At the Heart of Hillary Clinton: A First Lady of the World’s Core Values

With Hillary Clinton after an East Room lecture, 1997.

With Hillary Clinton after an East Room lecture, 1997.

It was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson who, upon Eleanor Roosevelt‘s 1962 death, called her a “First Lady of the World,” a reflection of her years as Chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (1961-1962), delegate to the UN General Assembly(1946-1953), US First Lady (1933-1945),  and gubernatorial First Lady (1929-1933).

During a PBS interview, 1997.

During a PBS interview, 1997.

I’m no UN Ambassador but as one who (according to one of her former Chiefs of Staff) conducted more interviews with Hillary Clinton as First Lady, I feel confident in saying that she’s become the new First Lady of the World.

From 1992 to 2001, in public forums or her private residence, in person or by phone, on- and off-the-record, I conducted interviews with her on a wide range of public issues, yet always sought to have her reflect on how what she saw and did evolved her perceptions of the world at large. During her tenure as U.S. Senator, I continued to meet with her privately and briefly on occasion in her office, and since then have followed her every word and deed.

For thirty-two years she has worked in public service, nonsalaried and salaried, from the state to the global level, not that that the mere accumulation of time is what might earn a person such an unofficial title.

Joint Oval Office interview with the President and Mrs. Clinton, 1994.

Joint Oval Office interview with the President and Mrs. Clinton, 1994.

Titles, tenure, salaries, even receiving direct credit for an accomplishment. however, have never driven Hillary Clinton.  Like all political figures, it is power which she has sought to obtain yet the cynical, suspicious and partisan have often let their personal dislike or mistrust of her or her husband blind to the core of what motivates her.

In a day and age where even a First Lady’s Inaugural gown is believed to carry some hidden message, decoding Hillary Clinton is not difficult. It is just a matter of examining the subtext beneath the full length of her storyline. It means understanding her big picture, regardless of whatever public role she may be playing at any given moment.

In fact, focusing on the big picture is a skill she developed early on and continues to employ not only in terms of achieving a specific piece of public policy but as the very guide to all aspects of her own personal life. The big picture. The Mission.

Now that she’s leaving her post as Secretary of State, I think its important to look more deeply into some of the more abstract but instructive points which Hillary Clinton has used to determine her life’s work, whether or not she chooses to run for President in 2016.

Interviewing her in Chicago, 1997.

Interviewing her in Chicago, 1997.

I’ve largely chosen not to write publicly about Hillary Clinton in the past for a number of reasons.

In striving to be objective, I’ve found it difficult at times to not be subjective about her.

When a person is not only a topic of analysis but has also become a friend, its also a challenge to determine the boundary between disclosing a scoop and respecting privacy.

The primary reason I’ve not written about her more frequently, however, is simply that I’ve got far too much to say, certainly more than anyone should be asked to reasonably read online in a website article.

So, in an attempt to summarize as neatly as possible, all that I have observed and come to believe about one of the most extraordinary human beings of our times who happens to be a friend, I find it best to glimpse that bigger picture, the core values and principals by which she attempts to conduct every day of her personal and public life.

The Midwestern Methodist values first inculcated in her as a child and then the principals she developed for herself as she learned through unrelenting hard work, failures, betrayals, achievements and carefully-considered commitments are the foundation of not only what drive her but sustain and balance her.

On Air Force One, 1997.

On Air Force One, 1997.

The essence of all of this is one guiding principal: life itself is a mystery, and unexpected difficulties are its one constant, yet somehow, even in small, anonymous measures, one gains a sense of purpose in one’s life by helping other people in their lives.

For Hillary Clinton, that’s the only reason to pursue the awesome degree of power which she has: to create change that will help the greatest number of people in the greatest need. That has always been her mission.

She doesn’t manage to do this flawlessly or even successfully in every crisis or situation, but she will also be the first to say she is simply like every one of us, a mortal human being. And that reveals another core value which guides her.

She knows she is a symbol and that many people invest far greater hope in her power than she could possibly live up to, but she never loses sight of the fact that she is simply one person, with deficiencies like all of this.

It’s the reason why, among those who’ve worked closest with her, one finds that while she has sought increased power she also singularly lacks a massive ego. I believe that, for her, ego gets in the way of achieving.

This plays out in public policy in one very efficient manner which reveals another principal: she doesn’t really care whether or not people like or approve of her personally, the mission is what matters.

In the Blue Room, 1999.

In the Blue Room, 1999.

She’s learned too that many people say and do things they regret or may later change their minds about.

