Hillary Clinton's Legacy: Cookstoves, Cookies, Diplomacy and Dancing

5 years ago

Let’s start with cook stoves.

Shortly after she became Secretary of State, Hillary decided to tackle a decidedly unglamorous problem. The toxic effects on women and children from billions of polluting cook stoves. The smoke from dirty stoves and fires kills nearly 2 million people a year, more than twice as many as malaria. They’re also an environmental menace and expose women in conflict-ridden areas to danger when they’re out gathering wood. Still, in the world of diplomacy, this was hardly a sexy issue like solving the Israel-Palestinian problem. (Can you imagine a male Secretary of State caring a whit about cook stoves?)

So Clinton started a partnership with the United Nations Foundation called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to replace the dirty old stoves with new, clean, more affordable ones. But then the China crisis exploded. (Try to stay with me here.)

As you can imagine, China has a lot of cook stoves, and Clinton had orchestrated some important meetings with Chinese officials to talk about it last spring. Just as she was headed to Beijing, a blind Chinese dissident in hiding asked the American Embassy to take him in for medical treatment. Clinton said yes. The Chinese were furious. More chaos ensued. But Hillary not only got the dissident and his family to safety in New York and avoided a touchy confrontation with a country we’d very much like to stay friendly with. Most importantly, she also got her cook-stove agreement.

Job well done, Madam Secretary, don’t you think?

I love this story. I love it because to me it captures Hillary at her essence: cool, unflappable, hard-working, people savvy, pragmatic and brilliant. But I also love it because it illustrates her commitment and utter determination to improve the lives of girls and women around the world. Something she did way back in 1995 at the Women’s World Conference in Beijing ,when she famously asserted in a speech that women’s rights are human rights. At the time the idea was practically revolutionary. No one had ever made that point before. Really.

Today is Hillary’s last day as Secretary of State. She’s hardly been slacking off. Yesterday she gave her last speech as the nation's top diplomat. This week she did interviews with the major networks, including Fox News. She sat down for a global town hall at the Newsmusuem in Washington, D.C. where she took questions from journalists from Beirut to Brazil. Much to the shock of practically everyone, she also appeared with her former presidential rival and boss on "60 Minutes,"who praised her to the skies. "I think Hillary will go down as one of the finest secretary of States we’ve had," trilled Obama.

Funny thing is, she didn’t even want the job at first.

On that note, let’s review what she’s been up to the last four years: She’s logged 956,733 miles to 112 countries, making her the most traveled diplomat in American history. She’s had 1,700 meetings with world leaders, 755 meetings at the White House, and dined on 570 airplane meals.

And then there’s the dancing:

And let's not forget the hilarious TextsfromHillary meme showing the no-nonsense diplomat in dark sunglasses tweeting on her BlackBerry.

By all accounts--except for possibly Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who incredulously called her a murderer after her Benghazi testimony--her tenure has been a stunning success. She is beloved everywhere, from Burma to South Africa. Even those Republicans who scoffed when she became a senator, accused her of carpetbagging and riding on her husband’s political coattails, were won over by her tenacity, work ethic and grace. Maybe she wasn’t such an entitled elitist after all?

As Secretary, I do wish she'd had a stronger hand in policy-making and not been so hamstrung by the White House. Maybe with her smarts and considerable charm she could have made a difference in Afghanistan? Or had more of a voice in dealing with the political turmoil following the Arab Spring? But that wasn't her job.

As Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker explains:

Policy making—across the board from economic policy to foreign policy—over the last several decades has become more and more concentrated in the White House and less and less out in the cabinets and agencies. This was especially true for the Obama White House, which had a very strong National Security Council led by Tom Donilon and, later, Denis McDonough, who is now the Chief of Staff. They controlled foreign-policy making. So Hillary Clinton and the State Department were much more about implementation rather than coming up with grand ideas.

I almost forgot about the cookie crisis. Some of you are sadly too young to remember it, but it was a huge deal. In 1992, Hillary got in big trouble with stay-at-home moms when she snapped during Bill’s campaign that "she could have stayed home and baked cookies" but chose to pursue her career. She not only apologized for her dumb remark. She then went on to ace a cookie-baking contest in Family Circle against Laura Bush. (I bet if you Google it you can find the recipe.)

Some of those same moms who found her arrogant and lacking in diplomatic skills eventually came to admire her strength. When she teared up in New Hampshire during the 2008 primary, alluding to the difficulties of being a woman in politics, the judgment and the criticism, alluding to Bill and Monica and all that, and spoke of her desire to make a difference, she won a lot of women's hearts. Millions of women longed to see her become president and were heartbroken when she didn't.

They still might get their wish. Already, there’s a Clinton-in-2016 PAC and Hillary campaigns on Twitter. Though Hillary is saying all she wants to do right now is sleep and work on her next memoir. And then she’ll decide.

I, for one, hope that she goes for it. Any woman who can take down a bunch of angry, sputtering men like she did in the hearings over the Benghazi attack--all while recovering brain surgery--certainly has the chops to be president.

Image Courtesy of the State Department

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