WASHINGTON – Four years ago Hillary Clinton was welcomed with resounding cheers by hundreds of staff at the State Department as, on her first day as the top US diplomat, she declared “a new era for America.”
After almost a million miles traveled, 112 countries visited and some 400 days spent on a plane, Clinton is poised to step down as secretary of state, basking in the praise of world leaders for having restored US standing.
So it has been surprising that this most-visible of politicians, who has spent decades courting the limelight, has not been seen in public for several weeks because of a series of health scares.
Just as Clinton was expected to return to work this week, doctors revealed Monday she has a blood clot in a vein near her right ear between her skull and brain.
It stemmed from a concussion she sustained earlier in December when she fainted due to dehydration from a stomach virus.
Her doctors said she should make a full recovery after being treated with blood-thinners, but her prolonged absence has whipped up a frenzy of media hype and rumor now overshadowing her final weeks in the post.
Clinton, 65, has been a vocal advocate for America during her time in office, championing democracy and what she calls “smart power.”
Her raucous laugh has proved infectious in many a setting and like her husband, former president Bill Clinton, she exudes a charisma and warmth which seems to give her an instant connection to people.
She leaves behind a reputation as a tireless workaholic, a stickler for detail, as well as someone who likes occasionally to let down her hair — subject of many a water-cooler discussion.
But after years grappling with top domestic and global dilemmas, the lawyer, former first lady and ex-New York senator says she now wants to savor life’s little pleasures like reading, writing and watching her favorite TV design show.
Born in Illinois in October 1947, Clinton’s rise from being a lawyer trained at Yale University where she met Bill in 1974, to the highest echelons of power has carved a path for women everywhere.
In 2008 she almost made history as she sought the Democratic presidential nomination, and in conceding defeat to Obama she dubbed her votes “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling barring women from the nation’s highest office.
Despite her repeated denials, many are convinced she will run again, although it is possible her health could now become an issue, as she would mark her 70th birthday in her first year in office.
“The Democrats want her to run. And I don’t just mean a lot of Democrats. I mean a whole lot of Democrats, like 90 percent across the country,” Democratic strategist James Carville said earlier this month.
After their bitter primaries battle, most were taken by surprise when Obama nominated her as secretary of state.
But Clinton has proved steadfastly loyal, even in many minds taking a bullet for Obama by assuming responsibility for the deaths of four diplomatic staff in the September attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya — a tragedy she calls her “worst time” in office.
She has yet to testify publicly since a damning State Department report found security at the mission “grossly inadequate.”
Critics also say Clinton has failed to accomplish any big signature victories — such as Henry Kissinger’s overture to communist China.
Analyst Aaron David Miller blamed Obama for keeping such a tight hold on foreign policy matters. Obama “had an extremely talented and able secretary of state which he has not empowered, not with one significant or consequential issue relating to peace or war,” he told a recent forum.
“She found her own agenda. I call it planetary humanism. And it was an important one. It was gender equality, women’s issues, social media, technology, environment,” added the former advisor to six secretaries of state.
Many commentators highlight Clinton’s role in restoring America’s image abroad, deeply damaged during the interventionist years of former president George W. Bush.
Clinton worked hard, for instance, for a rapprochement with Pakistan — a key but wary ally in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — and knitted together western approval for tighter Iran sanctions.
During a trip to China in early 2012, she pulled off a dramatic diplomatic coup by successfully negotiating safe passage to the US for dissident Chen Guangcheng.
Many Republicans remain wary of her, however. They are fixated with the strident image she left from the 1990s and her clumsy attempt as first lady to reform health care.
Time and again however she has proved herself a master of reinvention — even overcoming the public humiliation of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998.
Now she insists that it is time to rest, and if her daughter, Chelsea, obliges even welcome a long-awaited grandchild into her life.