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!”
THE WEEKEND BEFORE THE TRIP, the secretary took home piles of books and videos about Naypyidaw. So perhaps she is more prepared than we are for this Trump-esque capital city, which rose up suddenly in 2005 in response, some say, to premonitions from soothsayers that foreigners would attack and that this was an easier spot from which to defend the country than the previous capital, Rangoon. The white-marble and gold palace compound, which the secretary will be visiting tomorrow, comes complete with a moat and drawbridges.
For tonight, it is off to the Thingaha Hotel, where Clinton and her entourage are the only guests. As her motorcade pulls out of the airport, it passes a row of rice farmers camped out on the grass to see her. They wave. She beams and waves back. The drive to the hotel is on one of the city’s new highways, a road that, except for Clinton’s motorcade and an occasional truck filled with workers, is empty. Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state, had promised white elephants, but so far all we’ve seen are weird dogs and some water buffalo.
Few people actually live in Naypyidaw, and it seems as if all of them work at our hotel. When the secretary’s motorcade pulls into the resort, guards bow. Waiters and waitresses, bearing trays of watermelon juice in Champagne flutes, bow. The secretary greets them like long-lost friends. A few of the young waitresses are crying, and one tells me in broken English, her voice cracking and tears running down her face, that Hillary Clinton is their “only hope.”
Burma began cutting itself off from the rest of the world after a military coup in 1962. As conditions in the country grew worse, strong U.S. sanctions followed. There have been decades of severe poverty, civil war, corruption, suppression of free speech and unconscionable human rights violations, including child labor, recruitment of child soldiers, human trafficking and systemic violence against women. As William Wan of the Washington Post has reported, activists assert that rape has been used as a weapon of war against political opponents and that women living near the Thai-Burmese border have said their sex organs were burned by soldiers.
After half a century of military rule and atrocities, this gorgeous country—once considered “the jewel of Asia”—has shown signs of reform, most notably in releasing hundreds of political prisoners. These include, after 15 years of house arrest, the heroic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is as iconic in Asia as Clinton is in America. (The State Department uses the old name, Burma, rather than Myanmar, as a show of support for Suu Kyi’s party.) The two have forged a long-distance phone friendship. That Suu Kyi, a woman who was imprisoned by her own government, has faith in the possibility of real change in Burma helped inspire President Obama (who had his own long phone jag with Suu Kyi, during which she famously asked about his dog, Bo) to send the secretary of state on this mission.
Clinton is here to finally meet Suu Kyi but also to take the temperature of the Burmese government, starting with the new president, Thein Sein. He and his officials have a long way to go to get back in the U.S.’s good graces. Among many other things, they need to sever military ties with North Korea, release the rest of the political prisoners and begin to enforce civil rights. As a woman who follows her gut, Clinton wants to see if the promises he’s made seem genuine—genuine enough for the U.S. to restore full diplomatic relations. But she is really here for the waitress.
That evening, as a balmy breeze floats under the thatched roof at the Thingaha, the secretary joins us for off-the-record cocktails. This is very Hillary. She loves mixing it up with reporters, and why not? The press is not her enemy anymore. Gone are the days of the over-the-top scrutiny she faced as first lady. Or as a candidate for senator in New York, when she was tagged as a carpetbagger during her first campaign (but not the second). Or when she ran for president and, as the first serious woman candidate, was—let’s face it—raked over the coals for all the wrong reasons (and some of the right ones). In any event, things are different now.
She’s in comfortable pants and sweater, a ponytail, no makeup. She orders tea, much to the disappointment of the traveling-press regulars, who prefer it when Clinton knocks back a few drinks with them, as she is known to do.
“Sorry, guys, I can’t. I’d love to, but I can’t,” she says when wine is offered. She’s already losing her voice and needs some tea with honey. It’s a big day tomorrow. She has a president to size up, a heroine rebel to embrace, a country to help save. And a few million women to fight for. She’ll pass on the Chardonnay.
