The Enduring Clintons

By Matthew Cooper

When you think of what just happened in Pyonyang, it's extraordinary. A former president was dispatched to rescue the employees of his former vice president. Meanwhile, his wife, the secretary of state, who lost to the current president, played an integral role in setting up the entire mission even as she jets off to Africa where the president himself just visited. Try substituting Nixon/Agnew, Bush/Quayle, Roosevelt/Wallace, or any other combination of president and vice president and it's impossible to picture. Such is the unique position of the Clintons in the world today, the Secretary of State married to a free-floating global ambassador.

The move underscores the brilliance and risk that President Obama showed in picking his rival, Clinton, to be Secretary of State. Like William Jennings Bryan under Wilson, Clinton has a domestic audience. But she also has an international one, too, like George Marshall. The jury's out on what her legacy will be. If she's going to be graded by peace treaties, then she's likely to have a tough time in the Middle East and elsewhere where conflicts continue to rage. If she'll be judged by repairing America's image abroad, she's likely to do better--thanks to her own efforts and those of a president who knows the global pulpit. Can she transform the State Department into a smoother running machine that works seamlessly with NGOs--non governmental organizations--and takes a greater role in economic policy? One thing seems highly unlikely: Would she ever be fired? Hard to picture under what circumstances she would be although a principled resignation--like Bryan over World War I or Cyrus Vance over Iran policy--seems plausible although what issue could bring that about remains a mystery.

What doesn't seem mysterious is that Bill Clinton will play a role in deciding her fate. It's unlikely he'll be called in for such a dramatic mission again but one never knows. Bill in Tehran? Moscow? Ramallah? Gaza City? Damascus? Rangoon? It's easy to picture it now, the Secretary of State's Secretary of State.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/08/the-enduring-clintons/22814/