Editorial -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

WORD THAT President-elect Barack Obama is vetting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for secretary of state has set off a furious flurry of chatter. Some laud Mr. Obama for possibly re-creating the team of rivals favored by Abraham Lincoln. Others think it's a mistake bordering on heresy, if you listen to some of Mr. Obama's more ardent supporters, to reward a former rival who brings with her a lot of baggage -- and a globe-trotting husband and former president who's carrying much of it. Ms. Clinton strikes us as well qualified for the job. But that's not quite the end of the question.

In part, the bubbling backlash against her reflects concern about the number of former Clinton administration officials tapped for transition roles or White House jobs. This is silly. They cut their policy and governmental teeth during Bill Clinton's eight years as president, the only Democratic occupation of the Oval Office since Jimmy Carter vacated it in 1981. To insist on a government that has no experience would serve neither the incoming president nor a nation beset by problems.

Choosing Ms. Clinton would show that Mr. Obama (and this comes as no surprise) is confident enough to surround himself with smart and capable people. As first lady and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has learned the potency and perils of hard and soft power alike. Her vigorous campaigning for Mr. Obama this fall suggests an ability to function as part of a team.

But if Mr. Obama chooses Ms. Clinton, he'll get Mr. Clinton -- two for the price of one, you might say. And this is where critics of the Clintons, and even their supporters, have legitimate concerns. Some of these are backward-looking, regarding the hundreds of millions of dollars that Mr. Clinton has raised for his presidential library and foundation, including from foreign governments, foreign individuals and others with an interest in foreign affairs. We have long argued that presidents, sitting or retired, should not be permitted to collect this sort of secret cash for their libraries. The imperative for disclosure is even greater in the case of the Clintons because of Ms. Clinton's continuing involvement in public life. Among those reported to have given $1 million or more are Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates; the Saudi royal family gave $10 million. If Ms. Clinton is to serve as the nation's chief diplomat, the nation is entitled to know what foreign interests have donated generously to help her husband.

Even more complicated is how the Clintons could pursue their parallel careers if she were to become secretary of state. Mr. Clinton would have to give up his lucrative foreign speechmaking and deal-brokering. And for all the good works of his foundation, which has focused on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, promoting sustainable growth and alleviating global poverty, it is difficult to see how Mr. Clinton's work with a nongovernmental organization could continue alongside Ms. Clinton's work for the U.S. government. When Mr. Clinton exhorted a foreign government to provide funding or cooperation, would he be carrying the implicit support of the U.S. government? Consider Mr. Clinton's September 2005 trip to Kazakhstan with Canadian mining tycoon Frank Giustra, who has given $130 million to the Clinton foundation. The two men attended a banquet with Kazakh strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev; within a few days, Mr. Giustra had obtained preliminary agreements for his company to buy into uranium projects controlled by the state-owned uranium agency. Neither President Obama nor, if it comes to that, Secretary of State Clinton needs headaches like these.

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