In Alter Egos, veteran New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler takes us inside the fraught and fascinating relationship between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—a relationship that has framed the nation’s great debates over war and peace for the past eight years.
In the annals of American statecraft, theirs was a most unlikely alliance. Clinton, daughter of an anticommunist father, was raised in the Republican suburbs of Chicago in the aftermath of World War II, nourishing an unshakable belief in the United States as a force for good in distant lands. Obama, an itinerant child of the 1970s, was raised by a single mother in Indonesia and Hawaii, suspended between worlds and a witness to the less savory side of Uncle Sam’s influence abroad. Clinton and Obama would later come to embody competing visions of America’s role in the world: his, restrained, inward-looking, painfully aware of limits; hers, hard-edged, pragmatic, unabashedly old-fashioned.
Spanning the arc of Obama’s two terms, Alter Egos goes beyond the speeches and press conferences to the Oval Office huddles and South Lawn strolls, where Obama and Clinton pressed their views. It follows their evolution from bitter rivals to wary partners, and then to something resembling rivals again, as Clinton defined herself anew and distanced herself from her old boss. In the process, it counters the narrative that, during her years as secretary of state, there was no daylight between them, that the wounds of the 2008 campaign had been entirely healed.
The president and his chief diplomat parted company over some of the biggest issues of the day: how quickly to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; whether to arm the rebels in Syria; how to respond to the upheaval in Egypt; and whether to trust the Russians. In Landler’s gripping account, we venture inside the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, watch Obama and Clinton work in tandem to salvage a conference on climate change in Copenhagen, and uncover the secret history of their nuclear diplomacy with Iran—a story with a host of fresh disclosures.
With the grand sweep of history and the pointillist detail of an account based on insider access—the book draws on exclusive interviews with more than one hundred senior administration officials, foreign diplomats, and friends of Obama and Clinton—Mark Landler offers the definitive account of a complex, profoundly important relationship. As Barack Obama prepares to relinquish the presidency, and Hillary Clinton makes perhaps her last bid for it, how both regard American power is a central question of our time.
Advance praise for Alter Egos
“A superb journalist has brought us a vivid, page-turning, and revelatory account of the relationship between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as of their statecraft. Alter Egos will make a signal contribution to the national debate over who should be the next American president.”—Michael Beschloss, bestselling author of Presidential Courage
“Mark Landler, one of the best reporters working in Washington today, delivers an inside account of Hillary Clinton’s relationship with Barack Obama that brims with insight and high-level intrigue. It’s both fun to read and eye-opening.”—Jane Mayer, bestselling author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Warrior and the Priest
Barack Obama turned up unexpectedly in the press cabin of Air Force One as the plane was high above the South China Sea, about to begin its descent into Malaysia on a flight from South Korea. The president was not one for casual in--flight visits, saving these encounters for the trip home to Washington, when he would ruminate with reporters, off the record, about what he had accomplished overseas. So when he appeared on the afternoon of April 26, 2014, in the middle of a weeklong tour of Asia, something clearly was up. Wearing an open--necked blue shirt, gray slacks, and an unsmiling expression, Obama shook hands with the journalists on board that day: reporters from the four major news agencies; a network producer from CBS News; a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Before he reached the third row of seats, where I was standing with a hand outstretched, the president wheeled around, returned to the front of the cabin, and propped himself, arms crossed, against a gray bulkhead, next to a flickering television screen.
It was hard to know if Obama had ignored me intentionally: I was the last in a scrum of reporters, and the president likes to keep these pleasantries to a minimum anyway. But when he swatted away my opening question about China, a chill wind was clearly blowing.
“I’ll answer that in a minute,” the president said, “but first I want to say a few things.”
Obama, it turned out, was angry about two articles that had run in The New York Times the previous day. One, by me and a colleague, Jodi Rudoren, declared that his trip had already been marred by a pair of setbacks: the failure to strike a trade deal with Japan and the collapse of his latest effort to negotiate a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. The other said his administration had underestimated the bellicose nature of North Korea’s new ruler, Kim Jong--un. Obama wanted me to know he never expected to sign a trade agreement on that trip, nor, for that matter, did he bear any illusions about North Korea’s boy dictator. The impromptu visit was meant to set the press straight about our coverage of his foreign policy. Obama viewed it as shallow, mistaking prudence for fecklessness, pragmatism for lack of ambition.
“Ben and I have been talking about giving a speech that lays out my foreign policy,” he said, stealing a glance at his foreign policy amanuensis, Benjamin Rhodes, who had slipped quietly into a seat behind the reporters, next to the press secretary, Jay Carney, and seemed as unsure of what his boss was going to say as the reporters were.
“I can sum up my foreign policy in one phrase,” Obama said, pausing a beat for his punch line. “Don’t do stupid shit.”
America’s problems, he said, stemmed not from doing too little but too much, from overreach rather than inaction. The country’s greatest disasters had come from blundering into reckless military adventures, whether in Vietnam or Iraq. The key to managing a sound foreign policy was to avoid entanglements in places where America’s national interests were not directly at stake—-Syria, for example, which was caught up in a sectarian war that would defy outside efforts to end it; or Ukraine, victimized by a predatory Russia but a country with which the United States conducted a negligible amount of trade. Warming to his theme, Obama offered a brisk tour of places his White House had not started new conflicts: the Middle East, Asia, eastern Europe. Historic achievements in foreign policy—-Nixon’s opening to China—-were once--in--a--generation occurrences, he said. He might yet get one if the West negotiated an agreement with Iran to restrain its nuclear program. But in a world of unending strife and unreliable despotic leaders, hoping for more than that was simply not realistic. In such a world, Obama was content to hit singles and doubles, hewing to his foreign policy version of the Hippocratic oath.
As we touched down outside Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, Obama kept talking, bracing himself against the bulkhead as the tires squealed and ordering those who were standing in the aisle to sit down. (“I’m the only one who’s allowed to stand,” he said. “I don’t want that liability.”) Before returning to his cabin, where he would put on a jacket and tie and jog down the stairs to another red--carpet welcome in another distant land, Obama turned to the reporters and asked, “Now what’s my foreign policy philosophy?”
“Don’t do stupid shit,” we replied sheepishly, like schoolchildren taught a naughty rhyme by a subversive teacher.
Obama smiled and then was gone as abruptly as he had come. His credo hung in the air, though. At one level, it seemed crude, almost juvenile, particularly coming from a man who cared deeply about words and believed in the power of language to convey ideas. And yet it had the ring of authenticity. More so than his shimmering oratory—-his references to the “arc of history” or the “spark of the divine”—-those four words seemed to capture what was for Obama the irreducible truth of being commander in chief of the world’s remaining superpower.
As a White House correspondent for The New York Times, I had traveled to a dozen countries with the president over four years, from a state visit to Buckingham Palace, arriving in a thirty--car motorcade, to a secret mission in Afghanistan, flying at night over the Hindu Kush in Black Hawk helicopters. I questioned him at news conferences in the East Room and the Great Hall of the People, listened to him elaborate his worldview in speeches in London, Jerusalem, and Brisbane. And yet it was during a salty Saturday afternoon encounter in the back of Air Force One that Obama uttered what would become perhaps the signature slogan of his presidency—-the foreign policy equivalent of “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Soon enough, “Don’t do stupid shit” entered the vernacular. Obama repeated it in a meeting with columnists and editorial writers; his advisers cited it in interviews; it was even codified in a speech he gave the following month at the United States Military Academy at West Point—-an address that will surely rank as one of the most ambivalent ever delivered by an American president. The elders of the foreign policy establishment debated the wisdom and meaning of the phrase, usually amending it, in a clumsy attempt to make it more family friendly, to “Don’t do stupid stuff.” To Obama’s critics, it became shorthand for the president’s weak and dilatory leadership—-leadership, they said, that had relinquished America’s historic and necessary role as the ultimate guarantor of world order. It seemed, in the wake of the Islamic State’s brutal rampage across Syria and Iraq and Russia’s de facto invasion of Ukraine, hopelessly inadequate to a storm--tossed world.
Among those critics was Hillary Clinton, his onetime rival who had become his loyal lieutenant and now aspired to be his successor. As secretary of state, she had been intimately involved in every major foreign policy debate of his presidency. She would run for the White House, in no small measure, as the custodian of his legacy. And yet, once Clinton had left his cabinet at the end of the first term, she was eager to start delineating her own views about the world. It was an inevitable distancing of herself from her former boss, and like all such partings, it wasn’t pretty.
“Great nations need organizing principles,” she said when she was asked in the summer of 2014 if Obama’s phrase held any lessons for her. “ ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing prin-ciple.”
