During a lunch break, Clinton huddled with her aides and authorized Campbell to make a renewed offer to the Chinese, this time asking them to allow Chen to come to the United States to study. But they refused to entertain it. The standoff lasted a full day and night, by which time Chen's case -- and the State Department's fumble -- had already become a front-page headache back in Washington. Romney was busy denouncing it as a "dark day for freedom" and "a day of shame for the Obama administration." Chen was continuing to give interviews, and he even managed to testify by cell phone to that congressional hearing, called by Republican Chris Smith, who regularly jabs the Democratic White House for being less than zealous about human rights issues.
That night, the entire Clinton negotiating team trooped over to the embassy for a secure call to the White House. Then, just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, Clinton had had enough. Get in touch with Dai, she told an aide; I need to see him. They agreed to talk after one of the Beijing set-pieces, a morning roundtable with CEOs. They met in a side room with sliding doors, but even after Dai agreed to resume negotiations, there was still a whole day of painstakingly choreographed meetings and photo ops to attend. At the formal news conference just before the deal -- sealed minutes earlier -- was announced, a poker-faced Clinton publicly uttered Chen's name for the first time. "Progress has been made to help him have the future that he wants," she said cryptically.
By Saturday afternoon, Clinton had flown off to Bangladesh, and life for America's celebrity diplomat had more or less returned to normal. Which meant: hours of meetings about the troubling political developments in Dhaka; a private session with Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning microfinance guru, to brief her on "development innovations"; and a banner on the Drudge Report with an unflattering photo of her over the headline, "Hillary au Naturale." On Sunday, Biden made news by mistakenly referring to Obama as "President Clinton" and then jokingly suggesting that he could run for president himself in 2016, with Clinton as his running mate. By the time she got home, in the middle of the night that Tuesday, Clinton had hit her friend Madeleine Albright's record for most countries visited by a secretary of state, after logging 96 nations, 320 days on the road, and 778,157 miles in the air.
Exactly two weeks after she left Beijing, on Saturday, May 19, Chen Guangcheng, his wife, and their two children flew to the United States on board United Airlines Flight 88. The State Department put out a statement in the name of its spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, welcoming the move. Hillary Clinton had no comment.
WHEN I SPOKE WITH ONE of Clinton's senior advisors, he reflected on the different models America has had for its secretaries of state in recent years: the global statesman like Kissinger, the presidential confidant like James Baker was for the first George Bush and Condoleezza Rice was for Bush's son. Some secretaries of state play an inside game, like Colin Powell, who was popular in Foggy Bottom for his perceived willingness to stand up for the professionals and his insistence on bringing the stodgy department into the information age. (Incredibly, Powell in 2001 was the first secretary even to have a computer on his desk.) Others opt for international swagger or spend their time jockeying for White House influence.
By those standards, where does Clinton fit in? Several of her advisors pointed out that she is the first secretary of state since Edmund Muskie in Jimmy Carter's presidency to have gone to the job directly from the U.S. Senate.
She is still in many ways a politician -- both in terms of "connecting the dots with American audiences about why foreign policy and national security policy matters," as William J. Burns, the career diplomat who is her deputy secretary, put it, and in terms of her relationships with other world leaders, politicians in their own right with whom Clinton does not hesitate to talk nuts-and-bolts details of what they really care about-how to get and stay in power. (This comes in handy, too, when her interlocutors complain, as they inevitably do, about U.S. demands for greater press freedom and the like. As Philip Gordon, assistant secretary for Europe, put it, "She can just cut them off and say, 'You know, Mr. President, with all due respect, give me a break. That comes with the territory, buddy. Get used to it, roll with the punches, and, yeah, that's what you have to put up with in a democracy.'")
Several times during our interview, Clinton herself returned to this theme. "Having come to this job from the political world," she noted at one point, "I have a certain level of understanding or sensitivity to what people's political problems are, even in authoritarian regimes, because everybody's got politics."
So at the end of our conversation, I asked her the question: What would it take for her to run again for president in 2016? "Nothing," she replied quickly. Then she laughed. Even the Chinese, she said, had asked her about it at Wednesday night's dinner, suggesting she should run. They were "saying things like, 'Well, you know, I mean 2016 is not so far away.… You may retire, but you're very young,'" Clinton recalled.
Maybe, I ventured, that's why they had in the end been willing to accommodate her on Chen; they were investing in a future with a possible President Clinton.
She wouldn't answer. At least not for the record.