How stories about the Secretary of State end up as “Sad Hillary” anecdrama

Seven months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton — the powerful New York Senator, former First Lady, and runner-up in the brutally long Democratic primary competition — became U.S. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Since then, she’s chastened North Korea, advocated on behalf of Burma, and rallied against Israeli settlement building. She’s logged nearly 100,000 air ...

583024_090727_Clinton2.jpg
583024_090727_Clinton2.jpg

Seven months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- the powerful New York Senator, former First Lady, and runner-up in the brutally long Democratic primary competition -- became U.S. President Barack Obama's secretary of state. Since then, she's chastened North Korea, advocated on behalf of Burma, and rallied against Israeli settlement building. She's logged nearly 100,000 air miles. She's tirelessly pursued Obama's diplomatic agenda around the world.

And she's done it while fostering or demonstrating little friction with the White House she once hoped to occupy. Being secretary of state doesn't just require being a diplomat abroad. It requires being a diplomat in Washington. For, foreign policy is not and has never been the purview of State alone -- Clinton overlaps and dovetails and supports and creates policy with Obama, a spate of diplomatic envoys, the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the national security advisers, Vice President Joe Biden, et cetera. By all accounts, she's done well at that as well.

Seven months ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton — the powerful New York Senator, former First Lady, and runner-up in the brutally long Democratic primary competition — became U.S. President Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Since then, she’s chastened North Korea, advocated on behalf of Burma, and rallied against Israeli settlement building. She’s logged nearly 100,000 air miles. She’s tirelessly pursued Obama’s diplomatic agenda around the world.

And she’s done it while fostering or demonstrating little friction with the White House she once hoped to occupy. Being secretary of state doesn’t just require being a diplomat abroad. It requires being a diplomat in Washington. For, foreign policy is not and has never been the purview of State alone — Clinton overlaps and dovetails and supports and creates policy with Obama, a spate of diplomatic envoys, the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, the national security advisers, Vice President Joe Biden, et cetera. By all accounts, she’s done well at that as well.

Not that you’d know it reading the paper. Too often, coverage of Clinton neglects the fact that the secretary of state has never been the sole creator of U.S. foreign policy. It also, far too often, focuses hyper-intently on the perceived narrative of how Clinton feels about her relationship with the White House — rather than the actual relationship between Clinton and Obama or how she’s doing her job.

Here are some main offenders.

Two weeks ago, Tina Brown took to the pages of the Daily Beast to proclaim that “It’s time for Barack Obama to let Hillary Clinton take off her burqa.” The article — which makes a decent argument that Clinton’s love of policy nitty-gritty means she’s happy to play a supporting role — is suffused with the speculative, the hypersensitive, and the hyperpersonal. It digresses into Clinton’s relationship with her husband. And it seems shocked — shocked! — that Clinton might not mind being a good soldier in such a well-liked and well-run administration.

Other offenders come from less-opinionated sources.

On May 1, the New York Times‘ diplomatic correspondent Mark Landler published a profile of Hillary-in-situ, with the headline “Her Rival Now Her Boss, Clinton Settles Into New Role.” The piece covered the secretary’s tiring schedule and her jockeying for position amid other top foreign-policy thinkers in the administration.

But it also included a lot of strange diversions into Clinton’s relationship with her husband and her family — “Sad Hillary” anecdotes, as I like to call them. Take, for instance, this tart assessment of the way Clinton communicates her daughter, Chelsea: “[She] exchanges e-mail messages with her daughter, Chelsea, on her BlackBerry, which she is not allowed to use, for security reasons, at work.”

Even worse was an April 1 story by the same author, about Clinton’s participation at the G-20 meetings in London.  Here’s the lede:

For Hillary Rodham Clinton, arriving here on Tuesday night from The Hague was a lesson in the difference between being a supremely important person and just a very important one.

Mrs. Clinton’s government plane was put into a holding pattern in the skies over Stansted Airport because air traffic had been backed up by Air Force One and other planes carrying world leaders to the economic summit meeting here. Once on the ground, her blue-and-white Boeing 757 taxied past President Obama’s much larger 747, parking at a respectful distance.

Does the NYT honestly think anyone’s surprised that the President’s plane gets to go first? And do they honestly believe that it taught Hillary Clinton a lesson? I don’t think so. The piece concludes with an anecdote about how Clinton brought a bunch of the tulip varietal named for her back to her hotel room — whereas Obama got to stay in some sort of plush castle.

Of course, Clinton’s a fascinating personal figure. And of course her relationship with the White House remains a topic major news outlets need to cover. This weekend, for instance, Clinton strayed far from the White House’s line on Iran, taking a much harder position than other proxies on the issue of enrichment while speaking with Meet the Press.

I look forward to reading stories on that. But such strained coverage on the made-up narrative of Clinton’s dislike of the parameters of her current job? No, thank you.

Photo: Flickr user sskennel

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.