Klein On Clinton: She's Alright, She's Okay

Here is one possibility: I'm just too dumb to know what writer Joe Klein's real point is in this week's Time cover story about Hillary Clinton. Here is another possibility: He's not so sure himself. Could go either way.

According to Klein, Clinton is a bundle of contradictions. She messed up an opportunity to advance fruitful peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, except such talks are almost never fruitful. ("For the past 40 years, the awkward Middle East press conference has helped define the job of Secretary of State. You go to Jerusalem or Ramallah; you stand there 'guardedly optimistic' in public; in private, you try to move a comma, but the Israelis or Palestinians move a semicolon to block your comma. The result is almost always the same: gridlock.") Clinton's big mouth made the administration look bad — by reinforcing things Obama had already said. "The conventional wisdom," is that by installing Clinton as Secretary of State, Obama "succeeded in neutering her" (nice), but then, he also gave her the power to "become a torpedo aimed at the Oval Office." She's bungled diplomacy yet made enormous strides in improving America's image abroad. Her edgier tone has been evident from the start of the Administration" — in some cases irritating the White House — yet "her reticence during her first nine months on the job," did indeed bolster the impression that she was "neutered." (Dear Joe Klein and rest of world, Can we please find a better metaphor for being rendered ineffectual?) By all on-the-record accounts, her "relationship with Obama really - really - is strong," but anonymous "emanations," "burblings" and "Foggy Bottom body language" (say that 5 times fast) indicate otherwise, maybe, sort of.

"These tensions are well within the boundaries of normal, creative policymaking," writes Klein, but he seems determined to make something more of them nonetheless. An "essential rule of diplomacy," he says, is "boring is almost always better" — but obviously, an essential rule of journalism is the opposite. So I can sympathize with the need to jazz up a story that amounts to, "She seems to be doing a pretty OK job — not perfect, but whatever." But the way he does it is sort of dizzying. Is she fucking up or doing smart, new things? Is she too blunt or too retiring? Too powerful, or too [new metaphor]? Is she putting words in Obama's mouth or vice versa? Do they lurve each other or secretly plot against each other? The contradictory questions don't balance the portrait of a complex woman so much as they obscure it.

By far the most interesting and enlightening parts come in the middle, when Klein sits down and talks to Clinton, whom he's known for a bazillion years. They talk about her first trip to Pakistan in 1995 — he was there — and she gushes about the experience and admits what a Benazir Bhutto fangirl she was. In this section, Klein points out that "Ironically, the rise of Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda has brought Clinton's interests - microfinance, education and health care - to the center of national-security policy for the first time" — oh hey, she has interests! — and says Clinton's excellent relationship with military leaders at home has "helped make the relationship between State and the Pentagon less fraught than usual." She has "a palpable toughness" to her, and unlike a lot of journalists, Klein seems to mean that as a real compliment. He mentions repeatedly that she is intensely guarded and private, which undoubtedly explains a lot of his (and everyone's) difficulty in pinning her down, but still, this middle part is where we get a sense that he's talking about a real person with identifiable strengths, weaknesses, goals and accomplishments. That angle just couldn't sustain a whole feature, I guess.

Perhaps the big lesson to take from this profile, then, is that Hillary Clinton is nowhere near as predictable as we'd like her to be. For as long as she's been in the public eye (and under insane scrutiny to boot), it really seems like we ought to know her well enough to anticipate her next move — and fully understand her last. But it turns out we might not. Which makes it hard to analyze her but really interesting to watch her.

Hillary's Moment: Clinton Faces The World [Time]