FOUR WEEKS EARLIER, Clinton was about to leave for a visit to London and Istanbul when she got word that her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham, had taken ill. The trip was canceled—an extremely rare event during the secretary’s tenure.
Mrs. Rodham would pass away a few hours later, but not before her daughter reached her bedside. In the days to come, as the obituaries rolled out, even the keenest Hillary observers were flabbergasted at just how extraordinary Clinton’s mother had been. Throughout her early life, Dorothy Howell Rodham suffered abuse and abandonment. In Chicago, when Dorothy was just eight, her mother, newly divorced, put her on a train to California, alone with her three-year-old sister, to live with their father’s parents, who neglected and mistreated them. (Dorothy was once confined to her room for a year because she had gone trick-or-treating without permission.)
At 14, Dorothy had the gumption to run away and get a job. She became a nanny and housekeeper for a well-to-do family that insisted she go to high school. She did—and excelled. Upon graduation, she heard from her mother for the first time in 10 years, asking her to go back to Chicago. She had met a new man, and they were going to send Dorothy to college. Elated, she rushed home, only to discover that the college promise had been a ruse; her mother wanted her daughter to be her maid. That Dorothy Howell would go on to raise even a functional child, let alone one of the most accomplished people in the world, is staggering.
In Burma, as the secretary reached out to so many women, I kept thinking of her mother, for whom she was still grieving. There’s been so much speculation about what really drives Clinton to do the things she does, and much of it has been less than generous—namely, that she is motivated by a cold ambition for power. I would venture to say it is much purer than that. It is Dorothy.
ONE MORNING about a month after the trip, I enter the secretary’s beautifully ornate outer office at the State Department. “Please sit down,” she says, gesturing to the Chippendale couch and silk-upholstered chairs. “Ah, goodness, coffee sounds like a great idea.” We start the interview by reminiscing about Scranton, Pennsylvania, my hometown and a place Clinton holds dear. Her father, Hugh Rodham, the owner of a drapery-fabric plant, hailed from there. Hillary grew up in suburban Illinois but spent summers outside Scranton at Lake Winola, in a cottage her grandfather had built.
She brings up the outdoor movie theater, where films were projected on a sheet. “Did you ever go there?” she asks, with much excitement. I did. It was a great date night. “It was,” she agrees. Then there was the pinochle with her father’s pals. “I can remember being a little girl just waiting until I was old enough to sit at the table and play with my father and my uncles and the guy from down the road with a wooden leg called Old Pete, who used to get furious and throw the cards when he wasn’t winning!”
Did she beat them?
“By the time I was in high school, I could win.” She laughs. “It was great, you know? Because my father was a very old-fashioned man. He was a chief petty officer in the Navy, but he never really treated me any differently [from my two younger brothers] because I was a girl.” A pause. “Which was a great gift.”
And your mother: I hadn’t realized, I tell her, how amazing she was.
“Yeah,” she says, sadly. “She really was.” Another pause. “It says a lot about the resilience of the human spirit. And that’s why you can never give up on a child. My mother told me one time that even though she’d been neglected by her own parents, there were adults in her life that recognized her needs. Or desires. Like, she would go to school and she would have no money for milk, so a teacher would always buy two cartons of milk and say, ‘I’ve done it again—I bought too much milk. Dorothy, would you like my other milk?’ ”
Clinton says that when she and her brothers were young, their mother gave no indication of what she had been through. She remembers a traditional Midwestern childhood—one that included trick-or-treating (she once dressed as Mickey Mantle, who was her idol, as were the Beatles and Fabian)—and had a very traditional mom, “a ’50s homemaker” who loved to sew and read. For her mother, “there just wasn’t a lot of time sitting around thinking, Oh, poor me. That was just not part of it.
