Is Senator Hillary Clinton ready to serve as president? And, if elected would she be an agent of change or a protector of the status quo?
I have known Hillary Clinton since she first met my friend Bill Clinton at Yale Law School and he fell head over heels in love with her. I had met Bill at Oxford when he was rooming as a Rhodes Scholar with my brother-in-law. Bill brought Hillary to my family home in Los Angeles, where we spent many hours talking about the changes taking place in the US in the 1960s and prospects for progressive reform. Polls show that by virtue of her political experience and her recognized talents, people recognize that Hillary is almost uniquely ready to serve as president and as commander-in-chief, even among those who politically oppose her. But I also have good reasons for believing that were she to be elected, she would be an even more effective and accomplished president than her husband. Because of her abilities and sensibilities, and the likely circumstances of her winning, Hillary would be a strong leader who manages change in the public interest-at home and abroad--in the manner of FDR or Harry Truman. She is, in fact, the true heir to the New Deal tradition of the Democratic Party, but for a new era.
This opinion, I believe, is reality-based, not simply the wishful thinking of an old friend. I have had the opportunity to see her up close as a political actor on the world and national stage and to observe her evolution over decades.
While serving as US Ambassador to Finland in the 1990s, I hosted Hillary for a two-day visit to Helsinki. I organized a meeting of what the Finnish press called "the most powerful women in the country" to talk with her at my official residence. In Finland at the time, the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister, Speaker of the Parliament and head of the National Bank were all women. They came to meet the First Lady along with a few leading women entrepreneurs and business executives, and top editors and authors. For more than two hours, they discussed public policy and politics. The lively discussion ranged from the details of Finnish health policy to the difficulties that women face in the political arena. These women viewed Hillary as an important political figure in her own right. She had no aides to prompt her or hand her cue cards. Afterwards, many of the women told me how impressed they were with her, and that they hoped that one day she would run for president.
On that visit, I also accompanied Hillary to a one-on-one meeting with Martti Ahtisaari, the President of Finland, and an accomplished UN diplomat. The conversation with the president went on for two hours and ranged over complex issues of European security and US foreign policy. It was very much a discussion of equals in intelligence.
Hillary also won over my skeptical staff at the US embassy, many of whom had read the negative US press about her and expected that she would be a kind of shrewish Dragon Lady. In fact, she charmed everyone at the embassy with her openness, her sense of humor, and her natural kindness. She took the time to ask personal questions of my staff, and to thank them for their service -- from the political officers and military attaches to my cook and driver.
"She was not what I had expected," one of my intelligence officers remarked. "She is terrific and incredibly smart." That speaker was a lifelong Republican.
As First Lady, Hillary made visits to other embassies across the globe, and I heard reports from colleagues at posts in Asia and Africa and Europe that mirrored my own observations of her in Finland. She impressed international leaders with her knowledge, ability, and charm, and she learned from these experiences. On her final night in Finland, we took a walk without security along the rocky coast to a café overlooking the harbor. My cell phone rang, and it was President Clinton, checking in with his wife, asking her for advice on a political matter in Washington. I heard her recount to him how much she enjoyed visiting Finland -- a country that combines a dynamic market economy with a societal commitment to equality and community -- and how it seemed to be the kind of decent society that we should strive for back home.
During the 1992 campaign, I had observed first-hand Hillary respond calmly and coolly to challenging and embarrassing political crises, and even to her own political gaffes. After her unfortunate comment about not wanting to be the little woman who stayed at home and baked, my sister who traveled with her at the time gave her our family chocolate chip recipe. She got the message, and had cookies baked and served them to the press corps. Not only does Hillary have an ability to laugh at herself, but she quickly learns from her mistakes. She has a first class temperament -- a hallmark of many great political leaders.
Many political pundits said that she would fall on her face when she ran for the Senate in New York, but she proved them wrong. As a senator, she assembled one of the most talented, effective staffs in the Congress, and she displayed tact and deftness in working with other senators, even across the aisle with Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. As president, she will be ready on day one to work closely with Congressional leaders to move a progressive agenda forward. Her colleagues know her and respect her -- and if she had not chosen to run for President, I am certain that she would have been the next Majority Leader.
