The release this week of 3,000 pages of emails from Clinton’s first year at the State Department presents a rare glimpse into the daily life of a secretary of state — one whose tenure will be at the heart of a campaign to win the presidency.
WASHINGTON — In December 2009, toward the end of her first year as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to a joint interview with perhaps her best-known living predecessor, Henry Kissinger.
As she pondered the encounter, she began to worry that her distant relationship with President Obama, who beat her for their party’s presidential nomination, might contrast unfavorably with Kissinger’s close collaboration with President Nixon.
“In thinking about the Kissinger interview, the only issue I think that might be raised is that I see POTUS at least once a week while K saw Nixon every day,” she wrote in an email to aides, using the acronym for the president of the United States. “Of course, if I were dealing w that POTUS I’d probably camp in his office to prevent him from doing something problematic,” she added cheekily before returning to the main point: “Do you see this as a problem?”
She evidently did, at least potentially, then went ahead with the interview. But her concern reflected the awkward marriage of former rivals at the start of the Obama presidency. The release this week of about 3,000 pages of emails from Clinton’s first year at the State Department presents a rare glimpse into the daily life of a secretary of state — especially one whose tenure will be at the heart of a campaign to win the presidency, which eluded Clinton seven years ago.
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Trying to find her place at the head of a Cabinet run by the man who had vanquished her, Clinton nursed concerns about whether she was in the right meetings and whether the president or his people were holding grudges against those who had supported her during their epic 2008 primary contest. She traded messages with political advisers who sent her sometimes scathing assessments of the president she now served, although she was careful not to respond in kind in writing.
While Clinton’s portfolio was foreign policy, a former adviser made sure that she knew when Obama reversed his campaign position to embrace a version of a health-care overhaul that he had criticized when she advocated it. And like most politicians, Clinton paid careful attention to her news clippings, even fretting over an article buried on Page A8 of a newspaper that mentioned her old campaign spending and pressing for a correction.
“I can’t tell if anyone is listening to Obama at un,” Mark Penn, her former campaign strategist, wrote to her in September 2009, referring to the United Nations, “but the lack of clear Afghanistan policy is unwinding the coalition and threatens to cause a massive deer in headlights problem for administration if not resolved soon.”
Penn suggested thoughts for a speech by Clinton, which she forwarded to aides. “Overlook the source,” she wrote, knowing that Penn was not popular among other Clinton advisers, “but idea that I should do a topper on timely events and make case is probably right.”
Other than those related to the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, the messages released by the State Department on Tuesday night represented just the first tranche of more than 50,000 pages to be disclosed in the coming months. Moreover, Clinton deleted tens of thousands of other messages that she said were personal.
So conclusions at this point would be incomplete. But the messages made public so far reveal an exceedingly cautious politician acutely aware that anything she wrote could someday be read by a wider audience. Most of Clinton’s messages were clipped, usually no more than two or three sentences, dealing with schedules or setting up phone calls.
The banality of some of the emails is striking given her stature as one of the world’s most prominent figures. She asked an aide to get her an iced tea. She engaged in a protracted struggle to get her fax machine to work. She evidently did not have a printer because she forwarded numerous messages to aides with the note, “Pls print.”
Hints of personality emerge. In a message with the subject line “Don’t laugh!!” she asked an aide to find out about the carpets in the room where she met with China’s leadership. In another, when an aide reported that a Florida senator had stopped blocking a State Department nomination, she jokingly asked what price had to be paid: “Does this mean you have to go to Cuba and arrest Castro or just shovel more $ into Little Havana?”
When another aide, P.J. Crowley, complimented a coat she had been photographed wearing during a trip to Afghanistan — “its favorability rating was 77 percent,” he said about an online poll it inspired — she replied: “Thx! I bought the coat in Kabul in 03 and thought it should get a chance to go home for a visit!!”
Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a longtime friend who has since died, provided fodder for others who knew of his aspirations for her job. After she fell and injured her elbow, former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent her a message: “Hillary, Is it true that Holbrooke tripped you? Just kidding.”
John Podesta, a White House chief of staff to President Clinton who is now chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, had the same thought. “No matter what anybody says, we refuse to believe that Holbrooke tripped you,” he wrote to her.
In a few instances, Clinton asked aides what could be done to help, for instance, a 10-year-old Yemeni girl who felt oppressed, or a Turkish Kurd who was about to be sent back to a country where he had been tortured, or Christians under siege in Iraq. But for the most part, she seemed to deal with substantive questions by telephone and rarely showed her hand in writing.
Still, she stayed in touch with outside political advisers like Penn and Sidney Blumenthal, who wanted a State Department job but was rejected by Obama’s White House. Blumenthal sent long memos trying to shape her image, suggesting themes for speeches and passing along messages from people like Gordon Brown, then the British prime minister.
While aides have said Blumenthal’s input was not solicited, Clinton seemed to welcome his advice and insights. At different points, each sent a message after 10 p.m. asking if the other was awake and available for a phone call.
Clinton also heard from Penn, who scorned Obama’s Afghanistan policy. Any consideration of downgrading the Taliban as a focus of U.S. military efforts, Penn wrote her, “defies the imagination” and would make the administration “vulnerable to losing moderate support and seeming weak and indecisive.”
But the White House was always hovering overhead. When Clinton went on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Obama’s advisers insisted on briefing her first. Clinton seemed intent on avoiding any public reports of friction with the White House. One aide, aware of this sensitivity, sent her an article after the television appearance that, in the aide’s recounting, “says you and the President are closer than any administration in recent memory.”