Dissent was not something I encountered in two years of covering Clinton at the State Department (I moved to the White House beat in 2011). She was robotically faithful and on message in those days, apt to start sentences with “As President Obama said . . .” or “President Obama has been very clear . . .” She told off aides who criticized him or his policies, a courtesy the White House didn’t reciprocate. Loyal, disciplined, and determined to be a team player, Clinton rarely, if ever, showed public daylight between her and the president. For reporters who expected the kind of withering sniper fire between Foggy Bottom and the Oval Office that Clinton and Obama had exchanged in South Carolina during the 2008 primaries, their display of unity was stifling.
To travel with the secretary of state as I did, to forty--three countries on four continents, however, was to witness a woman completing a remarkable, decade--long metamorphosis—-one that widened, rather than narrowed, her differences with the progressive president she had agreed to serve. Clinton was shedding the last vestiges of her image as a polarizing, left--wing social engineer in favor of a new role as commanding figure on the global stage, someone who could go toe--to--toe with the mullahs in Tehran or the cold warriors in Moscow. A loyal lieutenant, yes, but a general in waiting.
Under the surface, Clinton’s Manichean worldview was always there. It turned up early, in her blunt closed--door prediction to an Arab foreign minister that the Iranians would spurn Obama’s offer of an olive branch. Later, one could see it in her unstinting support of the military commanders in their request for a larger American troop deployment to Afghanistan than the president or even his Republican defense secretary wanted. Or in her support of the Pentagon’s recommendation to leave a residual force of 10,000 to 20,000 troops behind in Iraq. It surfaced in her campaign for air strikes in Libya to prevent a slaughter by Colonel Muammar al--Qaddafi, and it fueled her case, the summer before she left the State Department, for funneling weapons to the rebels fighting Bashar al--Assad in Syria.
Avidly, if discreetly, Clinton played the house hawk in Obama’s war cabinet.
That Clinton is much more hawkish than Obama is no revelation to anyone who watched them brawl in the winter of 2008. She accused her young opponent of naïveté after he said he would negotiate with America’s adversaries “without preconditions.” She warned Iran that if it ever launched a nuclear strike on Israel, the United States would “totally obliterate” it. Their differences, however, were largely submerged by Clinton’s innate caution, relentless self--control, and the common cause the two rivals made when she agreed to join Obama’s cabinet. He recruited her to repair an American image that had been shredded after eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. She, with her dreams of the White House deferred, recognized this as a way to burnish her national security credentials and keep her place on the world stage. The last thing Clinton wanted was a public rift with her new boss.
Once she was a private citizen, however, with the presidency again in her sights, the fissures between them became harder to conceal. Nor was she as inclined to do so. She came out against his ambitious Asia-Pacific trade pact, after having been one of its most enthusiastic advocates. She began to etch clear policy differences with him on Syria and Russia—-a distancing his aides found opportunistic, if unsurprising. In August 2014, Clinton said Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels in Syria left a security vacuum there and in Iraq, which had been filled by the brutal warriors of the Islamic State. Her criticism antagonized a president who already felt embattled. A few days later, the pair hugged in an awkward reconciliation at a birthday party in Martha’s Vineyard for Vernon Jordan’s wife, Ann. “I never saw them interact all evening,” said a guest who watched their stilted body language from a nearby table.
Clinton still embraced central tenets of Obama’s foreign policy; it was, after all, her foreign policy, too. In the fall of 2015, she articulated the case for his much--disputed nuclear agreement with Tehran to an audience at the Brookings Institution. But their public remarks only underscored how differently Clinton viewed the achievement than Obama. He called it “the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated.” She called it a flawed deal worth supporting only if it was linked to relentless enforcement, a concerted effort to thwart Iranian malfeasance in the Middle East, and an unwavering threat to use military force to prevent Iran from ever getting a bomb. “My starting point will be one of distrust,” she said.
Clinton’s break with Obama over Russia played out similarly. She had long been more suspicious of Vladimir Putin than the president, though she voiced those warnings, Obama’s aides noted, only when Putin’s sinister motives were already well established. At a Democratic fundraiser in California in March 2014, she likened his annexation of Crimea to Hitler’s conquest of the Sudetenland in the 1930s. Eighteen months later, she said Obama’s restrained response to Putin’s bullying of Ukraine was inadequate. And when Putin intervened in Syria on behalf of Assad, Clinton sounded the trumpet of a new cold war. “All the Russian experts that thought that their work was done after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I hope that they will be dusting off their materials,” she said. These retired cold warriors, she said, needed to draw up a battle plan for “how we try to confine, contain, deter Russian aggression in Europe and beyond.”
Their differences surfaced again during the bloody months at the end of 2015, when radical Islamists carried out killing sprees in Paris and California. The carnage propelled terrorism to the forefront of yet another presidential campaign. Suddenly, the tangled conflict in the Levant was no longer just a riddle for foreign policy experts; it posed a direct threat to the homeland, throwing Obama on his back foot and playing out in the crude appeals to nativism and nationalism by the Republican candidates. Syria was where Clinton had first split with him over supplying arms to the rebels; now they split again over her call to impose a no--fly zone over northern Syria, as her husband had done in Iraq in the 1990s to protect the Kurds.
“Look,” she told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations a few days after the attacks in Paris, “I have made clear that I have differences, as I think any two people do.”
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are more than just two of the most riveting political figures of our time. They are protagonists in a great debate over American power—-one that will decide not only who sits in the Oval Office but the direction she or he will take a nation that faces a new twilight struggle against the forces of disorder.
On one side of the debate stand those, like Obama, who believe the United States resorts too readily to military force to defend its interests, that American intervention in other countries usually ends in misery, and that the nation would be well--served by defining its interests more narrowly than it has for most of the post–-World War II era. On the other side stand those, like Clinton, who believe that the calculated use of military power is vital to defending national interests, that American intervention does more good than harm, and that the writ of the United States properly reaches, as George W. Bush once declared, into “any dark corner of the world.” Clinton and Obama have come to embody competing visions of America’s role in the world: his vision restrained, inward looking, radical in its acknowledgment of limits; hers, hard--edged, pragmatic, unabashedly old--fashioned.
This book will explore that divide: how it played out in the major foreign policy debates of the Obama administration; how it will shape the president’s legacy; how it could shape a Clinton presidency; and what it means for a nation exhausted after more than a decade of war yet facing a cascade of new threats, from the medieval jihad of the Islamic State to the nineteenth--century nationalism of Russia to the twenty--first--century muscle flexing of China. The book will go behind the speeches and press conferences to the Situation Room meetings and Oval Office huddles, the phone calls and emails, in which Clinton and Obama wrestled with their options, bringing their different worldviews to bear on an often uncooperative world.
It is a perennial debate in postwar America, sometimes framed as realism versus liberal internationalism, George Kennan versus Woodrow Wilson. The disciples of Wilson regard foreign policy as an idealistic enterprise, a means of transmitting liberal Democratic values throughout the world. The apostles of realpolitik view it pragmatically, as a means of safeguarding national interests. Obama and Clinton don’t fit neatly into those boxes; it is too simple to say she is from Mars and he is from Venus. The reluctant warrior in the Oval Office was nevertheless an avid believer in drones, Navy SEALs, and other instruments of covert warfare. The hawk in the State Department was nevertheless committed to the diplomacy and multilateral institutions championed by Wilson. Realism and idealism coexist in both of them.
Clinton and Obama, it must be said, agreed more than they disagreed. Both preferred diplomacy to brute force. Both shunned the unilateralism of the Bush years. Both are lawyers committed to preserving the rules--based order that the United States put in place after 1945. Yet as that order has begun to fracture, they have shown very different instincts for how to save it. “The president has made some tough decisions,” Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s defense secretary and CIA director, told me. “But it’s been a mixed record, and the concern is, the president defining what America’s role in the world is in the twenty--first century hasn’t happened.
“Hopefully, he’ll do it,” Panetta said. “Certainly, she would.”
Dennis Ross, a former aide to Clinton and Obama who played a behind--the--scenes role in the secret negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, said, “It’s not that she’s quick to use force, but her basic instincts are governed more by the uses of hard power.”
The differences between them are not ideological as much as generational, cultural, even temperamental. Clinton is a Midwesterner, a product of the Cold War who came of age during the Vietnam era and watched as her husband articulated a new rationale for humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s. She is a woman aspiring to a job that has been held only by men. Obama is a child of the Pacific Rim who came of age after Vietnam and had no firsthand exposure to the Balkans campaigns (he was immersed in state politics in Illinois during those years). The formative foreign policy event of his lifetime was the American misadventure in Iraq.
