"There's a whole symphony of different notes that can be played and need to be played, depending on what you're trying to achieve," Clinton told me when I asked her about the 2009 incident, the shadow of this latest China imbroglio hanging over the conversation. The talk-show hosts back home were clamoring for a dramatic gesture, for her to whisk Chen away to freedom in her Boeing 757, but Clinton had no intention of doing any such thing.
And so what? she said: "I'm very outcomes-oriented -- what's the best way to get there? Sometimes it's being diplomatic, and sometimes it's being harsh. Some people criticize me for saying that Russia and China's veto on Syria was despicable. Well, I think it got their attention. So you just have to calibrate and figure out what is the end state you're trying to get to, because there are times when being podium-pounding and bully-pulpiting are on their own worthwhile or as part of a larger plan, other times when it would be counterproductive. It depends upon what you're trying to achieve."
BY THE TIME WE SPOKE in Beijing, Clinton had been President Barack Obama's secretary of state for nearly three and a half years, and it was clear she sees her job as a nearly endless series of such negotiations, not only like those over Chen's fate but between what she wants to get done -- and what she can do. Nearly every person I spoke with called Clinton a pragmatist, a doer, a person who likes to make things happen. "We are a can-do country," Wendy Sherman, her undersecretary for political affairs, told me. "And the secretary is absolutely a can-do person."
Diplomacy is not always a great fit for such people. Grand sweeping deals that change the world with the stroke of a fountain pen are in short supply these days. It has been 40 years since Henry Kissinger secretly flew into Beijing to open talks with the Chinese, and besides, as Clinton herself noted recently, can you imagine Kissinger today getting away with covertly leaving Pakistan for China and simply disappearing from the public radar for two days? It's just not possible in the age of Twitter.
And it's certainly not possible for Clinton, who, in her whirlwind final year on the job, has become not only a contender for the most globe-trotting secretary of state ever but also the most popular national politician in America, with approval ratings standing in the high 60s. She is, quite simply, inescapable in American public life after more than two decades in the spotlight, increasingly celebrated as a class act who has managed to reinvent herself, yet again, from losing presidential aspirant to world-class problem-solver. Few secretaries of state have had to worry about paparazzi -- did anybody really care what Warren Christopher wore to the office? -- but Clinton is such a celebrity that the tabloids still put her on the front pages when she changes her hairstyle -- again! -- or takes her staff out for a beer in Colombia. A bad-ass photo of her in sunglasses in Time magazine, wielding her BlackBerry like a power tool, recently went viral on the Internet. The picture even spawned a Tumblr site of what purported to be "Texts from Hillary," in which the putative secretary of state offered snappy, imagined comments on photos of other famous people. (Romney asking, "Any advice?" Clinton replying: "Drink.") The old Hillary wouldn't have known what Tumblr was, or would have feared she was being mocked by it. The new Hillary submitted a joke text of her own to the site's twentysomething creators, signing it, "Thanks for the many LOLZ Hillary 'Hillz.'"
All this publicity has inevitably given rise to a new round of the old Clinton parlor game: Will she run in 2016? Although Clinton will turn 69 on the eve of the next presidential election and has said she's leaving the State Department exhausted and ready for her daughter Chelsea to make her a grandmother, no denial is likely to put such speculation to rest, and many Democratic insiders told me they believe the nomination is hers for the taking. Clinton, as her longtime aide Andrew Shapiro, now the assistant secretary for political-military affairs, put it, will be an object of presidential curiosity "literally until the day that somebody clinches enough delegates to get the nomination."
But there's a paradox about this latest Hillary hoopla: Few Americans have any idea what Clinton has actually been up to as secretary of state, or even what a secretary of state is supposed to do in this day and age. In the rarefied circles of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, where they've been paying closer attention, Clinton gets big points for style and for taking her brand of "people to people" diplomacy international at a time when America desperately needed just her kind of star power to revive an image tarnished by a near decade of George W. Bush's cowboy unilateralism. Aside from that, as one of the city's mandarins put it to me recently in one of numerous nearly identical conversations, "What has she done?" The poohbah reeled off a long string of Important Global Issues, from Middle East peace to negotiating a political end to the long-running war in Afghanistan, from which Clinton appears to have been sidelined by the Obama White House or is simply out of the picture. To those traditionalists, Clinton is something of a puzzle; clearly, she's a success in the "soft power" department, a relentless cheerleader for Brand America. But they can't help disdaining her focus on issues such as women's rights and development economics -- surely not the stuff of real diplomacy -- and see her attention to them as proof of how marginalized she's been by the Obama White House on the geopolitics that count. "That's the rap," sighed one Clinton booster.