Clinton leaves Secretary of State position, sailing on fair wind

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She has traveled nearly a million miles, it seems, from Whitewater, Travelgate and the Task Force on National Health Care Reform -- a tumultuous and very public journey from polarizing first lady to "workhorse" senator, to the U.S.'s top diplomat, where she really did almost hit the million mark and now basks in 69 percent approval ratings.

She could have, as she said once, stayed home and baked cookies, or divorced her husband for his infidelities or withdrawn from public life after her failed presidential campaign, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has, through ambition, calculation, fortitude and formidable intellect, just kept on going.

And it's not over yet.

While today is her last day as secretary of state, the Hillary for President forces are already massing. Super PAC "Ready for Hillary," registered with the Federal Election Commission last week, although Mrs. Clinton has said she was "not inclined" to run in 2016.

Then again, in a globally televised town hall meeting with young people Wednesday, she said she would continue to "do everything I can to make sure women compete at the highest levels."

Presumably that might include her, four years hence, given the strength of her fan base.

"Here was Hillary in 2008, the first woman with a real shot at winning, who fought to the death, and she still lost," said Christina Wilkie, a reporter for Huffington Post. "Right when she could have easily walked away from public life and said it was all unfair, Hillary picked herself up, forgave her party for betraying her, and [President Barack] Obama for calling her a relic, and marched right into the middle of the team that had just spent a year tearing her down and took the biggest job they had."

Her record

So, how did she do?

As Mrs. Clinton, 65, gets ready to catch up on "about 20 years of sleep deprivation," as she told the town meeting attendees, the superlatives are coming in thick and fast -- she's superb, she's the best in 20 years, she's the best since George Shultz during the Reagan administration, she's the best since Dean Acheson.

Dean Acheson? That last utterance was from Eric Schmidt, the 57-year-old executive chairman of Google, when he introduced her at a conference last year. Acheson, who became secretary of state in 1949, successfully managed a policy of Cold War containment and the creation of NATO.

Nicholas Kralev, author of "America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy," is one of those who thinks Mrs. Clinton is the best since Mr. Shultz, especially in building morale among foreign service officers.

But despite her work ethic and communication skills, diplomacy isn't what it used to be, he noted, especially compared with the transformational secretaries of the Cold War era, when Acheson, George Marshall and Henry Kissinger implemented big initiatives -- from going to war in Korea, rebuilding postwar Europe or establishing relations with China.

Mr. Kralev argues that secretaries of state should be judged in three main areas: as the president's chief foreign policy adviser; as the U.S. face of diplomacy abroad; and chief operating officer of a vast bureaucracy of State Department employees around the world.

Colin Powell, a military man who cared about his troops, excelled in the last category but few regarded him as an influential foreign policy adviser in the first administration of George W. Bush. The scholarly Condoleezza Rice traveled constantly and was close to Mr. Bush, but was frequently overrun by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mrs. Clinton, unschooled in foreign policy, was a quick study, a natural diplomat who was already a celebrity when she took the job, and that, along with her management skills, earns her high marks all around, Mr. Kralev said. She was able to get more congressional funding for State Department operations -- she aimed for a 25 percent increase and got 17 -- whereas Ms. Rice was criticized for "not taking care of the building," Mr. Kralev said.

Her total travel mileage falls about 100,000 short of Ms. Rice's 1.06 million, but Mrs. Clinton has visited more countries (112) than any of her predecessors, meeting with dissidents and dictators.

Mrs. Clinton mostly shared Mr. Obama's foreign policy views, and if she disagreed with him about maintaining troops in Iraq or coming down harder on Russian President Vladimir Putin's rigged elections, she kept quiet about it. Keeping a harrowing schedule, she produced her share of Gaza cease-fires, but given no large Middle East initiative, she turned to Asia and what she called "smart power" issues (derided by conservative critics as "soft power" issues): female empowerment, human rights, microfinance -- even in the middle of a crisis with China over a dissident seeking asylum in the United States.

Being a great secretary of state is a lot about luck, said Dennis Jett, former U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and now a professor at Penn State's School of International Affairs.

"It depends on the president you have and the time you live in. Grand strategies are impossible these days," Mr. Jett said. "You have the diminished power of the United States and an increase in the relative power of other countries. The Henry Kissinger style of realpolitik doesn't work in the age of the Internet and political polarization."

Rather than just focusing on the last four years in the State Department, "I would look at the remarkable arc of her accomplishment," said Carl Bernstein, author of the 2007 biography, "A Woman in Charge," who called her a "great" Secretary of State.

Asked by her former rival to serve in what was "a unique situation, with no time to rest since she was first lady, really -- that's a rather remarkable accomplishment." Look at "how effective she has been as a [spokeswoman] for our country," he added. "She's an amazingly acute person, usually ahead of the curve, [who] is able to get beyond conventional wisdom and identify new ideas."

The critics

And yet, conservatives note, Bashar Assad is still in office in Syria a year after Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton said he must go, China has been flexing its muscles in the South China Sea and the Middle East continues to defy attempts at peacemaking.

"The results are not there," said Eric Golub, a conservative political commentator who blogs frequently on the Washington Times Communities page.

Of course her poll ratings are high, he added. "She's non-controversial," he argued, except for what she has said is her biggest regret -- the deaths of four diplomats in Benghazi. "The State Department's job is to keep the Defense Department from blowing up the world," he said.

Still, it is something of a marvel that, after 2008's bitter campaign clashes with Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton has been so loyal and effective a representative of the man who deprived her of her life's dream, say her supporters.

"Not in a million years," she told aides when it was suggested Mr. Obama would offer her the secretary of state job.

Nearly a million miles later, she is like Ulysses, said Ms. Wilkie, "who was wily and crafty but also brave and good," who returned from his own global odyssey to find his wife being pursued by a houseful of suitors, but persevered, besting his rivals in an archery contest. A new generation of ambitious women have very few examples of "who we can look to when the thing you want most doesn't happen, when every sign points to all your work being for nothing."

They would do well, she said, to look to Mrs. Clinton, on how to fail, prevail and endure.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: or 412-263-1949.


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