Obama came into office as a counterrevolutionary, seeking to end Bush’s wars and restore America’s moral standing. But his ambitions were even larger than that: He set out to reconcile Americans to a world in which the United States was no longer the undisputed hegemon. He shunned the triumphalist language of American exceptionalism, declaring that the nation’s unique character lay not in its perfection but in its unending struggle to live up to its ideals. He refused to be drawn into distant conflicts, with the much--regretted exception of Libya. He tied the nation’s security to that of other nations, seeking cooperation on climate change and nonproliferation. And yet he also defended the just use of military force to defend the homeland or to avert genocide. “Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths,” Obama said in accepting his prematurely awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. “That war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.”
Clinton is more conventional and more political. Her foreign policy is less a doctrine than a set of impulses, grounded in cold calculation and what one aide calls “a textbook view of American exceptionalism.” She is at heart a “situationalist,” somebody who reacts to problems piecemeal rather than fitting them into a larger doctrine. Her flexibility has led people to read different things into her foreign policy: Republicans accuse her of being an Obama retread; Obama loyalists grumble that she dramatized her divisions with the president on Syria and Russia for political reasons; Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations warns that she could end up in thrall to the neoconservatives who led the United States into Iraq. “She takes the position that leaves her the least vulnerable,” he told me.
Those characteristics make her a ready warrior but a cautious diplomat. Unlike most modern--day secretaries of state, Clinton kept her distance from peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, judging them to be an uphill climb and not worth the risk of alienating Jewish voters at home. Obama made daring overtures to Iran and Cuba; it’s not clear the United States would have achieved either, but especially the Iran nuclear deal, had Clinton been elected president in 2008 instead of him. Obama’s statesmanship, Dennis Ross noted, flowed from a very different source than Clinton’s: He tended to view adversaries in terms of their grievances toward the United States; Clinton views them more traditionally, in terms of their interests. “It leads you in a different direction,” Ross said.
Predicting how a secretary of state would act as commander in chief is, at some level, a fool’s errand. The last person to make the transition was James Buchanan in 1857; his presidency, which accelerated the slide toward the Civil War, was widely judged the greatest failure in the history of the Republic. Clinton might view the diplomatic stakes differently as president than she did as secretary of state. Militarily, she would face the same constraints Obama did, not just at home but abroad. The breakdown of the twentieth--century American order, Obama’s defenders note, has made the world less amenable to any president’s efforts to control it. “If you look at Obama and his rhetoric in 2008, you would have expected a transformational and maximalist president,” said Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist who advises Clinton. “He was going to ban nuclear weapons. He was going to repair relations with the Muslim world. We were going to have a reset with Russia. These were ambitious goals, but he turned out to be a rather prudent retrencher. The pendulum is going to swing back somewhat now, and Hillary Clinton is probably going to be less of a retrencher. The question is how much leeway she’ll have.”
How well Clinton’s hawkish instincts match the country is an open question. Americans are weary of war and remain suspicious of foreign entanglements. And yet, after the retrenchment of the Obama years, there is evidence that they are equally dissatisfied with a portrait of their country as a spent force, managing its decline amid a world of rising powers, resurgent empires, and lethal new forces such as the Islamic State. If Obama’s minimalist approach was a necessary reaction to the maximalist style of his predecessor, then perhaps what Americans yearn for is something in between—-the kind of steel-belted pragmatism that Clinton has spent a lifetime cultivating.
It is not easy to find a historic parallel for the relationship between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In their ambitions and rivalry, they resemble Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—“-the warrior and the priest,” in the words of John Milton Cooper, Jr.—-who staked out competing visions for America as a great power in the twentieth century: robust and adventurous; restrained and rule bound. But Clinton and Obama are from the same political party and worked in the same administration. The closer analogy, perhaps, is to Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, who created the American--led order that Obama and Clinton are both fighting to preserve. Truman embodied the idealistic spirit of Wilson; Acheson reflected the balance--of--power realism of Roo-sevelt. “While the visions seemingly clashed,” as G. John Ikenberry wrote, “they ended up working in tandem.”
For Clinton and Obama, as for those men present at the creation, it was a story of dreams and disillusionment: Obama’s attempt to reset relations with Russia, mocked by Putin on the battlefields of the Crimean War; Clinton’s fervent plea to the president to rescue Libya from a madman, which ended up pitching the country further into madness, and hardened Obama against doing anything when the savagery moved to Syria. The young idealist who made an eloquent case for humanitarian military intervention in Oslo became the chastened realist who made a pinched argument for avoiding it at West Point four and a half years later.
It is a story with a rich supporting cast: Joe Biden, the windy vice president who honed his foreign policy over decades in the Senate and vied with Clinton for Obama’s ear, arguing for an approach even more minimalist than the president’s; Bob Gates, the Soviet-era spymaster and Bush holdover who became a Clinton ally; John Kerry, the patrician senator who succeeded Clinton at State and whose hell--for--leather style made her look staid by comparison; Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton friend and pathologically driven Democratic statesman, who never found his footing with Obama; and a cadre of advisers, from Ben Rhodes to Jake Sullivan—-young men in a hurry, who exercised influence beyond their years as agents of their bosses. Looming just offstage was Bill Clinton, the forty--second president and citizen of the world, who once called the United States the “indispensable nation.” He influenced his wife, both with his wide--angle worldview and through the challenges of his presidency, from the Balkans to Rwanda, which filtered into her views on Libya and Syria.
Ultimately, though, this book is about two supremely ambitious figures: the prickly, distant president who lectured reporters on his plane but could be refreshingly honest as he wrestled with problems; and the practiced, hyper--cautious secretary of state who knocked back drinks with her press corps but could never quite dispel the suspicion that her bonhomie was an act. These were archrivals who became partners for a time, trailblazers who shared a common sense of their historic destiny but different instincts about how to project power. As one prepared to relinquish the presidency, and the other made her long--awaited bid for it, how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama view America’s role in the world is a central question of our time.
From Cairo to Copenhagen
Hillary Clinton sat in the hideaway study off her ceremonial office in the State Department, sipping tea and taking stock of her first year on the job. The study is more like a den—-cozy and wood paneled, lined with bookshelves that displayed mementos from Clinton’s three decades in the public eye: a baseball signed by the Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks, a carved wooden figure of a pregnant African woman, a statue of her heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt. The intimate setting lent itself to a less formal interview than the usual ones with Clinton in the nouveau opulence of her outer office, with its crystal chandelier, marble fireplace, and obligatory portrait of Thomas Jefferson, America’s first secretary of state. On the morning of February 26, 2010, however, Clinton was talking about something more sensitive than mere foreign affairs: her relationship with Barack Obama. To say she chose her words carefully doesn’t do justice to the delicacy of the exercise. She was like a bomb--squad technician, deciding which color wire to snip as the timer ticked down to zero.
“We’ve developed, I think, a very good rapport, really positive back and forth about everything you can imagine,” Clinton said about the man she had described during the 2008 campaign as naïve, irresponsible, and hopelessly unprepared to be president. “And we’ve had some interesting and even unusual experiences along the way.”
She leaned forward as she spoke, gesturing with her hands and laughing easily. There was more warmth than one had in exchanges with Obama, but less of an expectation that she might say something revealing. Clinton singled out, as she often did, the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen the previous December, where she and Obama had gate--crashed a meeting of leaders from China, India, and Brazil, and over the next seventy--five minutes persuaded the balky leaders to accept a nonbinding agreement that saved the summit from collapse. For Clinton and Obama, it was a bonding moment, proof that these former rivals could work together without a script.
It was also, in the tentative, early days of this rivalry turned partnership, extremely unusual.
A more telling anecdote, one Clinton never discussed publicly, had come six months earlier, in June 2009, when the new president traveled to Egypt to deliver a landmark speech to the Islamic world. Clinton was in the audience at Cairo University that day, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd that craned to see her as she entered the vaulted auditorium just before Obama, a handbag slung over her tan jacket. She had flown there overnight from a Latin American summit in Honduras, leaving in the middle of a rancorous negotiation over the diplomatic status of Cuba, so she wouldn’t miss the most important address of Obama’s young presidency. But the picture of solidarity belied a more complicated backstory: As the trip was getting under way, she had declined a request from the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to peel off from the presidential entourage after the speech and fly to Jerusalem to meet with officials of Israel’s new government.
For weeks, the content and choreography of Obama’s big speech had been the subject of fierce debate inside the West Wing. Some of his advisers wanted him to seize the moment and lay down a new peace initiative for Israel and the Palestinians. Others disagreed, saying that in keeping with his pledge to wind down the Iraq War, his focus should be on a restart with the Islamic world. Some argued that Obama should visit Israel after Egypt to show America’s solidarity with its other main ally in the region. Others, including Ben Rhodes, said no, that would turn this historic gesture into yet another exercise in American shuttle diplomacy, diluting his message that a new era was dawning for the United States in the Middle East.
