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October 18, 2012

Is This Really Goodbye?

Much has been said of Hillary Clinton (and little spared) during her two decades in the public eye. Now, as she prepares to step down as secretary of state, the most accomplished and, arguably, misunderstood woman in recent history insists she's done with public life for good. Ayelet Waldman joins Clinton on a tour of duty in Africa to find out if she means it.

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First lesson of traveling with Hillary Clinton: Her arrivals are always a mad dash, with a pool photographer and film crew tearing out of their press van to try to snatch an image of the secretary of state glad-handing a local dignitary before she's whisked inside, her aides and security detail rushing after her, the rest of the press corps in their wake. But in South Sudan the scrum is even more frantic than usual. The president of South Sudan is protected by a coterie of Manute Bol—sized bodyguards, who fling out their hands to block our way. As I maneuver unnoticed between two behemoths, a mouse scurrying between the legs of two elephants, a member of Clinton's security team snarls at one of the guards, Get your motherfucking hands off me or I will throw you down these stairs. I slip past them and into the room just as Clinton greets the president with a bright smile and a hug. Not, I can safely say, what this bear of a man, glowering beneath his signature cowboy hat, was expecting. The next day he agrees to open a disputed oil pipeline: Diplomatic mission accomplished.

I was accompanying Clinton on what may well be her final visit to Africa as secretary of state before she leaves the job in January, a farewell tour as it were, and South Sudan was our third country in as many days. The trip was to last another week, with another seven countries on the itinerary. Nearly every moment of her schedule was packed with events, but this day was by far the most grueling: After the meeting with the president, there was a press conference with the foreign minister, then a meet and greet with the staff of the U.S. embassy in Juba, after which the secretary jumped right back on the plane and headed to Uganda, where she met with that country's president, held another press event, visited a military base to be briefed publicly on a U.S.-Uganda joint drone program and then privately on other security matters, visited an AIDS clinic, presented an award to a coalition of Ugandan human rights workers, capping it all off with yet another meet and greet, this time at the Kampala Embassy. I need a cocktail and a nap even remembering that day, much of which I spent desperately hoping that the next stop would include a bathroom, preferably one that would not result in exposure to the Ebola virus outbreak that was just then being reported in every international newspaper.

Most of Clinton's workdays are like this, a daily treadmill of meetings and appearances, bookended by working dinners in hotel restaurants and one long flight after another. Even her plane is decidedly unglamorous. Though the communications and security systems are state of the art (Clinton can appear at any meeting, even one in the president's Situation Room, via video conference), the retrofitted 757 is surprisingly shabby. Because the plane carries all the supplies that will be needed for the entire 10-day trip, every available nook and cranny is crammed with food—cranberry juice containers, boxes of crackers, crates of fruit. Clinton's small private cabin in the front has a pullout couch that looks suspiciously like the futon I had in my college dorm room, and though her staff of aides, advisers, and security agents sits in comfortable business-class seats, the 10 or so members of the press are jammed into coach in the back. At the beginning of every trip, they draw lots for the best seats. When I once ended up with a winning number, I worried there would be some grumbling; after all, the reporters from the wire services spend their lives on the road, surely they deserve the aisle seat. But they are a good-natured (and hard-drinking) crew, and they gave up with nothing more than a sigh and a smile.

There is a kind of Kabuki formality to Clinton's interactions with me and all the members of the press corps. In intimate moments, like when she comes back to greet us in our cramped quarters, she seems to be engaged less in casual conversation than in acting out a simulacrum of a casual conversation. And even when she joins us for an ostensibly casual, off-the-record glass of wine, she is engirded by protocol. A woman who has been humiliated by the press (try Googling the words "Hillary" and "cankles"), she seems to take comfort in the traditional pomp of the role of secretary of state, even as her husband is famous for rebelling against such formalities. When she meets with the press, seats are allotted according to rank, food isn't consumed until she takes the first bite, and so I can't drink my tea because she isn't drinking hers.

Pity that poor press corps, dutifully filing stories about speeches at universities and economic forums, most of which are doomed to fill the back pages of their newspapers and wire services. All that exhausting effort, all that careful analysis, and it's a video of Clinton at a dinner given in her honor in South Africa, attempting the most polite and awkward grind any of us had ever seen outside of a middle school dance, that ends up going viral. As a veteran reporter told me, "The story is never what she said, as much as we want it to be. The story is always how she looked when she said it, or what she was doing when she said it." This has always been Clinton's particular cross to bear, and she has come to accept what she called in her memoir, Living History, "the significance of the insignificant." As Clinton told me, "I no longer fight it. I no longer complain about it. It's just what you have to live with."

And so by the fifth or sixth event on any given day, while the rest of us in Clinton's entourage look like we've been dumped out of a rain barrel, she is as polished and elegant as ever, comfortable and striking in one of her trademark pantsuits. The secretary is assisted by a "body woman," who is responsible for her bags, clothes, and anything else she might need during her trip. There would be just one moment on the entire tour when I caught Clinton looking less than impeccable. The flaw? A shiny nose, reddened ever so slightly by the sun and heat. My own hair was in a snarled mound on top of my head, my mascara had dripped down to my chin, and I was limping around on blistered feet, trailing Band-Aids and gauze like a Halloween mummy. But by then I—an early and avid Barack Obama supporter who had devoted more than a year working for his first presidential campaign, becoming in the process such a partisan that I was right there with Samantha Power when she famously called Clinton a monster—had already witnessed firsthand the almost spellbinding gravitas Clinton also commands, and was so invested in the myth of the secretary of state's effortlessly put-together appearance that I rushed to tell someone that she needed to powder her nose. Within moments, there she was, smiling for the camera, powdered to perfection.


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