She chose to serve on the Senate military committee. One four star officer with whom I worked on NATO peacekeeping had to testify before the committee and also meet privately with her. He told me afterwards that she was direct, had a mastery of complex issues, and was the opposite of patronizing or defensive about military issues. Her views on defense and foreign policy are progressive as well as nuanced and thoughtful. She does not play to the crowd with cheap rhetoric. She has promised to bring US troops out of Iraq, but having a grasp of the challenges involved she will do it in a way that does not make a bad situation worse. And she will do it with the close consultation and cooperation of the military. She understands the importance of American moral leadership, and how much "Brand America" has been tarnished by the rash and radical policies of the Bush administration. She knows first hand how the administration has ignored the counsel of professionals in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA. She would restore competence to the US government, and begin to repair our damaged standing in the world. She understands, as President Bush does not, that the leader of the US is also a kind of president of the world, and has responsibility to lead but not to try to dominate. She does not need a Henry Kissinger or other eminence grises to tell her what to think about the world. She has a depth of experience and a detailed understanding of international affairs. She will assemble a talented and progressive team to manage US national security and work with other nations to construct a new New Deal for the age of globalization. That is her vision.
As for change at home, her commitment to progressive values should never be held in doubt. Since she was a student at Wellesley protesting the Vietnam War and then as an activist law student at Yale when I first met her, she has been a progressive. In New Haven, she worked at Yale medical school on issues of early childhood education and health care, and she is committed to bringing universal health care to the US. She is not an ideologue about the means, but she is unswerving about the goal, and she knows that other countries have found various ways to achieve this end and that we can too. Her interest and commitment to children and their welfare is signified by her lifelong support for her friend Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, and for the issues that Edelman has championed.
All of her adult life she has displayed a passionate regard for how government can expand opportunity for all of our citizens by leveling the playing field for those not blessed with wealthy parents. As First Lady in Arkansas, she made educational reform her priority. President Carter appointed her to the board of the Legal Services Corporation, and she fought to expand its provision of legal services for poor Americans. She has fought for her beliefs, and when she has lost she has gotten back up and continued the struggle, altering tactics if necessary to achieve practical results. Hillary is a hard-headed, reality-based, practical progressive -- and it is no accident that the Radical Right opposes her and has tried to bring her down. They know that she will not fold under pressure of attack, and that she cannot be bought off by special interests.
Unlike her husband -- the most gifted natural politician of my generation -- Hillary has not always wanted to be President or even Senator. In fact, it was Congressman Charlie Rangel of New York who suggested that she run for the Senate, not her husband or some political advisor. She has grown in to her political persona. Hillary wants to be President for the change that she can bring in the lives of our citizens and in the actions of our country -- for the opportunity to make a better, fairer and more decent American society and global community -- not just for the position and power that the job brings. Of this, I am dead certain.
And she knows from her years alongside her husband that as President she cannot be a leader of change by herself. It is myth and misunderstanding that a president alone can change a nation for the better (although, as we have learned, a bad president can do great damage). Hillary understands that only with allies in Congress and in statehouses and city halls across the nation can she drive forward a progressive agenda. And she understands that she will need to inspire and empower citizen groups to push for reform. FDR did not make the New Deal by himself. He led a national government that responded with passion and strength to workers and citizens who raised their voices for progressive change. If Hillary is elected President, and if as is likely a solidly Democratic Congress is elected, she will have helped to change the political atmosphere of the country, to create hope for the possibility of progressive change -- and she will be in a position to lead that change. It will be an historic moment of great consequence to the nation, and I have no doubt that she will be equal to the task. I cannot think of another American politician who would be better prepared. Strengthened by her bond with the Americans who elect her, Hillary would also reach out to the reasonable Republicans within the Congress who can be partners -- precisely in order to enact a reform agenda.
History sometimes provides opportunities for nations and for leaders -- but the outcome is not predetermined. I have spent forty years in progressive movements and democratic governments, first as a student activist then as an official in state and local government, and later as a federal official and US diplomat. I would not stake my reputation on supporting just another politician. I know Hillary, I trust her and I am certain that she is one person who will be the leader that our time demands.
Derek Shearer served as US Ambassador to Finland in the Clinton administration. He has worked in state and local government in California, and been active in progressive politics for four decades. He is currently Chevalier Professor of Diplomacy at Occidental College in Los Angeles.