Obama opted not to go. Emanuel, worried that skipping over Jerusalem would bruise the feelings of the Israelis, proposed that Clinton do damage control. He went way back with Hillary, having worked for Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and later in the White House as a senior adviser for policy and strategy. He and the First Lady had crossed swords during those years, but Emanuel had been there for the highs and lows of the Clinton presidency—-from planning Bill’s first inaugural to helping draft the statement in which the president admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Emanuel was also a staunch defender of Israel; he had once served as a civilian volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces. Despite those credentials and their long history, when Emanuel asked Clinton to go to Israel in Obama’s stead and show the president’s commitment to a close ally, she turned him down cold.
“She couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t,” said a former senior administration official who was told of the exchange.
Those in Obama’s inner circle thought her refusal smacked of self--interest, the reaction of a cabinet member who still thought and acted like an independent political figure. Clinton had her own long--standing ties to Israel and American Jews, and Obama’s demand that Israel halt the building of settlements in the West Bank, which she had faithfully delivered that spring, had already landed her in hot water with both. In those early days, with the bitterness of the campaign still a raw memory, some people in the West Wing concluded that Clinton was more concerned about protecting her flanks than the president’s. “There were times when it was like two principals,” the official said, “and each was judging it through the lens of their own interests.”
The lack of a high--level American visitor to Israel that summer would have lasting repercussions on the relationship between Obama and the Israeli government. Many in Israel never overcame their suspicion of the new president; his personal rapport with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cool to start with, would deteriorate into mutual loathing. Not only did Obama skip Jerusalem, Israeli officials say, he gave them no heads--up about what his message would be in Egypt. “The Cairo speech is a foundational document,” said Michael Oren, who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington during much of the Obama presidency. “That it was given without any consultation with us is just amazing.” Among the president’s top aides, the episode came to be seen as a major unforced error. Emanuel refused to discuss any exchanges he had with Clinton on the subject, but he did admit that the Cairo trip had been mishandled. “I will take my fair share of lumps on it,” he told me. “You can’t go to the region and not go to your closest ally. Someone should have gone: the president, the vice president, the chief of staff, the secretary of state.”
Six months later, at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, it was Clinton who needed Obama to get on a plane.
She had gone to the meeting with mixed feelings. For days leading up to it, her advisers worried that she was walking into a minefield. There were deep divisions among the countries attending, and little hope of bridging them in time to produce an agreement. But Clinton had named a special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern, as a symbol of America’s resolve to join the fight against climate change, and he sent a memo to Clinton’s aides, urging that she come. Once there, Clinton found a situation so chaotic and dysfunctional that she likened it to an eighth--grade student council meeting. The summit had devolved into another grudge match between the developed and developing worlds. China, India, and Brazil were refusing to sign an agreement that would commit them to even incremental steps to curb emissions. Diplomats from 193 countries wandered the bright hallways of the Bella Center in a state of fretful entropy.
With failure looming, Clinton telephoned Obama and urged him to fly to Copenhagen to try to break the deadlock. His political advisers were opposed, not wanting to pull the boss away from a crowded domestic agenda for a diplomatic caper that looked as if it was going to end badly. Obama, though, had promised, like Clinton, to get serious about climate change. He trusted her diagnosis: that only the American president could broker a compromise. So on the evening of December 3, 2009, he ordered Air Force One fueled up for a flight to Denmark.
Twenty--four hours later, he was being briefed by an exasperated Clinton inside a small coffee bar in a shopping mall adjacent to the conference center that had been closed for the meeting. When it became clear that the Chinese delegation was trying to water down any agreement, holing up in a conference room with windows taped over to conceal their dealings from the Americans, Obama and Clinton decided to take matters into their own hands. They set off to confront the Chinese in person, fast--walking down a hallway and up a flight of stairs, panicked aides in chase, before they ran into a Chinese official in the doorway, waving his arms and shouting “Not ready yet.”
Confusion swirled as Clinton and Obama tried to find out who was in the room with the Chinese. An advance person told them it was the Indians, the Brazilians, and the South Africans. Now Clinton was mad: The Indians had told American officials they had already left for the airport. A major developing country was lying to avoid dealing with the United States on climate change? She and Obama looked at each other in disbelief. “C’mon, let’s just do this,” he said to Clinton. She moved first, ducking under the outstretched arm of a Chinese security guard and barging into the room, which drew a collective gasp from the leaders huddled around a conference table. Obama was right behind her. “Hi, everybody!” he bellowed, like a dad coming home early to find his teenage kids throwing a keg party in the backyard. “Mr. Prime Minister, are you ready to see me now?” he said, turning to face the nonplussed Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who was anything but.
Taking seats at the cramped conference table, Obama and Clinton began sketching out the terms of a deal like the lawyers they were, their aides scribbling on pieces of paper that they pushed back and forth across the table. The nonbinding agreement to monitor pollution reduction standards and set a goal to limit the rise in global temperatures was a mushy compromise, one that would look even mushier six years later, when nearly two hundred countries agreed to a binding deal in Paris. In the annals of global climate change negotiations, Copenhagen does not occupy a place of honor.
For Clinton and Obama, however, that hardly mattered. Copenhagen was a crucible for them personally, proof that they had finally put the past behind them. To Rahm Emanuel, the episode showed that whatever their past tensions, they shared an elemental bond: Both were political animals, attuned to the practices and prevarications of other politicians. And foreign policy, he added, is just another form of politics. “Yes, there’s history,” Emanuel went on, dropping his voice half an octave to mock those who would argue that a spat between superpowers is really all that different from a food fight between Chicago aldermen. “Someone did this or that four thousand years ago. But every person you’re dealing with is a person who’s dealing with politics.”
Copenhagen also drove home the sort of world Clinton and Obama would deal with over the coming years: messy, rife with shifting alliances, and hungry for American leadership, even if many resented that leadership. Though they often differed over how to assert America’s role, Clinton and Obama were united in the belief that preserving a lawful world order should be a paramount goal of the United States in the twenty--first century. “I think they each had an aha moment in Copenhagen, both with each other and in terms of looking at everyone else,” said Jake Sullivan, a thirty--nine--year--old lawyer who was Clinton’s top policy adviser at the State Department.
Decoding the relationship between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has never been simple. They did not indulge in public rifts or emotional displays of unity; both are too disciplined for that. There was less heartfelt affection than flows between Obama and Joe Biden, but more quiet regard than flows between Obama and John Kerry. They respected each other without ever losing the undercurrent of competition that charged their clashes on the campaign trail. The Hillary--and--Barack story is less a soap opera than a dynastic saga, a tale of thwarted ambition and painstaking cultivation. In that sense, Cairo and Copenhagen are bookends for a relationship that is both genuine partnership and enduring rivalry.
At the beginning, they used humor to defuse the tension between them. When Clinton shook hands with the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in April 2009, he confessed that he had never expected Obama to be elected president. “Well, neither did I,” she shot back. A few weeks later, Clinton returned from a visit to Mexico, then battling an outbreak of swine flu. “The second she got back from Mexico,” Obama said during a stand--up routine at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, “she pulled me into a hug and gave me a big kiss—-told me to get down there myself.”
While Clinton and Obama managed to poke fun at the bitterness of the campaign, the Cairo episode demonstrated that it was harder for Clinton to get over it than it was for Obama. “It’s easier when you’re the winner to put things aside,” said David Axelrod, a veteran of the 2008 campaign who stayed on to advise the president and had his own complicated relationship with Clinton. “But Obama is not a vengeful person. He didn’t view her negatively. He viewed her as a friend who he had to run against.”
“There was a coolness right after the nominating process,” he continued. “I mean, it’s natural. Their first meetings probably were a little bit labored. But by the time she joined, it was a seamless transition.” Clinton had a tougher time letting down her guard with Obama’s aides, however. When Axelrod asked her office for her email address in June 2009, she clearly wanted to keep him at arm’s length. “Does he know I can’t look at it all day so he needs to contact me thru you or Huma or Lauren during work hours?” she replied to her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, referring to her trio of close aides. Obama and Clinton still treated each other less as colleagues than as generals of rival armies that suddenly found themselves in an alliance of necessity. For the first few months, Joe Biden played the role of go--between, carrying messages from one camp to the other. “Hillary would say to me, ‘How do you think I should present this to the president?’ ” the vice president told me. “And I’d say, ‘Whoa, just present it to him.’ And Barack would say, ‘Does she know what a good job I think she’s doing?’ I’d say, ‘Just tell her.’ ”
Biden, however, had his own complicated relationship with Clinton. The two knew each other well and met regularly for breakfast at the vice president’s residence. But he could be condescending about her foreign policy experience, contradicting her in meetings and reinforcing the impression that she was the odd woman out.
