The XX Factor

Hillary Clinton’s Freedom of Speech

Jonathan Van Meter’s new profile of Hillary Clinton in Vogue is very fine. The reporting took place over the middle months of the year since Clinton assumed her position as Secretary of State. It’s complete with a juicy account of the near-misses, prolonged waffling, and trickery that preceded her acceptance of Barack Obama’s job offer.

Each time Clinton wavered, Obama would talk her through it again. “At the end of the day,” says one of her aides, “it was the president who sold her on it. He didn’t delegate it.” Says another staffer, “They started talking about it substantively, looking around the globe, and they were basically in the same place. The things they disagreed about in the campaign? We didn’t believe he was actually going to have coffee with Ahmadinejad. It was something he shouldn’t have said in the campaign, and we pounced on it. The tiny differences in their foreign-policy ideas during the primaries evaporated during the general election.”

As usual, the story makes me feel terrible about the campaign season I spent trashing Clinton’s motives, if not her smarts. Of course, her personal ambition-a key source of derision-has been naturally checked by her new position as diplomat, not commander-in-chief. But when she brings the Liberian parliament to tears with her statement of patriotism, ribs Defense Secretary Bob Gates for being too private, or takes a lonely swim in the Atlantic Ocean, it paints a portrait of a woman satisfied-and converting her own ” overexposure ” into an overseas version of “hope and change.”

What’s really interesting, however, from a diplomatic perspective, is this nugget buried in the middle of the story:

One of the refrains I kept hearing from reporters was Condi would never do this . Clinton, a woman from politics, knows how to work a crowd. Sometimes her motorcade would arrive and she would jump out and just plunge right in, getting out ahead of her security team, who often looked a little panicked. She danced her funky little dance at the dinners held in her honor (as seen on YouTube). In Cape Town, she threw a party for the press and drank with the best of us, talking for more than two hours, into the night, with surprising off-the-record candor about everything from her husband to her disdain for certain world leaders. She’s fun. She laughs at herself. And she is full of surprisingly sharp, pointy little retorts, barbs, and comebacks. On several occasions she drifted to the back of the plane, allowing zesty debates to flower, often asking, “What’s your take?” of different reporters, who hung on her every word. One of them told me his opinion of Hillary had completely turned around: “My parents hated her, and I thought she was a bitch who surrounded herself with horrible people. But she’s nice! She’s really frank and blunt and funny. One time she said to me, ‘We need China.’ Condi would never do that. I like her.” Condoleezza Rice, I was told, almost never even came out of her cabin.

Never mind the flattering comparison with Rice-I’m both surprised and not to read that Clinton is so loose-lipped about sensitive bilateral relationships. This candor has caused Clinton to be branded as a gaffe-machine by Michael Crowley in the New Republic , among others -quite a departure from the “almost animatronic ability to stay on message” she maintained during the 2008 campaign. Should we care? Yes, her new job description requires more discretion than this paragraph might suggest she possesses. But the remark about China (of ever greater importance to the United States, given financial and environmental debates raging today) is a blatant statement of fact. Likewise her Kissinger-esque comments about overlooking the nation’s human rights failings in service of some realpolitik . Further, not only is this truth-telling refreshing, Clinton’s candor, in a way, fits more closely with the spirit of openness and transparency that her opponent advocated during the 2008 campaign. Have we seen Barack Obama be this genuine about his foreign policy beliefs recently? Turnabout, it seems, is fair play.

Photograph of Hillary Clinton by Alex Wong/Getty Images.