When Hillary Clinton asked her close 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 perhaps 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."
“It’s a simple fact no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind.”
Talking about her role as ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Verveer says, “It’s not quite a year and we have taken into consideration needs of women around the world.”
She is most gratified that the U.S. State Department is now recognized and applauded for its participation in supporting and improving the rights of women in every part of the globe, and that women’s issues have become an accepted part of U.S. foreign policy.
“That is a source of pride,” she says, adding “It’s a simple fact no country can get ahead if it leaves half of its population behind. Women’s full participation is crucial. We have so much new data showing that investing in women pays off. It’s not just the right, but the smart thing to do.”
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,” she has said. “I went to a Ukrainian high school… In school, we sang the American national anthem. And then we sang the Ukrainian national anthem.”
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. I think Melanne's personal qualities, her own dedication to and knowledge of the issues, and her tirelessness in pursuing the obligations of the office have added a great deal in her current position."
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.”
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‘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 Verveer 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.”
She was there at a 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 Verveer 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.
Verveer served as chairwoman and CEO for the last eight years. According to Albright, she 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 benefitted 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 last yea,r the Verveers added another title and joined an exclusive club—they became an ambassadorial duo. Phillip was appointed the State Department’s U.S. coordinator for international communications and information policy with the rank of ambassador.
The two are frequently apart and on the road.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” says Melanne with an air of wistfulness. “We see each other now again. But he withstood my eight years in the White House, so we know how to make the most of our time. You learn to make the best of any situation you are in. There is great satisfaction in doing work you really care about.”
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. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.