A Team Player Who Stands Apart

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

With the exception of former senator Edmund S. Muskie's brief turn as secretary of state at the end of the Carter administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton is the first politician in the job in six decades -- the rest have hailed from the fields of foreign policy or the military.

By all accounts, she is the consummate team player and is often the best-briefed, most prepared person in the room. President Obama's aides say he values her advice and appreciates her dedication, dampening speculation that he and his erstwhile rival would not work well together.

But after eight months in office, Clinton, 61, sometimes seems torn between her inclination to lead and her need to function effectively within the administration, creating a certain tension between her aspirations and her status.

She has been prone to making pronouncements and blunt comments that have put her ahead of, or out of sync with, the rest of the administration. She maintains a robust public persona -- her lengthy overseas trips are filled with town hall meetings and softball television interviews -- but she is largely invisible on the big issues that dominate the foreign policy agenda, including the war in Afghanistan, the attempt to engage Iran and efforts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

She and her aides say she is deeply involved in policymaking and has inserted herself at important moments. But the impression of many foreign policy experts is that she has her own agenda, such as her focus on women's rights.

The portrait that emerges from interviews and from the observation of Clinton's early tenure is one of an intensely political figure who wants to remain above the fray of day-to-day diplomacy and to work well with her fellow Cabinet members, but who also wants to stand alone from time to time. She has had the self-awareness to know that she is not an expert in diplomacy: One senior aide was assigned to spend the first six months listening to Clinton's public comments in an effort to discern her foreign policy philosophy.

"I consider myself the president's chief foreign policy adviser, the country's chief diplomat and the State Department's chief executive," Clinton said in an interview this week, sitting on a sofa in the plush expanse of her State Department office. "That's how I see my role, and I'm working in all three of those areas."


Clinton arrived at the department with a large and loyal staff collectively known as Hillaryland. At times, it fits uncomfortably within the State Department establishment, which views the influx as a jobs program for her campaign acolytes. Some close aides still privately harbor hopes she will run again for president.

State's director of policy planning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is not a longtime Clinton adviser, said her main job in the first six months was to help the new secretary root her thinking into a foreign policy paradigm.

"I could listen to her and travel with her and listen to her respond at press avails [news conferences] and get a real feel for the constants, what were the north stars," said Slaughter, a former dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. "A large part of what I did for the first six months was to work with her and work with other members of her senior team to identify those themes, and then help bring them together in a more coherent way."

Slaughter would write memos, Clinton would respond whether she was in the ballpark, and then Slaughter would refine and sharpen the memos, resubmitting them to Clinton. The result was Clinton's earnest and thoughtful speech in July, before the Council on Foreign Relations, saying the United States would exercise leadership through partnership with other countries and organizations.

But if Clinton's retinue has grated, her skills as a politician and her contacts in Congress and elsewhere have helped her attract accomplished talents and win substantial increases in funding for State in a time of soaring deficits.

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