By Walter Shapiro
The envelope, please. The 2012 award for the most candid comment by a prominent public official goes to Hillary Clinton. Her uncharacteristic burst of honesty adds a layer of complexity to the premature speculation about her political future.
In an interview with the New York Times columnist Gail Collins, Clinton revealed her fantasy for 2013 after she takes her final globe-girdling flight as secretary of state: “I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun. And relax. It sounds so ordinary, but I haven’t done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired.”
The dream seems so modest: to see whether her 65-year-old body can recover from years of too much stress and too little sleep. But Hillary Clinton, Private Citizen, will soon have to confront the world clamoring at her door with its own set of expectations, requests and demands for clarity about running for president in 2016.
Friends who want her to speak, receive an award or grace a charitable event have been told to hold off asking until April or May, according to a front-page story in last Sunday’s Times by Jodi Kantor. As an indication of the coming news media frenzy, the Times is already lavishing more space on the whither-Hillary beat than the tabloids devote to Lindsay Lohan and Kate Middleton. Combined.
What this means, of course, is no rest for the weary and world-famous.
Sure, Clinton may take two months or so off, interspersed with such restful tasks as house-hunting (the Clintons are said to be tempted by the Hamptons), hiring a staff, talking to a lecture agent, contemplating a book and presumably chatting with the most persistent political callers. If she does manage to sneak off on a vacation (Iowa is always lovely in March), rest assured that the paparazzi and the political press will be close behind.
Try as she might, Clinton will find it difficult, if not impossible, to avoid being entangled in a web of obligation. Legions of friends (and, unlike the norm in politics, her long-standing friendships appear genuine) will ask her for time-consuming favors that cannot all be rejected. The do-gooder side of her nature will propel her into too many events and trips for worthy causes. And, as a Clinton, she knows all too well how easily political supporters bristle when their egos are not being stroked.
I first interviewed Hillary Clinton in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock in 1992. And since then, I have made my contributions to that mushrooming branch of journalism called Hillary Studies. This experience has left me with an appreciation for her complexity as a person—and a reluctance to assume that her only motivations are ambition and a feminist obligation to seize the opportunity to become the first woman president.
So I have no idea if she will run in 2016, and I doubt if she does either. Clinton’s State Department spokesman Philippe Reines got it right when he cautioned the Times, “Be very wary of those pretending to bear actual knowledge.” Over the next two years, everyone in politics could learn enough classical Greek to read “The Iliad” in the time that they will devote to devouring speculative articles built around anonymous quotes from “Clinton friends.”
If she does make another bid for the White House, Clinton will have been granted the ultimate luxury in presidential politics. And that is to take the time in advance to contemplate what she would want to accomplish in the White House rather than having to focus solely on the mechanics for getting there.
The only postwar presidents who have had a chance to think seriously about governing from the White House before they took office were Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And in politics two out of three ain’t bad.
Since Reagan in 1980, every new president simultaneously held a normally demanding day job (vice president, governor or senator) when he was elected. Bill Clinton, for example, rushed from a 1990 re-election campaign as Arkansas governor to a roller-coaster race for the White House to president-elect without a moment for reflection. And this careening from crisis to crisis contributed to Clinton’s disastrous first two years in the White House.
But with Hillary Clinton it could be different. She has the right instincts about what she wants to do with the long-awaited gift of free time. Reading something other than briefing books and classified memos would add to her already impressive breadth of knowledge. Unstructured conversations with old friends and major thinkers might lead her in surprising intellectual directions. Such a laid-back interlude would make her, if elected, a better and more thoughtful president in 2017.
That is the theory. But the sad truth is that Clinton will never be allowed to go off the grid for long. Her celebrity is too great; the clamor for a piece of her political future is too intense.
So Clinton will dutifully do what is expected of her as a private citizen: attending an international conference in Bangladesh, holding an off-the-record meeting with potential political donors, writing a book, making a few policy addresses on national security. And, if she does return to the White House in 2017, she will still fantasize about being untired.
By Walter Shapiro