Clinton, in fact, was far more isolated and unsure of herself in 2009 and 2010 than is commonly understood, several former aides said. She had trouble penetrating Obama’s clannish inner circle and struggled to adjust to his centralization of national security policy making in the White House. Her anxiety was reflected in the bewildered emails she sent to her aides, inquiring about what was going on at the White House. Her staff worried that she was demoralized. “Secretary of Awesome,” Cheryl Mills wrote on August 6, 2009, attaching a YouTube video of Clinton shimmying with the locals at a party in Nairobi, Kenya. “You shake your tail feathers girl!” she said. Plenty of Clinton’s subordinates sucked up to her for the usual reasons of self--advancement, of course. But emails like this one from Mills were meant, as much as anything, to buck up her spirits.
Clinton coped with the stresses of her situation by stocking the State Department with people loyal to her and focusing her energy on areas such as development and public diplomacy that would burnish her image without getting in the way of Obama. But that left the State Department even more peripheral—-“like a Palestinian enclave in the middle of Israel,” in the words of one former official; “like the United States of Hillary,” in the words of another. That was particularly dangerous in this administration, which proved to be the most White House–-centric of the modern era, run by a rigorously self--contained president who relied on a small circle of trusted advisers.
At times, Clinton seemed like a kid in a new school, trying to elbow her way into the popular clique. On the morning of June 8, 2009, she emailed two aides to say, “I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go? If not, who are we sending?” On February 10, 2010, she dialed the White House from her home, but couldn’t get past the switchboard operator, who didn’t believe she was really Hillary Clinton. Asked to provide her office number to prove her identity, she said she didn’t know it. Finally, Clinton hung up in frustration and placed the call again through the State Department Operations Center—-“like a proper and properly dependent Secretary of State,” as she later wrote to one of her aides in a mock--chastened tone. “No independent dialing allowed.”
In December 2009, rumors began circulating that the West Wing was maneuvering to oust Richard Holbrooke, her old friend and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the time, I called Jake Sullivan to check it out. He alerted Clinton, who asked him and Philippe Reines, her communications adviser, to see what they could find out. “People are deeply unhappy with our friend,” Sullivan confirmed to her. Reines wondered if the White House had leaked the story, hastening to add, “There’s no way they’d handle you that way.” Nearly a year into the administration, it was clear that Clinton’s people still did not entirely trust Obama’s people.
As hard as it was for Clinton, it was even harder for their staffs to reconcile. Both sides suffered from a kind of post--traumatic stress disorder. Tommy Vietor, who drove a press van in rural Illinois during Obama’s Senate campaign and later worked as his press secretary in Iowa, recalled that for months, the Obama and Clinton campaigns held daily conference calls with reporters in which they clubbed the other side in harsh personal terms. Every afternoon, he would pore over the Clinton transcripts, soaking up the attack lines like a toxin. “The people who went through that campaign manufactured a pretty visceral hatred for each other,” said Vietor, who went on to be the spokesman for the National Security Council. “You magnify differences and internalize grievances in a way that is ridiculous.”
When Clinton finally gave up and threw her support to Obama in June 2008, enemy combatants were forced to become comrades--in--arms. The Obama campaign hired prominent Clinton domestic policy advisers and folded together the foreign policy teams, making room for Clinton--era luminaries such as Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright. Friendships that had been put on ice for the previous eighteen months were reactivated. “It was weird because we wanted to rip each other’s throats out a few minutes earlier,” said Dan Pfeiffer, who was the Obama campaign’s communications director and later held the same job at the White House.
That weirdness did not compare to what happened days after the election, when the president--elect told his aides he was going to ask Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state. The idea had been percolating for a while, advanced by John Podesta among others, so it was not a total surprise. But the prospect was still jarring. When Pfeiffer, a fast--talking Beltway operative who runs everything through a political calculator, first heard the choice, he recalled thinking it was “brilliant and dangerous.” On the one hand, Obama would bring his archrival into the tent, eliminating the prospect of her taking potshots at him from the Senate and short--circuiting speculation over whether she would challenge him again in 2012. On the other, he could not fire her without setting off a monumental political storm. That was no small risk for Obama to take, given their history and the bad blood between the two camps.
It also meant that Hillaryland—-the Louis XIV–-like court of advisers, staffers, supporters, fundraisers, and flatterers that she had cultivated—-was going to take up permanent residence in Obama’s administration. Clinton, it seemed, was determined to find a place for every one of them. As a condition of taking the job, she extracted an unheard--of promise from Obama: that she could fill the political posts in the State Department. These plums, typically a president’s to hand out to his loyalists, instead went to Hillary to parcel out to hers. The only exceptions were ambassadorships and a handful of other posts, such as deputy secretary, which went to Jim Steinberg, an Obama adviser who nevertheless had once worked for Bill Clinton. Cabinet members are normally allowed to bring only a handful of close aides with them to their new job. A former aide to Bill Clinton recalled telling William Cohen, a Republican senator named defense secretary in 1996, that he could bring a single person with him to the Pentagon. Hillary ended up bringing close to one hundred to State.
Clinton’s hiring binge—-which Obama honored despite the cavils of his own staffers—-had far--reaching consequences for the State Department she was to run. Never before had the nation’s seat of diplomacy been so unabashedly political, with a constellation of Clinton--appointed special envoys and advisers, some of whom knew next to nothing about diplomacy. Ronan Farrow, the twenty--two--year--old son of Mia Farrow, advised Clinton on “global youth issues,” irritating the Foggy Bottom–-dwellers who resented that he got prime real estate on the seventh floor, where Clinton had her office. Kris Balderston, a genial backslapper from upstate New York who had worked for her in the Senate, was put in charge of a new effort to create public--private partnerships. The politicos raised money to build a U.S. pavilion at the world’s fair in Shanghai; distributed clean--burning cookstoves to mothers in the developing world; created social networks for people from diaspora groups; and incubated a host of other projects. It was worlds away from writing cables or stamping visas, the traditional work of diplomacy done by the State Department.
Broadly speaking, these were the kinds of progressive social causes Clinton had championed since she left Yale Law School thirty--five years earlier—-the building blocks of an activist worldview that would set her apart from Obama. “This is a woman who wants to elevate development to be equal with diplomacy,” said Anne--Marie Slaughter, a former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs whom Clinton recruited to run her Policy Planning shop. “It’s as much about human security as state security.” Slaughter codified the new approach in a classically Clintonesque document known as The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. She likened Clinton to the skipper of a World War II destroyer, trying to retrofit her aging vessel for the wars of today.
In the short run, though, Clinton’s hiring set off fights over personnel. It pitted her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, a diamond--hard lawyer who had defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, against Denis McDonough, the equally combative head of Obama’s foreign policy transition team, and occasionally against Rahm Emanuel. In 2009, Clinton offered the post of undersecretary of state for arms control to Ellen Tauscher, a Democratic representative from Northern California who had been a stalwart fundraiser for her and Bill. Tauscher, whose district contained two national weapons labs, knew her military hardware. But she had ousted a Republican incumbent in 1996, and Obama’s aides feared they would lose her district, which included a necklace of affluent East Bay suburbs of San Francisco. It didn’t help that Clinton had not told them of her plans in advance.
“You tell Hillary to go raise $500,000 to keep that seat Democratic,” Emanuel snarled at Mills, according to a person who heard the exchange. (The mayor said he did not recall the incident, though, he said, “It does sound like me.”)
Clinton was able to hire Tauscher, but she lost other battles. She wanted Joe Nye of Harvard—-who coined the term “smart power,” which was to become her mantra at the State Department—-to be ambassador to Japan. The White House preferred John Roos, a low--profile Silicon Valley lawyer and top--tier Obama fundraiser. And she was blocked from bringing aboard Sidney Blumenthal, the former New Yorker writer, White House staff member, and longtime Clinton--family retainer, whom she envisioned as a senior adviser parked in the Policy Planning division.
It was hard to know who hated the idea of Blumenthal more: the White House or the State Department. Obama’s aides regarded him as a conspiracy theorist who had practiced his dark arts against them during the campaign, planting negative stories about Obama’s private life. Clinton’s cadre of young staffers, some of whom knew Blumenthal only by reputation, viewed him as the Ghost of Clinton Past who would threaten their access to her. Even other Clinton political appointees questioned what he would bring to Policy Planning, which had been created in 1947 by George Kennan, architect of the Cold War containment policy, as an elite preserve for big thinkers. It fell to Emanuel, who had nicknamed Blumenthal “G.K.” (for Grassy Knoll) when they were both working in the Clinton White House, to tell Hillary he was persona non grata—-a message he delivered not long after she declined to travel to Jerusalem. Turnabout, it seems, was fair play.
