First, full disclosure: I really admire Hillary Clinton.
I was never an FOB or an FOH* in the political sense of the term, though I did work for her husband, whom I also like. In 2000, while at the U.S. State Department, I had the privilege of accompanying her to the funeral of Leah Rabin, the wife of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Then, as now, she struck me as a smart, charismatic leader, a quick study with a strong sense of humor and of the absurd -- both very useful when working on foreign-policy basket cases where chances of solutions are slim to none. The Clintonites can shoot me if they want, but Clinton isn't going to end up in the Secretary of State Hall of Fame.
You might conclude otherwise, given the tsunami of favorable media coverage she has received, particularly from the traveling press corps. But that's not unusual. Alone among the cabinet secretaries, America's top diplomat traditionally already wears a nonpartisan halo, whether her name is Albright or Rice.
Still, what the media haven't done is to ask some of the tough questions about what makes a truly consequential secretary of state. Nor has the press (or the punditocracy, for that matter) been able to establish any standard against which her performance might be measured.
My take on her performance -- midway through what is likely to be her last year in the job -- has little to do with her own abilities, which are impressive.
What shapes Clinton's performance more are the two unfriendly universes in which she operates: the cruel world beyond America's shores and the bureaucratically skewed one back home. Throw in her own innate caution when it comes to taking on some of the hopeless issues of the day (see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran), and what you have is a very hardworking and smart media superstar who fights for her department at home and shines abroad on several key 21st-century issues that she has identified as critical, but has yet to put any major points on the board. The Twitter summary of Clinton's legacy would read: No spectacular failures, but no spectacular achievements either. A John Quincy Adams, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, or James Baker she's not.
Over the years, I've thought a great deal about what is required to be a truly effective, consequential, even great secretary of state. The position is a unique one. It's the second-best job in Washington and carries a status no other cabinet position holds, period.
Part of the halo effect is that the job is supposed to be apolitical, like the country's foreign policy itself. When it comes to foreign policy, politics is supposed to stop at the water's edge. And Americans like to believe, somewhat naively, that the country's top diplomat is immune or somehow protected from the seamier aspects of Washington's partisan swamp. Secretaries of state are expected to rise above the fray, and they generally try to. This is one reason their public image and favorability ratings tend to be so high.
Still, in the history of the Republic, only two secretaries of state have resigned over reasons of high principle -- William Jennings Bryan and Cyrus Vance. The job -- like so much of America's high politics -- is filled by survivors, not martyrs. Tending to the country's foreign policy is a tough assignment, one that requires a combination of skill and luck to succeed.
The latter is particularly important. If crisis opens the door to greatness in the presidency, it does the same for the country's top diplomat. Had there been no Civil War, Theodore Roosevelt lamented about his own missing great moment, no one would have known Abraham Lincoln's name. Without the right kind of crisis abroad, no matter how talented the secretary of state, there's no chance to demonstrate his or her stuff.
So what makes a great secretary of state? Fortuna is necessary, but not sufficient for top-level performance. Three other elements are required too.