“I began to piece [her story] together probably in high school,” Clinton continues. “But in college and law school, I started to talk to her about it more and got a fuller picture of how hard it was.” What she learned about her mother had a profound impact on her own path. “It certainly drove me to focus on abused and neglected and mistreated kids, so that when I was in law school, I did this special program between the law school and the child-study center.” She says she wanted to understand “the source of that resilience . . . Where did it start? Where did it come from?”
She’s still learning. Clinton cites some “wonderful studies” that looked at children from the same family or socioeconomic background. “Well, why did one graduate from college and one end up in prison? Why did one give in to despair and the other kept trying to overcome it? And very often it came down to what my mother’s experience was. Which is, somewhere there was an adult who believed in that child.
“There is also a genetic basis for resilience that scientists are finding out now,” she adds. “As to how well you respond to stress . . . it has to do with the length of your telomeres, which is more than you want to know!” She laughs again. “But it’s fascinating to me, because if you come into the world less vulnerable to stress and with greater stamina, more endurance . . .” She anticipates my next question. “And thankfully I have that.”
She also learned from her resilient mother not to dwell on what cannot be changed—specifically, the past. “I want to look forward,” Dorothy Rodham would tell her daughter. “I want to think about the future.”
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.”
In some ways, Clinton’s commitment to women’s rights is also gender neutral. She sees women’s issues as critical “to our own national security and foreign policy,” says Philippe Reines. “It’s not a coincidence that the places where women and children have the most problems are the same countries that we have other problems with or [which] have internal conflict.” To that end, Clinton says she has “tried to inject women’s rights across the entire realm of American diplomacy, and I’m institutionalizing that, so [for] whoever comes after me, it’s seen as just natural, not something that is associated only with me.”
In our own country, she says, “we have come such a far way in a relatively short period of time. But I was surprised to read and hear interviews with the voters of Iowa in the Republican caucus who said they couldn’t vote for Michele Bachmann, even though they agreed with her, because she was a woman.”
A VIBRANT, BUSTLING, diverse city, Rangoon couldn’t possibly be more different from Naypyidaw. We arrive at dusk and begin with a visit to the breathtaking Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old Buddhist shrine. (Out of respect, we remove our shoes before entering, and the secretary’s toenails are revealed to be a sexy siren red.) After a quick change of clothes at her hotel, it’s time for her meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi at the home that would be the residence of the U.S. ambassador if we had one. The two women will be having a very private dinner together.
Later we learn that they talked for hours into the night and also exchanged gifts. Suu Kyi gave Clinton a spectacular silver necklace that she had designed for her. Clinton gave Suu Kyi a carefully selected trove of books and a chew toy for her dog.
The following morning they meet again, this time at Suu Kyi’s home in Rangoon—a place that for years was also her prison. When they finally come outside to speak to the press, the intensity of their bond is palpable, even before they hold hands, then put their arms around each other and hug. Three times. The cameras go wild. I take a look down the row of reporters sitting beside me. There is not a dry eye in the house.
About a month after the secretary’s visit, Thein Sein releases more political prisoners. It is enough of a step forward that Obama and Clinton decide to reinstall an ambassador in Burma. “I hope we started some momentum going,” Clinton tells me.
HILLARY CLINTON has made it clear that she has no intention of serving a second term should Obama be re-elected, saying she wants to get off “the high wire of American politics.” But while Clinton may be ready to go, not everyone is ready to let her. In January, New York Times columnist Bill Keller argued that she and Joe Biden should swap jobs. Despite firm, repeated denials from all concerned, the 2012 vice presidency rumor persists. This has a lot more to do with the celebrity of Hillary Clinton than with any sort of reality. She recently topped the Gallup Poll as the most admired woman in the world—for the 10th year in a row. Speculation about her future never fails to make great copy.
"I always find it kind of funny at the end of the year when that list pops up,” she says. “I don’t know. I think people have now watched me over 20 years and have maybe developed a broader understanding of who I really am as opposed to what somebody out in right field says I am.” (Yes, she did say “right” field.)
These days, even many of those in right field praise Clinton for the job she’s done over the past three years. I suggest that perhaps we won’t truly understand her legacy as secretary of state until, say, 10 years from now . . . when she is president.
