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06.11.09

Hillary's Secret Weapon

On Friday, Hillary Clinton swore in Melanne Verveer as the first ambassador for global women’s issues. Sandra McElwaine on the next chapter in their long friendship.

Women in the World summit speaker Melanne Verveer is the first ambassador for global women’s issues. Sandra McElwaine on the next chapter in her long friendship with Hillary Clinton.

When Hillary Clinton asked her good friend and former Chief of Staff Melanne Verveer to raise her right hand at a swearing in ceremony at the Department of State last June, it was probably be the high point of a 25-year friendship. This formality cemented a close relationship which began before the searing White House years and eventually led the two to create a formula, and then a program, to advance women’s rights and empower females and their families around the globe.

"Melanne brings unwavering passion to any cause she adopts," Clinton told The Daily Beast. "For the last 15 years that cause has been the world’s women and girls–their rights, their opportunities, their central importance to our future progress and prosperity.  I am proud to have Melanne as my colleague, my friend, and now our Ambassador."

Verveer is up for the challenge. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to promote smart development and smart diplomacy,” says the 64-year-old grandmother of her freshly minted position, ambassador at large for global women’s issues. “Investing in women is one of the most powerful forces we have for improving standards of living and developing vibrant civil societies, but it’s a resource that’s still significantly untapped. We’re working to change that dynamic and to unleash the power of women’s global participation--it’s hard to imagine a more exciting enterprise.”

Bill Clinton views Melanne as a calming influence: “When people are saying bad things about us and she says it’s going to be all right, people believe it’s going to be all right.”

This desire to reach out dates back to Melanne’s childhood in the hard-scrabble Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, where her grandparents had settled when they fled the Ukraine in the 1890s. Her father ran a post office and insurance company, and spent his free time helping neighbors who were coping with the difficulties of limited English. “Being Ukrainian was a very important part of my life. I went to a Ukrainian high school…In school, we sang the American national anthem. And then we sang the Ukrainian national anthem,” she has said.

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Intrigued by politics, Melanne grew up reading The New York Times and listening to radio news. At St. Mary’s, a small Ukrainian Catholic boarding school, she started a civics club, and subscribed to Time, Newsweek, and the Congressional Record.

On a field trip to Washington her junior year, she saw Georgetown University and never looked back. At that time women were circumscribed in their studies. Melanne registered at the School of Languages to study Russian. (She is now fluent in the language.) During a theology class her sophomore year, she met an attractive classmate from Illinois, Philip Verveer. “We hit it off immediately,” he recalls. “She was smart, energetic and positive—a real extrovert. We were children of the middle class, have the same values and philosophies. It helps a lot if you don’t have conflicting outlooks.” He admires his wife’s social acumen and skills along with her “preternatural level of efficiency. She tries to help everyone and they have good feelings about her.”

For both Verveers, the glass always seems to be half full.

He proposed their junior year, around the same time they became friends with a freshman named Bill Clinton who was creating a buzz on campus. Several years later, at Yale Law School, Clinton began dating a dowdy, frizzy-haired classmate and told Melanne, “I’m following Phil’s example. I’m going for brains and ability rather than glamour.“ Phil Verveer, now an immensely successful communications lawyer, confirms the conversation. “That’s right,” he says, pointing out that Melanne and Hillary are similar in many ways. “They share ideals and interests and are attracted to the same causes…They have a very special bond,” he observes.

When Bill Clinton announced his presidency, this close connection led Melanne to sign on with Hillary, after honing her political skills with former Senator George McGovern and at Norman Lear’s People for the American Way. She has been there ever since in the role of big sister and alter ego. “She‘s real treasure, a deeply passionate, effective and compassionate person,” says Bobbie Greene McCarthy, who worked with her at the White House and is now an executive with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Bill Clinton views Melanne as a calming influence, a confirmed loyalist and a perpetual optimist. “When people are saying bad things about us and she says it’s going to be all right, people believe it’s going to be all right…She’s always in there...And so far she’s been right.”

Nowhere were Melanne’s determination and diplomatic skills more evident than at the high-profile Beijing Conference for Women in 1995, where Hillary Clinton led the American delegation and declared, “It is time for us to say here in Beijing and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.”

Out of that conference grew Vital Voices Global Partnerships, an international nonprofit Melanne co-founded with Hillary and Madeleine Albright that invests in emerging female leaders in 126 countries and works to expand women’s roles in generating economic opportunities, promoting political participation and, above all, safeguarding human rights.

Melanne served as chairwoman and CEO for the last eight years. According to Albright, Melanne has proved to be a “voice for the voiceless, a true champion for women…The impact of her work can be seen in the thousands of women who have benefited from the tools, information, and leadership provided by Vital Voices, a remarkable organization whose success can be largely attributed to Melanne.”

“She seeks power to empower others,” explains Alyse Nelson, current head of the organization. ”She really gets it and knows how to work with people across the divide. “

Now, she observes, “Melanne is a rising tide lifting all boats—she can bring change way beyond Vital Voices.”

Within the next few weeks, the Verveers are slated to add another title and join an exclusive club—they are about to become an ambassadorial duo. Phillip has been appointed the State Department’s U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy with the rank of ambassador and is awaiting Senate confirmation.

“Titles won’t fundamentally change either one of us,” he insists. ”It’s a great honor and we’re both pleased to have been named and to serve. But honestly, it’s really no big deal.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.