She’s been emotionally attacked by those who made lucrative professions hating her and been wounded more passively by those closest to her, even among those she considered friends or allies and, of course, political allies and rivals but she knows she occupies the same worlds as they do and will get no where by avoiding or refusing to engage them. This brings up her enormous capacity for forgiveness.

Take a look at her June of 2008 concession speech to Obama for the greatest proof of some of this. She firmly made clear to supporters that her presidential campaign was not a personal cult but a mission for a greater good.

A globetrotter long before she became Secretary of State, she has gone to practically every corner of the globe and encountered every culture, lifestyle and educational and socioeconomic level. From it, she always strives to find what human beings have in common and from this her ability to value every individual, without regard to what power they have to help her, has only deepened. When someone is telling her something, face to face, she shows them the respect of listening.

Further, this has deepened her empathy.

That ability has grown into one of the keys to her success: a striving and ability to always understand the reasons why an individual with whom she disagrees believes what they do; she always approaches a conflict by first seeking to see what she does from an opponent’s viewpoint, giving her a capacity to see herself objectively.

During her last month as First Lady, 2001.

During her last month as First Lady, 2001.

While there are many other core values which propel her, one that is quiet and rarely discussed is that of Gratitude, a character trait I capitalize because she has done so when using that word in written form to me. Gratitude for opportunity, her parents, her husband and child, her ruggedly loyal staff, her supporters, her health.

All of this has worked together to teach her how to simultaneously keep one eye on the small-picture of practical matters right at hand with the other eye on the larger intention, the goal, the mission. She knows enough about life to always realize that dealing with the small-picture is a risky investment in that it may not always result in the goal of the big picture, but by making conscious choices to move forward,  she has seen that the arc of her life can deliver her to an even greater, unexpected accomplishment.

Perhaps some day I will further explain through examples and anecdotes why I come to the above conclusions, but the opportunity to have known her for more than twenty years now might permit me to add one further character trait to the most predominant one she possesses.

Few in the world, even her most vociferous enemies, will deny that Hillary Clinton has enormous strength.

To that, I will simply add for the moment that she also has an equal degree of warmth.

Hillary Clinton carries no grudges. Here with U.S. Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of her's. (

Hillary Clinton carries no grudges. Here with U.S. Senator John McCain, a frequent critic of her’s. (

Categories: First Ladies, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama

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12 replies »

  1. I was part of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Support Network. In fact, I was the Hudson River Valley Coordinator. We were all invited to a gala farewell for her, in early Dec. 2000. It was such a wonderful experience for me. Only a month earlier, I had been diagnosed with a very serious medical condition, so my four days in DC (they were still disputed the hanging chads in Florida), was a most wonderful antidote.
    The next time I saw her was at the Chappaqua, NY Library with the launch of her autobiography. By that time, I had lost 100 pounds, and Mrs. Clinton couldn’t get over the difference in me.

    • Thank you William – and you are an example of what is likely tens of thousands of individuals who have engaged with Hillary Clinton on one level or another who have experienced her ability to focus intently on the person with whom she’s speaking at the time and not get distracted by the tons of other people often clamoring for her right there. She has never lost that ability and I’ve noted many occasions when even if the person she’s speaking with and she are heatedly arguing, she focuses all her senses on them and what they’re saying – and even though they sometimes come away even more in disagreement with her, they’ve really respected her for listening.

  2. I loved what she had to say to Congressman Ron Johnson. I think her remarks were a game changer. That was an extremely hostile environment. What I find interesting about those types of hearings is not what is said but the Top Secret briefings where things are said that cannot be repeated outside. MOC’s use this information to goad people who testify into positions of weakness, then dodge and perry and then retreat – specifically to create a soundbite for the folks at home. Johnson was on the attack because Ambassador Clinton is a potential Presidential candidate in 2016 and he’s aware of that. He played partisan politics to further ingratiate himself with his party. Interesting interchange between the Congressman and a seasoned political operative. In some quarters he appears to have “scored” but long term he will be a blip on the political radar. Barely a spec of sand on all the beaches on all the earth throughout the millennium.

  3. Is that today (Sunday) at 5pm PST?

  4. Lovely tribute at the bittersweet time as she steps off the public platform. We are all happy that she will finally get a chance to rest and relax, but we will also miss her in our daily lives. I did get the notification in time to catch you on CNN.

  5. Thanks for the ping.

    What a priviledge it must have been to be able to be so close to history. I think Hillary will go down as one of the most important people in American history, female or male.

  6. Damn…I wish I had opened this earlier, but unfortunately I missed the program. But, as always, Carl’s article was fascinating. Rod and Ann are picking us up at 9:00am. Not sure when I will get home. Hope you had a pleasant day and wasn’t too exhausted…although I have to believe you were.

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