“Uhhh,” she responds, then laughs. It’s a don’t-even-go-there uhhh.
I tell her that a weird thing happened, at least among my own focus group of women friends over 40: Many were on the fence about her in the 2008 Democratic primary, but the minute she dropped out, there was a collective gasp, a sense of “Oh God, did we blow it?”
She is nodding vigorously. “I heard that a lot. From so many women.”
Does Clinton think she had to lose to be loved?
A tight smile. “I don’t know. I don’t want to get too into the weeds on that.” I had been warned that she hates psychobabble questions. But I get the feeling she’s thought about this before. She says she thinks her surge in popularity had more to do with her decision to support Obama “wholeheartedly and then to join his administration.”
Clinton’s schedule as secretary of state is grueling. But won’t she miss it? “I’m sure I will. Every time the plane door opens and I’m walking down the stairs to another country representing the United States, I mean, it’s a thrill that I never get tired of.” It sounds hokey, but having seen her walk off those planes, I believe it.
Still, the time away from her family must be rough: “We’re like Talmudic scholars trying to figure out our respective [schedules],” she says. “Once a month, maybe more if I’m lucky, I go home.” To Chappaqua, New York. “And we talk every day. [Bill’s] travel schedule is intense.” But they figure it out. One time they got to have dinner together in Bogotá because their schedules miraculously coincided. And when they both went to Prague for Vaclav Havel’s funeral, they got to spend “about 20 hours together in the air and about four hours on the ground.” She laughs. “We just take whatever time we can.”
I tell her that though this might not be conventional wisdom, I always got the sense she and Bill were crazy about each other.
“Oh, well, I think that’s pretty clear,” she says matter-of-factly.
As we wrap up, I ask her what she really wants to do next. There’s been so much speculation. Does she want to run the World Bank? (While chatting one night in Burma, she shot that down.) Many expect her to start her own version of her husband’s Global Initiative, with a focus on women. Others feel she’ll never be content to just sit on the political sidelines.
But we know she’s not big on speculation.
“You’re probably going to just want to take a break first, right?” I ask.
“I think that would be an excellent idea! Yeah. Yeah. I would love that. Go for long walks, see all the movies that I want to see that I haven’t had a chance to see, go to some places that I touched down on for three hours but didn’t get to spend the night. I think there’s a lot to . . . ” She trails off.
But isn’t it flattering that so many want you to run again? “It is flattering,” she says, then instantly changes the subject.
“Remember when we stopped in Alaska [to refuel], and it was so cold and you were wearing—” Yes, an airplane blanket, so I could sneak a smoke on the tarmac. She had come over to tease me about it. Not the smoking, just the blanket. She stayed outside for a while, sharing a story about how, when she was a student at Yale, pre-Bill, she had a boyfriend who lived in Vermont, and she would drive up to see him every weekend, in a car that had no heater, so she would wrap herself in a big mohair blanket.
“No, it was horsehair,” she corrects me back in her office.“Horsehair? Gross.”
“Oh, it was gross.”
I tell her that one of my colleagues on the plane to Burma said Hillary sometimes wears a Snuggie while flying.
She laughs so hard, I think my tape recorder might rattle its way off the antique coffee table.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worn a Snuggie! You mean, like, with little feet?” More raucous laughter. I tell her it’s the big blanket with armholes—the one you can buy from an 800 number on TV. Uh, no, she does not have one. But “that’s hilarious!”
“Give a little cheer for Scranton,” she reminds me as I’m about to leave. I know Clinton doesn’t want to get into the president thing, but I tell her I found it strange in ’08 that the media narrative was “It’s now or never for Hillary.” In 2016 she’ll be 68, 69. That’s not old anymore, I point out, and women live longer than men.
Nope, really not going there. But she does say this: “I don’t feel old.”
LISA DePAULO is a freelance writer in New York. This is her first article for More.
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