NEW YORK — When Sir Elton John bestowed his foundation’s first Founders Award on Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday night, it was ostensibly meant to honor her work combatting AIDS. But it came at a moment when everyone seems to be honoring the former secretary of state for something.
This summer, the American Bar Association gave her its highest honor for her work as a lawyer. The National Constitution Center feted her work as a public servant. Save the Children gave her an award for . . . helping save children. Last week, Clinton flew to London to receive yet another award — this one a scroll signed by Queen Elizabeth II celebrating her work as a diplomat.
In all, Clinton has racked up at least 15 awards in the nine months since she left the State Department, with more to come at the same time she is weighing a presidential campaign in 2016. Her supporters say the accolades are well deserved. But it also appears that Clinton has figured out how to leverage the awards to her political advantage, just as the groups honoring her benefit from having the would-be candidate promote their causes.
The awards circuit has effectively become Clinton’s pre-campaign campaign, allowing her to speak out on issues of her choosing and cement ties with key Democratic constituencies — all with little apparent political risk.
“She is basking in the glow of what many perceive as a successful run as secretary of state and as a former senator and what many believe to be the probable Democratic nominee for president of the United States,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said. “When you have that combination of power, everybody wants to say, ‘Hello!’ ”
The Elton John AIDS Foundation gala, emceed by NBC’s Matt Lauer, was a magnet for Hollywood A-listers and Manhattan bigwigs. The invitation listed more than 100 hosts, including rockers Courtney Love, Cyndi Lauper, Mick Jagger and Billy Joel, as well as actors Hugh Jackman, Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin and Russell Crowe.
Under the glittering, purple-lit dome of the Cipriani Wall Street ballroom, John showered Clinton in praise. He called her “our staunch ally, devoted champion, dear friend” and handed her a crystal trophy. Earlier, arriving on the red carpet, John said he hoped she becomes president. “It’s a huge honor just to even honor her.”
Clinton gave a brief speech, saying that “we still have far to go” to achieve the goal she set as secretary of state for an AIDS-free world. She added, “While there is still no cure, the good news is it is no longer a death sentence.”
Most of Clinton’s public appearances this year have come at tightly choreographed awards ceremonies or at closed-press trade conventions, such as one held Tuesday morning in Atlanta by the National Association of Convenience Stores. Some appearances net her upward of $200,000.
“It appears the only way to get Hillary to do an event is to either write her a big check or to give her a trophy,” said Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising PAC, the leading Republican group going after Clinton in anticipation of her 2016 candidacy.
Some of the awards given to Clinton seem tailor-made for her. God’s Love We Deliver, a New York charity that provides meals and counseling to people with AIDS, is giving her the first Michael Kors Community Service Award at a fundraising gala Wednesday night.
Kors, a fashion designer, said Clinton was “the first person who came to mind” because “she’s done more community service than anyone I know.”
But Karen Pearl, the charity’s president, said there was an added benefit to celebrating Clinton: “It just makes our event a terrific success out of the box. We will be having over 700 people, a completely sold-out event, and I don’t think we could squeeze another chair in the room if we wanted to.”
Asked how she persuaded Clinton to come and accept the award, Pearl said, “We had great luck. It’s fantastic that she said yes.”
Many of the award galas are scripted to showcase select parts of Clinton’s background and to avoid controversy. When Clinton received the American Bar Association Medal for her legal career, much was made of her work helping women advance in the profession — but little mention of her work for corporate clients. Miller said this amounted to “a whitewashing of her legal record.”
Clinton’s aides said she uses the awards ceremonies as platforms to address substantive issues. At the ABA in San Francisco, she delivered a sharply political address about voting rights. When she returned to Yale Law School for a distinguished alumni award, Clinton spoke about her passion for early childhood development. And when the Children’s Defense Fund honored her in Washington on the eve of the government shutdown, Clinton assailed Congress for voting to cut food stamps.
“Aside from being flattered by those that have chosen to honor her for her work, these events have been a forum for her to continue to talk to interested audiences and to the public about the issues that she has cared about and worked on for years, and continues to do so,” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said.
Next month in California, Clinton will be honored by the Mexican American Leadership Initiative and by the International Medical Corps. And at a gala in Washington, she will accept the American Patriot Award from the National Defense University Foundation.
“I’ve worked with her for so long that, if I’m used to anything, it’s her collection of honors over the years,” said former ambassador Melanne Verveer, a longtime Clinton confidant. “She’s got villages named after her and schools named after her all over the world.”
Although AIDS was the focus of Tuesday night’s Elton John gala, celebrities and business titans alike couldn’t keep from talking up Clinton’s potential candidacy. Lisa Marie Presley said she would love for Clinton to run because, she said, “I’m a woman, for one thing.”
And when Ronald Perelman, a prominent financier, accepted an honor of his own, he noted that “the next president of the United States” was coming up next in the program. A camera quickly panned to Clinton, who sat at the head table smiling. Perelman assured her from the stage, “You have my vote.”