When Hillary Rodham Clinton first came to national attention in 1992, she was 44 and joining husband Bill on a high-energy bus tour, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” playing at stop after stop on the presidential campaign trail.
When she left the State Department for the final time as secretary of state on Feb. 1, many of Clinton’s supporters were thinking about tomorrow – as in the winter 2016 day when New Hampshire holds its presidential primary, or the winter 2016 night of the next Iowa Caucuses, or the January 2017 day when the next president takes the oath of office.
Clinton ended her term as the nation’s top diplomat wanting some rest and relaxation, but her supporters and admirers – a sizable majority of Democrats and a surprising number of Republicans, according to recent polls – hope that R&R doesn’t lead to a retirement from politics.
Serving as the 67th secretary of state, Clinton visited a record 112 countries and traveled 956,000 miles. She left the post with a favorability rating of 66 percent, but more importantly with a successful record of advocating worldwide for peace, liberty, democracy, justice and human rights.
In her farewell to employees Feb. 1, Clinton said, “Those of you who are staying, as many of you will, please know that I hope you will redouble your efforts to do all that you can to demonstrate unequivocally why diplomacy and development are right up there with defense.”
Diplomacy and development, for her, included delivery of a powerful United Nations speech for LGBT rights in December 2011 in Geneva that many compared to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. In an address unprecedented for a world leader, Clinton, said, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights,” and the landscape shifted.
With the declaration came reform – an extension of employment benefits to same-sex partners and spouses of State Department employees, changes to make it easier for transgender Americans to correct their passports, passage of the first-ever UN resolution affirming the human rights of LGBT people, a push to provide foreign aid to promote LGBT rights with the Global Equality Fund.
Clinton was a woman of prominence – and minor celebrity – in 1969, when she delivered the commencement address at Wellesley College and Life magazine profiled her as a standout in the Class of ’69. She campaigned for George McGovern, worked as staff attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund, served on the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry staff during Watergate and was first lady of Arkansas from 1979-1981 and 1983-1992.
But many were not introduced to Clinton until January 1992, the night of the Super Bowl, when she and Bill, at the start of his presidential campaign, appeared on “60 Minutes” to address rumors that he had been involved in a 12-year affair with a state employee. Hillary Clinton memorably defended her husband and herself: “You know, I’m not sitting here — some little woman standin’ by my man like Tammy Wynette. I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together. And you know, if that’s not enough for people, then heck, don’t vote for him.”
New Hampshire was a loss, but by Super Tuesday, the nomination seemed secure. And by January 1993, the Clintons were in the White House. There, as first lady, Hillary Clinton introduced many to the concept of universal health care – before there was Obamacare there was Hillarycare – as she campaigned for reform against an antagonistic Congress.
In 1995, Clinton went to Communist China, where she boldly, bravely declared, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
In 1998, when Bill Clinton became embroiled in a public investigation over his private affairs, Hillary Clinton railed against a “vast right-wing conspiracy.” Some, especially some in the Republican Party, scoffed. But leaders in the campaign for LGBT civil rights certainly understood – there was and is a vast right wing and many in it are conspiratorial.
When Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000, he remained immensely popular among Democrats. And Hillary Clinton, when she left the White House, had a favorability rating approaching 70 percent. She leveraged that popularity into a successful U.S. Senate bid in New York, winning with 55 percent of the vote in 2000 and then winning re-election with 67 percent of the vote in 2006.
When she entered the race for the 2008 presidential nomination and began her historic drive to become the nation’s first female president, she seemed to have everything, including an early win in New Hampshire. But the primary battle was neither quick nor bloodless and, in June that year, she ended her run and endorsed Barack Obama. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” Clinton said. “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”
Now, after some 40 years in politics, will she rest on her record?
Thinking about tomorrow
As Clinton was saying her goodbyes in government, pollsters were looking at her prospects for the presidency.
Surveys have consistently shown she’s a Democratic favorite in a primary contest. But polls also show Clinton – once a divisive figure in politics but now widely popular – as a powerful candidate in a general election, including in some Republican states.
A recent survey of voters by Public Policy Polling found that Clinton, if the election were held now, could defeat Marco Rubio or Chris Christie in Texas – and those two are currently the favorites for president among Republicans. In a race for president against Rick Perry, Texas’ governor, Clinton wins 50-42 percent in the Lone Star State.
“If Clinton is the 2016 nominee, she could conceivably expand the electoral map for Democrats in deep-red Texas,” said PPP president Dean Debnam.
Asked repeatedly as she was exiting the Obama administration about her ambitions, Clinton, who only last month retired her 2008 campaign debt, declined specifics beyond her vacation and probably a sequel to her memoir “Living History.”
She told The Associated Press, “I am making no decisions, but I would never give that advice to someone that I wouldn’t take myself,” she said. “If you believe you can make a difference, not just in politics, in public service, in advocacy around all these important issues, then you have to be prepared to accept that you are not going to get 100 percent approval.”