It hardly mattered that Blumenthal didn’t get a State Department building pass. He functioned as a shadow counselor throughout her tenure, sending her hundreds of emails—-addressed to H—-with advice on polishing her image, dealing with the Libyan war, fighting turf battles with the White House, even staying abreast of GOP politics. By turns high--minded tutor and down--and--dirty gossip, he was without peer as a correspondent. On Election Day in 2010, he told Clinton that House Speaker John Boehner was “despised by the younger, more conservative members of the House Republican Conference. They are repelled by his personal behavior. He is louche, alcoholic, lazy, and without any commitment to any principle.” In March 2010, he advised her to put a stop to David Axelrod’s freelancing in foreign policy, which he said had aggravated tensions with Israel. “Make Steinberg tell Donilon they need to rein in Axelrod,” he wrote, referring to Tom Donilon, who was then the deputy national security adviser. “Axelrod has enough to do fixing the domestic messes he’s made. Let it come from Steinberg. He’s unhappy anyway.” Blumenthal’s animus against Axelrod was really about Obama. He sent Clinton a steady diet of articles analyzing the flaws in the president’s foreign policy, his troubles passing his legislative agenda, and his eroding popularity.
As always, though, Blumenthal’s favorite project was Clinton herself. In July 2009, he sent her a long memo critiquing the draft of a speech she was planning to deliver at the Council on Foreign Relations. The speech, an ambitious blueprint for Clinton’s tenure, had been through countless rewrites at the State Department. Blumenthal took an acid pen to it. “There’s no accounting of progress so far,” he wrote. “The effect is downbeat in tone.” The speech, he said, was guilty of “blithe liberal cultural imperialism” in asserting that people everywhere want the same things Americans do. Most brutally, he advised Clinton to cut way back on her mantra, smart power. “Slogans can become shopworn,” he wrote, “especially those that lack analytical, historical or descriptive power.”
Of all the political staffers that Clinton brought with her to Foggy Bottom, none was as personally important to her—-nor as emblematic of the tribal loyalties of Hillaryland—-as Huma Abedin. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, by an Indian father and a Pakistani mother, the thirty--three--year--old Abedin began working for Hillary as a White House intern in 1996 when she was still a student at George Washington University. A sleek, striking woman with a charming, if somewhat remote, manner and a taste for Louis Vuitton handbags, Abedin traveled everywhere with Clinton, keeping her on schedule and in hand sanitizer. So close had she become to both Clintons that Bill once toasted her as his surrogate daughter; a jet--lagged Hillary once emailed her at 12:21 a.m. to take her up on her offer to come over to her house for a chat. If she was dozing when Abedin arrived, Clinton emailed, “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”
At a meeting early in 2009 in the State Department, Abedin, who had the title of deputy chief of staff, was going through a list of requests from “the president.” When the others in the room looked at her puzzled, she clarified, “Not President Obama. Our president. Bill Clinton.” It was a jarring gaffe, evidence of just how deep and tangled those ties were. And yet it was understandable: By the last year of the first term, Abedin was, in fact, working for both presidents. Under an arrangement that later caused political headaches for Hillary, Abedin kept working part--time for her at the State Department while accepting a lucrative contract from a private consulting firm with ties to the Clinton Foundation. No other Clinton aide enjoyed that kind of latitude. But Abedin’s offhand remark back in 2009 illustrated the challenges of working in the Obama administration for anyone raised in the Clinton ecosystem: They had to get used to staffing a staffer, not a president.
Jake Sullivan was rare in that he had straddled both worlds. This allowed him to play a vital role in the acculturation process. Brilliant, rail--thin, with a guileless mien that belied shrewd political instincts, Sullivan first showed his dexterous touch in 2008, advising Clinton on foreign policy during the primaries, then prepping Obama for his debates against John McCain. He shared the deputy chief of staff title with Abedin, but like her, he wielded outsized influence. If Huma was Clinton’s right hand, he was her left. He was at her side in all 112 countries she visited as secretary of state—-an ever--present, increasingly spectral figure, in a blue fleece, his eyes often deeply ringed after pulling another all--nighter on the road. Clinton described him as a “coolheaded, clear--eyed analyst of the problems we faced with our national security.”
“He ended up being invaluable,” she told me.
Even by the best--and--brightest standards of Washington, Sullivan’s résumé is an overachiever’s dream: high school debate champion in Minneapolis; editor of the Yale Daily News in college; Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; Yale Law School, an alma mater he shared with Clinton and to which he returned to teach after leaving the administration in 2014; clerk to Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer. Sullivan, like Clinton and Obama, has a lawyer’s cast of mind: He talks about having a “theory of a case” and dismisses flimsy arguments as “not dispositive.” He knows he’s often the smartest guy in the room. “It can feel like arrogance to say, ‘I have an idea,’ or ‘I can do that’—-especially if you’re surrounded by smart and experienced people,” he once told graduates of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. “But that’s not arrogance. That’s being constructive.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 2010, Sullivan emailed Clinton to let her know he had circulated a call sheet to senior officials to develop recommendations for how she should handle Prime Minister Netanyahu on the phone the next day. “I’m taking a break from peeling potatoes,” Sullivan explained. (His emails, often on sensitive subjects, would later land him in the middle of the storm over Clinton’s use of a private email address and computer server while she was secretary of state.) Melanne Verveer, Hillary’s chief of staff in the White House and her ambassador for global women’s issues at the State Department, watched Sullivan in action on an overseas trip. Hours into the flight, when the cabin was dark and everyone else had dropped off to sleep, he was quietly speaking to the White House over a secure phone line. “Jake just never stopped,” she said. “Everybody else could be out cold, and Jake was working those phones.”
These qualities were not lost on Obama’s whiz kids, Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. Sullivan was to become the primary transmission belt between Foggy Bottom and the West Wing, between Hillaryland and Obama--world. He was crucial to easing Clinton’s isolation, especially with McDonough, a forty--six--year--old fellow Minnesotan, with whom he established a less contentious relationship than Cheryl Mills had.
A college football star from the town of Stillwater, where his nickname was “the Dude,” McDonough shares Obama’s lean frame, ascetic habits, and cautious worldview, forged in the post--9/11 era. He is an old--school Irish Catholic, prematurely gray, with a touch of the hair shirt about him—-working brutal hours, giving up coffee and chocolate for Lent, biking the seven miles to work from his home in Takoma Park, Maryland, until his wife forced him to give it up after an accident. A family man who coached his kids’ soccer games while taking nonstop calls from the White House, McDonough could be uncommonly decent: He was known for his graceful notes to visitors and staffers. But he could also be hard on those around him, especially in the first year of the administration, when he bullied journalists and others who dared criticize his boss. He clashed with Sullivan, too, once laying into him for remarks he made at Obama’s daily briefing that McDonough thought undercut him. (Sullivan, friends said, was stung for days afterward.) For the most part, though, the two got along. Over hundreds of emails and phone calls, they worked to make sure Clinton’s public statements did not conflict with the White House.
With Rhodes, Sullivan developed a friendship that would prove fortuitous. Separated in age by a few months, they each had their boss’s ear and power beyond their years. The two are different: Rhodes is a city kid from Manhattan who smokes and likes a martini; Sullivan, a Midwesterner who drinks beer and roots for the Vikings and Twins. Rhodes is an idealist and a romantic (he has an unfinished novel in a drawer, “Oasis of Love,” about a woman who joins a mega--church in Houston, breaking her boyfriend’s heart); Sullivan is hardheaded and pragmatic. Rhodes thumbs his nose at the Clinton--era Democratic establishment; Sullivan is a card--carrying member of that establishment. And yet they hit it off, emailing or speaking several times a day. Often, it was over routine matters such as the wording of a Clinton statement; other times, it was to make history. The diplomatic openings to Burma and Cuba both had their roots in bull sessions between Rhodes and Sullivan, with Sullivan honing the concepts and Rhodes using his influence with the president to maneuver them through the risk--averse West Wing bureaucracy.
After Clinton left the State Department, she and the president would use their staffs—-once the source of so much mutual enmity—-to preserve a veneer of unity over how they had worked together and how they viewed the world. She gave parts of her memoir Hard Choices to Rhodes for review before publication to make sure her gentle airing of policy disagreements did not ruffle Obama. In early 2013, Sullivan became national security adviser to Joe Biden, a perch that allowed him to convey the White House’s sensitivities to her. To help with the rollout of the book, Clinton hired Tommy Vietor, the Obama loyalist whose jaundiced views of her had been formed by the poisonous transcripts he read back in Iowa. She won him over when he was the NSC’s spokesman, once sending him a sling with a State Department seal after he dislocated his shoulder while playing basketball. A quick study with an iPhone full of press contacts, Vietor was tasked with pushing back on reporters who would use the book to try to drive a wedge between her and Obama.
