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October 18, 2012

Is This Really Goodbye?

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Nowadays she dresses, it seems, for herself, sometimes in plain but well-cut pantsuits that flatter her size, but more often in eye-catching, jewel-toned jackets and vibrant silk tunics, cheerful colors that perk up the long slog from one event to another, one country to the next. Her hair, a topic of oddly obsessive public interest, is long, past her shoulders, a choice she made in favor of simplicity and ease. "When my hair was shorter, I used to get it done every couple of days ... but I got tired of that. It took an hour ... I let my hair grow because I'm on the road so much and there are so many different things [I] can do with it."

She most often wears her hair pulled back, a style that maddens certain male members of her staff, who worry that it makes her look too severe. The women are more forgiving, perhaps because they are exhausted by the endless fascination with her hair, or perhaps because they, too, are sometimes reduced by early bag drop times and broken hotel hair dryers to ponytails and buns. Personally, I like the ponytail. Altogether, I am impressed by Clinton's polish and in awe of her stamina.

I had started out the trip determined to avoid drinking the Clinton Kool-Aid, but by the end I was knocking it back like a giddy 6-year-old. It was Malawi that sealed the deal for me. We were visiting a Peace Corps project called Girls Leading Our World when 17-year-old Triza Lapani, wrapping a brightly colored chitenje around Clinton's waist, managed to crack Madame Secretary's carapace of firm, cool competence. Clinton stood with her arms raised as the girl spun around her. Her hair was soft around her face, and her smile was broad and honest. She seemed entirely at home, warm, even maternal, and I melted.

This—the fragile front line where childhood and politics meet—is, after all, where her career began four decades ago, when she worked as a young lawyer for Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. Though it is often overshadowed by seemingly more impressive bullet points in her biography, advocating on behalf of children and women has been Clinton's life's work, and she believes absolutely that the project of elevating the status of women is critical to nation building. "There is no doubt in my mind," she told me over tea and tiny cakes that I was too nervous to consume, "that without the involvement of women in the economy, in politics, in peacemaking, in every aspect of society, you can't realize [a country's] full potential."

Clinton's staff—both the career State Department employees and the roughly 100 presidential appointees she brought with her—initially reacted to this formulation with, she told me, a lot of eye rolling. But she persisted, insisting on including women-focused events in her schedule, raising the issue of women's rights in almost every speech and press event, and transforming the State Department's Office of Global Women's Issues into an institutional powerhouse. No other secretary of state has ever made women's rights as central an issue as Clinton has.

Many of the people surrounding Clinton are true believers who have worked with her since she was first lady. But what stuns most everyone—her Capitol Hill critics and colleagues alike—is how quickly she won over the outsiders, specifically those who may have bristled at the appointment of a woman whose bona fides in matters of global security and diplomacy came largely from her tenure as FLOTUS. Even the most entrenched State Department bureaucrats are now contented citizens of "Hillaryland"—a term coined by her inner circle ages ago, yet which still aptly describes the with-us-or-against-us bubble that she operates in. Ply a Hillary wingman with drinks and an overpriced steak and he'll invariably launch into a heartfelt, almost high-strung, monologue about his boss that telegraphs a fierce loyalty not unlike what Michael Corleone inspired. Clinton has a cadre of her own Tom Hagens who clearly respect her and, yes, probably fear her a little, too.


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