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October 18, 2012

Is This Really Goodbye?

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Clinton's stardom and her uncanny ability to turn the most sour of lemons into the sweetest lemonade were in evidence throughout our time in Africa. She is not above recasting her failures into object lessons for the people she meets. To inspire local officials, she told stories about her own electoral defeats, saying, "I have won elections and I have lost elections. When you lose an election, it's important that [your supporters] see that the process was fair." She willingly trots out the most unpleasant memories to help her cause. In an unscripted moment, she told a group of South African students, "[When] my husband was president, people were saying terrible things about us both. I was beginning to think, Who do they think they are?" Again and again, at the AIDS clinics in Cape Town and the dairy factories in Malawi, she mentioned her husband (always "my husband," never "President Clinton"), leveraging his popularity and their mutual celebrity to further her message.

One of the most uncomfortable moments of our interview came when I asked her about her marriage. The discomfort, however, was mine, not hers. I debated not even raising the issue. But the fact is that, for many women, the Clintons' partnership of equals stands as both a model and a cautionary tale. We are still curious about it, even 14 years after its dissection on the floor of Congress. Given what the woman has been through with all the various "bimbo eruptions," culminating in the Monica Lewinsky debacle, and given the public's insatiable appetite for rumors, however vague, of her husband's continued infidelities, her grace in response to my probing was astounding. "You have to be true to yourself," Clinton told me. "You have to be enough in touch with who you are and what you want, how you want to live and what's important to you, to make your decisions based on that. Sometimes that's very difficult. Sometimes it's hard to have your own internal voice be heard ... it's hard because you've got society with expectations and you've got family, friends, and others who are expressing opinions. When you're in the public eye, it's like open season with the entire world. You have just one life to live. It is yours. Own it, claim it, live it, do the best you can with it."

Clinton has owned it, claimed it, and lived it. In her remarkable book about the 2008 election, Big Girls Don't Cry, Rebecca Traister describes a little girl sitting on her father's shoulders at a Clinton rally. The sign she's holding reads "Hillary '08, Sophia '40." Something about that image moves me terribly. So much so that, when I was describing it to a senior aide, a longtime resident of Hillaryland, I actually cried. After bringing me a tissue, the aide said, "I would like Hillary Clinton to be the first female president." And you know what? After spending 10 days watching Clinton kick ass all over Africa, and despite never before caring the slightest bit about Clinton's presidential aspirations, I've come to want that, too.

Clinton, however, was emphatic when I asked if she was planning to run in 2016. Laughing, she said, "You know? I am not."

"Why not?" I asked. "Everybody wants you to."

Her answer, when it came, felt honest, though it was hardly different from the answer given by numerous other politicians in the same position, all of whom have insisted they wouldn't run up until the moment they changed their minds. "I have been on this high wire of national and international politics and leadership for 20 years," Clinton said. "It has been an absolutely extraordinary personal honor and experience. But I really want to just have my own time back. I want to just be my own person. I'm looking forward to that."

"And you're really not going to leave the door open just a crack?" I asked. "For Sophia? For [my own daughter] Sophie?"

Again that warm laugh. "I'm going to be cheering them on. I hope to be around when we finally elect a woman president. That would be a great experience for me, to be up there cheering."

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