For much of Clinton’s tenure, the State Department and White House were tormented by the anonymous owner of a Twitter account with the handle @NatSecWonk. This mystery tweeter, who posted from inside the administration and amassed a small but devoted audience, ridiculed everyone from Rhodes to Reines to various New York Times reporters. Sample: “I’m a fan of Obama, but his continuing reliance and dependence upon a vacuous cipher like Valerie Jarrett concerns me.” Or, “Look, Issa is an ass, but he’s on to something here with the @HillaryClinton whitewash of accountability for Benghazi,” referring to Darrell Issa, the California Republican who plagued Clinton over the Benghazi attacks. @Nat SecWonk was eventually unmasked as a forty--year--old NSC analyst named Jofi Joseph. He was sacked; he issued an apology and since has become a cautionary tale for using social media in the workplace, when your workplace happens to be the White House.
Before his fall, though, @NatSecWonk had Clinton squarely in his crosshairs, tweeting that she had “few policy goals and no wins” as secretary of state. It was a harsh verdict, but in the years after she stepped down—-when John Kerry was a whirling dervish of activity, negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, seeking a political settlement in the Syrian civil war, trying to revive the Middle East peace talks—-it was not an uncommon one. By comparison to Kerry, Clinton’s record looked meager; her approach, cautious; her achievements, evanescent. @NatSecWonk was simply voicing what a number of people in the White House and State Department privately thought: Hillary Clinton had been a respectable but run--of--the--mill secretary of state.
Assessing Clinton’s record requires a couple of stipulations. The first is that few secretaries of state in the modern era have compiled a spectacular list of wins. Henry Kissinger, the most famous of them, engineered the secret opening to China and negotiated the Paris Peace Accords, which ended direct American combat in Vietnam and set the stage for the war’s messy final act. James Baker, arguably the most effective of them, helped steer the Cold War to a peaceful end, assembled a robust coalition for the Persian Gulf War, and orchestrated the Madrid peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, which became a model for future Middle East peace negotiations. Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, and Condoleezza Rice had no comparable achievements, while Colin Powell is remembered most for brandishing a vial of white powder in the UN Security Council and claiming, erroneously, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Even John Kerry’s busy tenure has earned a mixed verdict, with his failed Middle East peace campaign balancing his breakthrough with Iran. Kerry, moreover, was blessed with timing: Clinton spent her first two years in a largely symbolic global rehabilitation tour for the United States, patching up relationships frayed by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Then she was tasked with lining up the international sanctions that eventually forced the Iranians to the bargaining table. As Clinton somewhat plaintively put it, she “set the table” for Kerry’s diplomatic banquet.
“For better or worse, we have sort of a heroic vision of diplomacy,” Jim Steinberg told me. “Henry Kissinger is the epitome of this. But it’s easy to overwrite the traditional role of leader--to--leader diplomacy. That’s especially true in the twenty--first century, because the role of the state has changed.” Clinton confronted a world that was more complicated than Kissinger’s or Baker’s—-one in which a medieval Islamic caliphate conquered large parts of Iraq; in which the United States no longer faced a single Cold War rival but rather a babel of rising powers; in which economic and environmental factors, such as joblessness in the Middle East and rising seas in the Pacific, drove events as much as geopolitics.
A second stipulation is that a secretary of state’s clout derives almost wholly from his or her relationship with the president. To the extent that the secretary is seen as a confidant or, better yet, a proxy of the commander in chief, he or she can get things done. Kissinger spoke to Richard Nixon several times a day, more than anyone else in Nixon’s cabinet. “Shared personality traits made [them] effective collaborators,” Robert Dallek wrote in his book Nixon and Kissinger. “Their combative natures made them distrustful of others, whom they suspected of envy and ambition to outdo them.” Jim Baker was George H. W. Bush’s consigliere before his cabinet officer, a status that gave him muscle in Washington and credibility abroad. “Baker used to say that he was President George H. W. Bush’s man at the State Department, not the State Department’s man at the White House,” said Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser to Baker and other secretaries of state.
Neither of those models was ever going to apply to Clinton and Obama. She would never have described herself as Obama’s woman at the State Department. Clinton was a world figure coming into the job, with celebrity and a Rolodex of contacts that rivaled or exceeded Obama’s. Nor did she have the deep familiarity with the president—-the round--the--clock, backchannel access—-that Kis-singer had with Nixon. “I see the president when I need to see him; I talk to the president when I need to talk to him,” Clinton told me, a bit defensively. She was clearly sensitive that outsiders would make unflattering comparisons. In December 2009, when she was considering a request from Newsweek for a joint interview with Kissinger, Clinton raised a potential red flag with her press aide, Philippe Reines. “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 emailed. “Of course, if I were dealing with that POTUS I’d probably camp in his office to prevent him from doing something problematic. Do you see this as a problem?”
The formal, unequal nature of her relationship with Obama was perhaps best summed up by the importance she attached to their weekly meeting in the Oval Office. On a snowy Thursday morning in February 2010 when she was scheduled to meet the president, Clinton got an alarming phone call: Her husband Bill had been admitted to NewYork–-Presbyterian Hospital with chest pains, and was in need of an urgent heart procedure. Instead of rushing home to him, Clinton kept her weekly appointment, taking her customary seat on the yellow sofa as she and Obama talked about an upcoming trip to the Persian Gulf, where she planned to turn up the heat on Iran over its nuclear program. “No one had any idea” she had a family emergency, said an official who was in the room that day. Afterward, she raced for a shuttle flight back to New York.
Further complicating life for Hillary, Obama brought an overweening self--confidence to the Oval Office. He was more than ready to answer the three a.m. phone call—-the punch line from Clinton’s famous attack ad—-without putting her on the line. His tight grip was most evident on marquee foreign policy portfolios such as Iran and Russia. He had befriended Dmitri Medvedev in the hopes that a high--level bromance with the young Russian president might usher in a new era of goodwill. He wrote secret letters to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to entice the suspicious mullah into a dialogue. Obama handed the Iraq file to Joe Biden, a decision that Clinton did not contest because she viewed it as a loser. Even on issues that are supposed to be in a secretary of state’s wheelhouse—-peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, for example—-the White House set the strategy and Clinton was less an architect than an implementer.
Obama sanctioned the consolidation of foreign policy decision--making inside the West Wing. By 2010, the National Security Council staff had grown to 370 people, more than ten times its size under Kissinger. As it grew, it expanded beyond strategy into the day--to--day operations traditionally handled by the State Department and other agencies. Some of that reflected the addition of the Homeland Security Council, a post--9/11 creation that advises the president on terrorism or other threats. But a lot of it simply represented the secular shift of power away from the Harry S. Truman building, home of the State Department, to the Eisenhower building, home of the NSC.
So well--established was the Obama White House’s penchant for control that when Antony Blinken—-a suave, well--pedigreed adviser to Biden who later became the deputy national security adviser—-moved to the State Department to be deputy secretary in January 2015, he knew just how to break the ice with his new colleagues at his first staff meeting. “I’ve been here one day and I’ve come to one conclusion,” Blinken told them with a grin. “This micro--management of the inter--agency process by the White House has got to stop.”
Clinton’s aides pooh--poohed the notion that she was plotting a run for the White House from Foggy Bottom and shaping her tenure as secretary of state to further that ambition. But in some ways, she never stopped behaving like a candidate. Her emails show she kept a close eye on the political machinations of would--be rivals such as Joe Biden, Jim Webb of Virginia, and Andrew Cuomo of New York. She made time to speak to marquee Democratic donors such as Steven Spielberg and less well--known, but important, figures such as Lou D’Allesandro, a state senator from New Hampshire who had been a cochairman of Italian--Americans for Hillary in 2008. When one of her former policy advisers, Neera Tanden, asked her in early 2012 whether she should hold a reunion for alumni of the campaign, Clinton gave it her blessing. “I am very proud of all they—-and we—-did,” she replied. “Onward!”
Tanden emailed Clinton with regular updates on one of her pet issues: the epic battle to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system. At one point, she noted that Obama’s legislation was moving closer to what Clinton had pushed in the campaign. (“If it does break that way,” Tanden wrote, “I’ll try to ensure I’m not the only one who notices.”) When the bill was a few votes short of passage in the House in November 2009, a desperate White House enlisted Clinton to lobby two Blue Dog Democrats from Arkansas who were holding out (one switched his vote to a yes). On the morning of Christmas Eve in 2009, Clinton told a State Department colleague, she woke up early to watch the Senate hold a seven a.m. vote on the legislation. It passed 60 to 39.
Even Clinton’s diplomatic efforts sometimes felt like a political campaign. When she first traveled to Beijing in February 2009, for example, Clinton got an earful from the Chinese about how the United States might not be represented at the Shanghai Expo the following year because it had not raised the money to build a national pavilion. “I was dumbfounded that so little attention had been paid to it,” she told me. “Everyone knows China is going to be an enormously powerful player in the twenty--first century. They have an expo, which is a kind of rite of passage that countries like to do to show they have arrived. We’re not there? What does that say?”
