remarkably prescient investments. Though no charges ever "stuck" despite massive and expensive federal investigations of these dealings, the larger questions of where the Clinton's political power ends and personal enrichment begins remains open.

Naming Rahm Emanuel to be his Chief of Staff and now Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State, Obama, himself only briefly a junior senator and before that a state senator, has surrounded himself thus far with Clinton-era power-hitters. The shape of the cabinet from this moment on will be influenced by the knowledge of future nominees that they are joining a team already dominated by hardened veterans of the Whitewater wars with vast networks of vassal-operatives at their personal disposal. The role of President Clinton himself is yet to be determined, as he has been far from idle over the past eight years, building both a personal fortune and a forward-thinking international network of philanthropic investment and development. His personal life has often threatened to become public during this time, as well.

Time will tell. Either Obama has harnessed an incomparable work-horse, or invited trouble to dinner.