The road to Burma begins, as most of the secretary of state’s adventures do, on the dreary airstrip at Andrews Air Force Base, on one of the 757s she shares with Joe Biden. (Yep, they just swap in her seal for the vice president’s and Velcro it to the cabin door.) Madam Secretary is about to embark on her most historic journey to date, a visit to Burma, aka Myanmar, a country whose military regime has been so repressive, so isolationist and so egregious in its atrocities against its own people, an American secretary of state hasn’t set foot there in more than 50 years. Hillary’s about to change that. So the mood, even among the most jaded of her traveling companions, is jubilant.
We’re even over the last-minute State Department “clothing guidance” e-mailinstructing us not to bring black or white clothes, or pink clothes, and to “tone down” our rusts and saffrons—our rusts and saffrons?—setting off a flurry of bitching and repacking among reporters from Washington to New York.
But we’re going to Burma with Hillary!
With a first stop: Busan, South Korea, where the secretary, despite the pressures of her Burma visit, can’t resist spending an overnight because in the morning the South Koreans are hosting an international conference on aid effectiveness there and they’ve agreed to add a session on gender. “Gender is her G-spot,” says one of the reporters, which may explain why Clinton doesn’t mind adding an extra few thousand miles to the million—yes, million—miles around the globe she’ll have clocked by the end of her tenure.
The secretary arrives in her armored Cadillac sedan limousine on time for the 2:15 pm wheels-up. She has already been to five meetings today, the last two at the White House with the boss. As she exits the car, she is wearing a chic black pantsuit (not to be confused with the pantsuits of the presidential campaign, which, in addition to being ice cream colored, were intentionally more down-market), fabulous jewelry (except for the enormous diamond ring Bill gave her for their 30th anniversary, she favors glam costume pieces, many of which she picks up on her travels), black stiletto heels and perfectly windswept long blonde hair. She says Chelsea asked her to grow out her hair for her wedding, but there may be more to it than that. As secretary of state, she can finally let her hair down—which certainly was not the case when she was first lady, U.S. senator or a presidential candidate.
But Clinton 2012 is different from her earlier incarnations in another way. There’s a natural ease in how she carries herself now, an air of contentment as well as confidence—dare we say a comfort in her own skin—which, frankly, we saw only glimpses of before.
She wanders back to the press section just to chitchat. Is it true, Clinton wants to know, that we’ll be spending more time in the air than on the ground? (Almost.) That’s a shame, she says: “It’s heartbreaking that we’re not going to see more of Burma.” Then she wistfully adds, “I’d like to go to Mandalay.”
Over the next 63 hours, she’ll change into sweats, pull her hair up into a scrunchie, put on her glasses, watch an in-flight movie in her cabin, read a four-inch-thick briefing book, write e-mails to Chelsea, glamform herself again for Busan, speak about foreign aid and gender equality to an audience of thousands as well as to a roomful of men (the summit leaders, who are all men) and then, finally, touch down in Burma, making history.
The landing strip in Naypyidaw, the capital, is narrow and without lights, so we must descend before sundown. And security is so iffy that the plane has to spend the night in neighboring Thailand. But none of this seems to ruffle Madam Secretary, who sashays off the plane to be welcomed by a line of Burmese greeters who obviously didn’t get the State Department wardrobe directive, because they are wearing black and white. And Clinton herself is in a hot-pink silk jacket. Um, did Hillary not get the memo? I can’t resist asking her about this later. She responds with that exuberant Hillary laugh. “Oh, the memo!” she says with a dismissive backhand wave. “I’d already packed!”