Her solution was to reactivate the Clinton fundraising network. Elizabeth F. Bagley, a prolific bundler—-and the widow of the R. J. Reynolds heir Smith Bagley—-had been installed at the State Department as one of her special advisers. She began calling around to the chief executives of PepsiCo, General Electric, and Chevron, asking for multimillion--dollar pledges and dangling sponsorship deals. “Great news from Chevron!” Bagley wrote in an email that was forwarded to Clinton, after the oil company committed $5 million to the $60 million project. Chevron’s CEO, David O’Reilly, had promised Clinton in a letter that he would help. The State Department’s lawyers were queasy—-“Would Thomas Jefferson do this?” one asked—-but they signed off, provided that Clinton did not personally squeeze anyone for cash.
Evidently, their queasiness did not extend to the American ambassador. Clinton’s office asked Jon Huntsman, a former Republican governor of Utah whom Obama appointed as his envoy to China in 2009, to dial for dollars as well. The scion of one of Utah’s richest families, Huntsman had won two terms as governor. (He later came back from Beijing in 2012 to run a long--shot bid for the GOP presidential nomination.) Though he endorsed Clinton’s effort, he refused to take part in it. “I didn’t want McNerney from Boeing coming into the office saying, ‘OK, we gave you five million bucks for the Expo, we need some help on 757 orders,’ ” he said, referring to Boeing’s chairman, James McNerney. “I just never wanted to be put in that position. Nor did I want to put them, the CEOs, in that position.”
It didn’t matter: Clinton’s star power alone was enough to raise nearly $55 million in less than nine months. The following May, she traveled to Shanghai to see the House That Clinton Built, otherwise known as the USA Pavilion. It looked like a rental--car center at a big--city airport, with matte--gray walls and relentless corporate shilling inside (videos showcasing representatives from Chevron, General Electric, and Johnson & Johnson; environmentally friendly features sponsored by Alcoa; a gift shop with licensed merchandise from Disney). “It’s fine,” Clinton replied, lips pursed, when I asked her what she thought of it. “Can you imagine if we had not been here?”
During the last two years of her tenure, Clinton did less of this feel--good public diplomacy and more of the heavy lifting on sensitive issues such as Syria, Libya, Iran, China, and the periodic clashes between Israel and Hamas. Still, she was never going to be at the heart of the Obama foreign policy machine, and she knew it. That helps explain her aggressive focus on development while secretary of state. The grab bag of social projects that she embraced was one way to compensate for the limitations she faced in the traditional realm of national security. Clean--burning cookstoves, diaspora engagement networks, women’s and girls’ rights, the Shanghai Expo—-it all added up to what Aaron Miller called “planetary humanism.”
Planetary humanism, it must be said, did wonders for her public image. “Hillary Clinton’s Last Tour as a Rock--Star Diplomat,” was the headline of a New York Times Magazine profile in June 2012, which opened with her inspecting an exhibit of cookstoves in China. She was celebrated in gauzy profiles in Vogue and Elle, a run of good press unmatched in her political career. (Her first Times Magazine profile, in 1993, carried the headline “Saint Hillary,” and it was not meant as a compliment.) The polarizing figure of the Clinton White House and the 2008 campaign had become the cool customer in oversized dark sunglasses, reading her BlackBerry on a C--17 military plane about to take off for Tripoli. That photo of her, taken in 2012, went viral on the Internet, giving rise to a popular meme, “Texts from Hillary.” (Obama: “Hey Hil, Whatchu doing?” Clinton: “Running the World.”)
Clinton’s emails confirmed the suspicions of those of us who covered her: She and her aides had a campaign--like obsession with her image and press coverage. Poll numbers were analyzed as if the secretary of state were always about to face the voters in New Hampshire. In March 2011, Reines sent Clinton an email with the subject line, “65%!” He was referring to her favorability rating in the latest CNN poll, which was near her all--time peak. “This is why we cooperate with so many profiles,” he explained, “and just wait until 19 million people read People next week.”
The White House never stopped viewing Clinton through a political prism, either. On November 14, 2012, Israel began an intense air campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks on Israeli cities. A ground invasion loomed. Clinton was in Asia with Obama on what had become a farewell tour for the two of them. She told the president she thought she should fly to the region immediately to try to broker a cease--fire. Clinton had not come to the decision easily; the risks of failure were great and the consequences of thrusting herself into the middle of it unpredictable. As Obama and his aides debated whether to send her, however, the conversation turned to a familiar theme, according to a person who witnessed the exchange: Was Clinton just doing this to make herself look good?
Ironic, in that three and a half years earlier they had viewed Clinton’s refusal to travel to Israel as proof of her political gamesmanship.
They sat side by side in the White House, he in a dark blue suit and tie, she in a raspberry jacket with turned--up collar, the camera lights reflecting off the prescription eyeglasses she had worn since suffering a concussion from a fall in her home. It was January 25, 2013, four days after Obama had been sworn in for a second term, and seven days before Clinton was to step down as secretary of state. The occasion was a joint interview on 60 Minutes, the first time Obama had appeared on the program with anyone other than his wife. For all the attention it got at the time, the interview shed little light on the deeper mysteries of their partnership. Clinton laughed off a suggestion that anyone should read their appearance together as a preemptive endorsement for 2016. Obama paid tribute to her for reinvigorating the role of secretary of state and reminisced about their diplomatic derring--do in Copenhagen in 2009.
“I consider Hillary a strong friend,” he replied, when asked how he would describe their relationship.
“I mean, very warm, close,” Hillary said, leaning forward and gesturing with her hands, as she tried to offer more than a six--word answer to the question. “I think there’s a sense of understanding that doesn’t even take words because we have similar views, we have similar experiences that I think provide a bond that may seem unlikely to some, but has been really at the core of our relationship over the last four years.”
The backstory, as usual, was more revealing.
Obama had asked his staff to look for ways he could thank Clinton publicly for her service in his cabinet. Ben Rhodes suggested to Philippe Reines that they do a joint interview in Time magazine; Reines countered with a joint appearance on 60 Minutes. He had a bias for television over print and he already had been talking to one of the program’s correspondents, Scott Pelley, about a one--on--one exit interview with Clinton. Pelley knew her well; he had traveled with her to Afghanistan in 2009 to report on the challenges she faced as secretary of state. The White House agreed but insisted that the interview be conducted by another 60 Minutes correspondent, Steve Kroft, a favorite of Obama’s. As a gesture, the president’s offer was both magnanimous and controlling, a handy metaphor for two partners with their own agendas.
The choice of Kroft also carried a strange echo: Twenty years earlier, Kroft had asked Bill Clinton about his marital infidelities in a famous joint interview with Hillary on 60 Minutes. It was, in many ways, her debut as a national public figure. As Obama and Clinton sat together, their conversation was a reminder that not only did she likely have a longer political future than he, but she also had a longer past—-one that stretched back to 9/11 and the Iraq War, the storms of the Clinton years, and the 1992 campaign, when she had perched on a couch next to Bill, helping him save his campaign. At that time, Barack Obama was a thirty--year--old bachelor in Chicago, armed with a law school degree and a sense of destiny strong enough that he had already begun work on a memoir. His life story bore little resemblance to hers.
To understand the relationship they would forge, it helps to go back to their roots, to the different worlds in which they grew up and the different worldviews they acquired there.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Warrior and the Priest xi
Part I Worlds Apart
1 From Cairo to Copenhagen 3
2 Origins 30
3 Hillary and the Brass 52
4 Holbrooke Agonistes 75
Part II War and Peace
5 Below the Water line 101
6 Peacemakers 127
7 Sinking Sands 153
8 Post-Q 178
9 Red Lines 204
Part III Diplomacy
10 The Back Channel 233
11 Resets and Regrets 259
12 The Pivot 285
13 The Lady and Havana 309
Epilogue: Two Campaigns 341
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book that should be read by anyone planning to vote in the upcoming presidential election. “Alter Egos” provides an insider’s view to foreign policy decisions made during the Obama presidency, coupled with a picture of the differences between President Obama and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. The book reads like a novel, but it fascinates because it portrays modern history. The author’s description of the backgrounds of both Obama and Hillary Clinton provides a clear understanding as to why particular foreign policy decisions were made during this administration. It also provides insight into what the county can expect during a Clinton presidency. The book is fair and objective, and it brings the reader into the inner circle of Obama’s cabinet. I came away with a better understanding as to where the country stands with regard to foreign policy, as well as inspired to read and learn more about this subject matter. The objectivity and insight provided by the author was refreshing.