Hillary Clinton's Secret Weapon

On a recent trip to Burma—where human rights have been crushed for half a century—Hillary Clinton shook hands with a young waitress who later sobbed to writer Lisa DePaulo, “She is our only hope.” What gives Clinton the power to connect so strongly with women in need? DePaulo wondered. In an inspiring and intimate conversation, Hillary reveals the answer

By Lisa DePaulo
hillary clinton in burma image
“This one Buddha looks like a woman,” Clinton observed during the traditional statue-anointing. After 11 pours, she asked, “Can I make 11 wishes?”
Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Friends and colleagues of Clinton’s confirm that she doesn’t look back or torture herself in a coulda-shoulda-woulda way. They say that’s how she emerged from a great many difficult periods in her life, including her failed presidential campaign and, undoubtedly, her husband’s, shall we say, foibles. She has another driving force, articulated by her longtime aide Philippe Reines when I ask if in some way she was better off becoming secretary of state rather than president: In her view, he says, “it wasn’t meant to be.” Clinton has this ability, her friends say, to see the world that way, with things either meant to be or not meant to be. And to accept them and move forward.

WE CROSS THE MOAT and pass through a ginormous gold gate. It’s morning in Naypyidaw, and Clinton is heading to the palace for her meeting with Burma’s president. “She’s not nervous,” says Kurt Campbell. “She’s excited—and cautiously optimistic.” Inside, there’s a crystal chandelier that must be several stories tall. In the football-field-size teak-walled room where Clinton is to address the press, the president’s men (and they are all men) are lined up on one side. Thein Sein enters in traditional Burmese garb—long blue plaid sarong and a white jacket. Clinton is in peacock blue. She enters with a serious expression. He tells her, “Your Excellency’s visit will be a historic milestone.” She tells him, “I am here today because President Obama and myself are encouraged by the steps that you have taken to provide for your people.”

Later, back in Washington, I ask her what it’s like to always be walking into rooms full of men. “You get used to it,” she says. “When I went to the private meeting at the foreign ministry in Burma . . . they had two women sitting at the table. And I said to the foreign minister, ‘I am so pleased to see this.’ So some positive reinforcement, some gentle questioning . . .”

I ask if she sees a difference between how women and men who have become politically powerful behave. “You know, I don’t want to generalize, but I think most women—and this is a generalization, at my risk—tend to be better listeners,” she responds. “[They] tend to carry with them personal experiences that do influence how they see their roles.”

And another thing, she says, warming to the subject: “I’ve seen a lot of men in diplomacy or in politics who are assertive and declarative, like, ‘Here’s what we want, and we want it yesterday’ . . . That’s not always the most effective way, especially in the 21st century, for people to be persuaded. So I think that a lot of the patience that’s required in working through difficult situations, in looking at body language, hearing the tone of voices . . . you know, women come to that, it seems to me, more easily. Again, in general.” She smiles.

Though two women preceded her as secretary of state, Clinton is the first to have made women’s rights issues a top priority, even with all the other messes that have confronted the U.S. during her tenure. Clinton was appointed at a time of two full-blown wars, and soon she was the point person for the chaos in Pakistan, the bloody protests in Egypt, the violent uprising in Syria and the horrors in Libya—which led to U.S. air strikes and also to pundits’ describing Libya as the “girls’ war” when it was learned that Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power had all advocated military action.

That was an “asinine” description, says one of Clinton’s closest advisers: “She just thought it was stupid. She knew the reality of the matter. It wasn’t along gender lines.”

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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