Hillary and the 'Woman Thing'

Losing her life's dream (or being freed from it?) has pressed the secretary of State's reset button in an interesting way.

Hillary Clinton has spent her entire career looking bug-eyed with incredulity when an interviewer asks her whatever question she most expects at that moment. Her theatrical bemusement was more convincing than usual on Monday’s Today show, however, when Ann Curry asked what she says to people who are “concerned that you have been marginalized.”

After dismissing the whole notion as “absurd,” she said: “I’m not one of these people who feels like I have to have my face in the front of the newspaper or on TV every moment of the day. I would be irresponsible and negligent were I to say, ‘Oh, no. everything must come to me.’ Now maybe that is a woman’s thing.”

It’s as if she has learned how to circumnavigate that tiresome phallic competition and acknowledged what’s different—and valuable—about her own female nature.

A woman’s thing! In that phrase alone the secretary of State revealed what distance she has put between herself and the 2008 campaign trail. Mark Penn, then her strategist (or some might say saboteur), would have aborted that “woman’s thing” thought before it was even conceived. Remember Penn’s famous “launch strategy memo,” written in December 2006 and leaked to The Atlantic in the closing days of the campaign? “In analyzing the current situation, regardless of the sex of the candidates,” he wrote, “most voters in essence see the presidents [sic] as the ‘father of the country.’ They do not want someone who would be the first mama, especially in this kind of world.” He cited the example of Margaret Thatcher: “the adjectives that were used about her (Iron Lady) were not of good humor or warmth.”

Perhaps losing your life’s dream (or being freed from it, depending on how you look at it) pushes the reset button like nothing else. After some rocky moments, Hillary seems to have found, in the heart of her chief rival’s administration, an unexpected comfort level. The static around her has evaporated. She communicates a deep lack of insecurity. Locked in the Situation Room with alpha dogs all day and going home to the biggest alpha dog of all at night (on the rare occasions the two are in the same hemisphere), it’s as if she has learned how to circumnavigate that tiresome phallic competition and acknowledged what’s different—and valuable—about her own female nature. If they’d been translating her thoughts as she spoke to Curry, the subtitle would have read: “Don’t you understand? I don’t have to do that shit anymore.” No wonder she has the highest approval rating in the cabinet.

Everyone expected Hillary to fight for the limelight with Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke. But she was smart enough to let that booby prize be all his. There aren’t going to be any Nobel Prizes handed out for cutting a few messy deals with drug barons and warlords. Who are you gonna to reel in there for a Dayton Accord? Mullah Omar and Osama? The only good thing about Holbrooke’s day at the moment is when he has a stress-free debriefing session with her.

There was speculation she would clash with flinty GOP holdover Defense Secretary Bob Gates. After all, that turf war has been almost de rigueur in Washington political infighting. But ever since July 2007 when Hillary hit out over Gates' dismissive response to her request that the Pentagon brief Congress on plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, Gates has not risked patronizing Hillary again. Richard L. Armitage, a former deputy at State for Colin Powell, says in today’s New York Times that Gates views Hillary as “tough-minded, clear and focused.” Always more of a hawk on military matters than Obama and much respected by the military, Hillary has shown she can do business with Gates and vice versa.

Her relationship with Obama? His low temperature doesn’t bother her (and may even be welcome, after 34 years of marriage to a heat storm). I’m told she respects The Deity’s disciplined management style. It plays to all her strength as a superwonk policy cruncher. Most of the victories of a secretary of State’s day are not the big ticket geopolitical headliners. They’re scenarios like the one that took place just this week, when Clinton, sitting in her BMW in the foothills of the Swiss Alps with her cell phone to her ear, sweet-talked the on-again, off-again Armenians and Turks into ending hostilities over massacres that took place during World War I. According to Terry McAuliffe at the six-month anniversary meeting of all 22 cabinet members at the Blair House retreat in July, Obama told two different attendees that Hillary was “the ideal cabinet officer.”

In the protracted deliberations about troop levels in Afghanistan, Obama requires not just organized arguments from each member of his team but individual position papers as a follow up. Hillary thrives on such onerous toil. If we don’t know where she stands on Afghanistan, it’s not because her views aren’t strongly held. It’s because she’s smart and mature enough to give them to the president, not the press. Her eyes shone on the Today show when she talked about the “extraordinarily thought-provoking, deep discussion about what our goals should be—how best to protect our country, advance our interests, provide support for our allies in the ongoing struggle against fundamentalism, extremism, violence, and jihadism.” That’s the kind of stuff she’d dig into at Wellesley over spring break.

And there’s an unexpected plus to all this. It took Obama’s presidency to do what she could never achieve in the White House or on last year’s campaign trail: She’s got Bill under control at last. From the moment she entered Foggy Bottom, he’s been as good as gold. The big dog’s in his kennel and she’s holding the leash.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.