The Hidden Messages In Hillary's Speech

Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday was the best window yet into her mind-set. Former Clinton speechwriter Heather Hurlburt parses her words.

Read more analysis on Hillary's speech from other Daily Beast writers.

“What’s going on with Hillary Clinton?” has become one of Washington’s favorite cocktail-party questions in the last month—not quite up there with “What was Mark Sanford thinking?” and “How about that public plan?” but outranking “Should we have a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade?”; “Can we win in Afghanistan?”; “Is Mitt Romney’s hair real?”; and other hardy perennials.

As a double ringer (I am a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a former HRC staffer), I’m always surprised that others are surprised or unsure of who the secretary is and what she will do. The clues are right there in her words, if you know where to look. Secretary Clinton’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday tells you a number of things you already knew, or should have known:

1. The administration considers the use and spread of nuclear weapons to be its biggest foreign-policy challenge.

2. Despite some calls to isolate Iran in the wake of its disputed presidential election, they have in fact doubled down on attempting to engage with Iran.

3. They’re not backing off on Middle East peace.

4. The administration knows some of us think it’s trying to do too much. And it doesn’t care.

5. President Obama outranks her, and we all know it.

6. Yes, everyone’s frustrated that there’s not a head of USAID. But they do mean to shake up development policy.

And the five (prying, prurient, maybe a little rude or even misogynist) questions you know you love to ask your friends about the secretary:

Q: How does this woman, who has lived through so much public humiliation, think about herself and her place in public life? How would she answer the “Why is Hillary invisible?” question?

A: Take it from her speech: In one of my favorite observations, Max Weber said, “Politics is the long and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” Perspective dictates passion and patience. Translation: Just watch me.

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Q: Is she, as her right-wing critics like to allege, utterly humorless?

A: Note the sly Donald Rumsfeld reference in Wednesday’s speech: Our approach to foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be.

Q: Is she substantive?

A: Are you kidding me? When Dick Holbrooke calls you “deep in the weeds,” you’re substantive. When your answers to audience questions toss off phrases like “migration of authorities and resources” from the Pentagon to State (translation: taking money from Pentagon budget for State budget) and bring up the “military and particularly naval implications of decisions that India is making” with respect to Sri Lanka (confession: I have no blinking idea what she is talking about), she’s substantive. Welcome to Hillary’s world.

Q: Is she still a politician?

A: Exhibit A: For almost 36 years, I have worked as an advocate for children, women, and families here at home. I’ve traveled across our country listening to everyday concerns of our citizens. I’ve met parents struggling to keep their jobs, pay their mortgages, cover their children’s college tuitions and afford health care. And all that I have done and seen has convinced me that our foreign policy must produce results for people…

Exhibit B: You know especially in a global downturn I feel a real responsibility to be able to explain to, you know, people who are not currently employed, or hanging on by their fingernails, you know, why am I asking for more money for something called “diplomacy and development.”

Exhibit C: My old friend Steve Flanagan from Center for Strategic and International Studies asks her a tough question about why the Europeans aren’t coming across with resources for Afghanistan. Ten seconds in and she’s off on a glorious tangent about the country’s former agricultural riches.

Q: But with all the envoys, what is she actually doing? Hasn’t she ceded all the power of the office to them?

A: She’s been fixing the larger issues that should tie the envoys and their disparate crises together into a larger coherent policy narrative—great powers, global institutions, economic development, human rights, and the actual institutions of American power.

Bonus question: What, people want to know, is Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter doing?

A: On the evidence of this speech, she has a hand in everything.

Xtra Insight: The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart asks, Will Hillary’s Gambit Work?

Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, was from 1995-2001 a speechwriter to President Clinton and Secretaries of State Albright and Christopher; from 2005-2007, she was an occasional speechwriter for then-Senator Clinton.