Hillary Clinton, at Holbrooke gala, is silent on Iran but shares warm anecdotes of her life


Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is interviewed by David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, during a gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the launch of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum, Dec. 4, 2013, in New York. (Jason DeCrow/AP)
December 4, 2013

A foreign policy debate is underway about Iran. Asia has become an urgent hot spot. And on Wednesday evening, the Democratic foreign policy establishment gathered in tuxedos and gowns around the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of European statues to hear from the last secretary of state and possibly the next president.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton did not have anything to say about the Iran nuclear deal, nor about the air defense zone over the East China Sea. During 30 minutes of questioning, she simply wasn’t asked.

Instead, Clinton led the foreign-affairs thinkers and moneyed elite, who came together at a gala celebrating the launch of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy of Berlin, on a colorful tour of her life.

She recalled running afoul of the Wellesley College administration when she spoke out against the Vietnam War in her 1969 commencement address.

Clinton described what made her choose to attend Yale Law School — because she was turned off by Harvard Law when a professor told her at a student-recruitment party, “We don’t need any more women.” And she playfully recalled falling in love at Yale with a dashing Arkansan named Bill, whom she said had such straggly reddish hair he looked like a Viking.

Clinton shared the moment she knew she had won the Senate race in New York — when Rick Lazio, her Republican opponent, approached her lectern during their debate. And she talked about her “very personal journey” to eventually counseling President Obama to order the high-risk raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Unlike in some of her previous remarks, though, Clinton did not mention Vice President Biden’s opposition to the raid.

Clinton also opened a window into her life now — “It was just time to step off that high wire,” she said — and said she is happily lunching with friends, taking her dogs on long walks and going to the movies with her husband.

But Clinton did not confront the policy challenges of the day. The moment was in keeping with how Clinton has spent the past year since stepping down as secretary of state as she considers a run for president in 2016. She has chosen to hover largely above the political fray while carefully avoiding showing any daylight between her opinions and the actions of the administration in which she previously served.

Clinton’s interviewer, financier and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, defended his decision to ask what one might consider softball questions.

“She’s very smart, and she’s very cautious,” Rubenstein told a few reporters. “She wasn’t going to say anything that was going to make news.”

Rubenstein said Clinton made no restrictions on what he could ask. He said he wanted to “give the crowd a good time” by asking Clinton to share humorous and colorful anecdotes.

“I’m not a journalist; I’m a businessman,” Rubenstein said. This year, the private equity group he co-founded, the Carlyle Group, paid Clinton to hold a private discussion with the firm’s shareholders.

At Wednesday’s gala, Clinton and other speakers paid tribute to Holbrooke, the legendary diplomat who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and Obama as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan before dying in 2010 at age 69.

Clinton warmly recalled Holbrooke’s “force of nature” personality, but she said some rankled White House staffers would come to her and say, “Can’t you do anything about him?”

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