Three Encounters with Hillary

PARIS – It is Boston, July 2004. The setting is a downtown restaurant to which the editor Tina Brown has invited Hillary Clinton and a handful of notables, including Caroline Kennedy, filmmaker Michael Moore, and former Senator George McGovern. What is immediately striking is Clinton’s youthful appearance, bright laugh, and blue eyes that appear a little too round when she gazes at us with curiosity.

Sometimes her expression is briefly clouded by a streak of stifled pain, obstinate and not wholly contained. Five years earlier, she was the most humiliated wife in America, a woman whose private life was thrown open – fully and relentlessly – to public scrutiny. So she can talk national and international politics until she is blue in the face. She can sing the praises of John Kerry, whom her party has just nominated in an effort to deny George W. Bush a second term. And she can expound on her role as the junior senator from New York. Still, there persists an idea that I cannot push out of my head, and that I enter into the travel journal that I am writing for The Atlantic.

The idea is this: to avenge her husband and to take revenge on him, to wash away the stain on the family and show what an unblemished Clinton administration might look like, this woman will sooner or later be a candidate for the presidency of the United States. This idea brings to mind Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, published a year after the Senate acquitted her husband of perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges, with its searing portrait of how indelible even an undeserved blot on one’s reputation can be. She will strive to enter the Oval Office – the theater of her inner, outer, and planetary misery – on her own terms. And the most likely outcome, my article will conclude, is that she will succeed.

Fast forward to Paris in May 2011. The senator from New York has become President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Her aura dominated the just-concluded G-8 summit hosted by France. It is ten in the evening, and I am waiting at the elevators in the lobby of the Hotel Westin with Mahmoud Jibril, one of the leaders of the Libyan insurrection. Jibril has made a special trip to plead on behalf of the civilians whom Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and his sons have promised to drown in rivers of blood.