Hirsh: Why Tapping Hillary for State Wouldn't Hurt

For the last few days, the blogosphere has been ablaze with speculation about the kind of damage Hillary Clinton could do to the Obama presidency if she becomes secretary of state. She doesn't have the job yet (the vetting of both her and her husband is said to be raising some questions). But for many commentators, the key question is whether Hillary would be controllable. "If President-elect Barack Obama taps Sen. Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state, he would be giving her oversight of an area where the two former rivals diverged sharply during their prolonged primary battle," warned Scott Helman of The Boston Globe on Tuesday. Obama "will be forced to the left," opined Dick Morris. "Selecting Hillary Clinton as secretary of state will just cede more of his authority." Or as ABC's George Stephanopoulos put it on his blog: "Which meme will win out: Team of Rivals or Too Much Clinton?"

I have a two-word response to these questions: Colin Powell. Today it is difficult to remember how much stature and prestige Powell brought with him when George W. Bush named him secretary of state in December of 2000. At the time, Powell was bigger than Hillary. In fact, he was even bigger than Bush. The then new president-elect actually had tears in his eyes when he introduced Powell at a Texas schoolhouse; possibly Bush was crying for joy at his good luck in snagging a man who, after all, was more popular than he—one who could have been president, many said, if he had so chosen. I myself, writing in NEWSWEEK, was as fooled as anyone in those early days. "Powell is expected to be the star of the administration, the one who commands every room he walks into, who can silence a strategy session just by clearing his throat," I wrote after the announcement. Powell seemed to buy into his own press. When he got up to speak—this was well before the announcement of Don Rumsfeld as secretary of defense—it was almost as if he were the president. As Bush stood quietly behind him—he actually seemed to shrink in size—Powell rather presumptuously endorsed him as "a president for all the people, all the time" and then laid out his own vision of American foreign policy, one that was fully in the tradition of responsible internationalism.

Well, we know what happened. As the ghost said to Hamlet, "What a falling-off was there!" By midway through the administration, Colin Powell found himself odd man out; outmaneuvered on every front by the Cheney-Rumsfeld alliance and a neoconservative takeover of policy that left him isolated from the Bush team. By the end of Bush's first term, Powell had not only been humiliated into playing the administration's hapless front man for the Iraq war, he had gained an international reputation as a fellow whose word didn't mean much because he didn't have the president's ear. It seemed almost merciful when Powell was finally forced out in December of 2004, after Bush's re-election.

OK, the predictable response to this argument would be: That was an unusual, even pathological fate, for any secretary of state. After all, it is fair to say that American government didn't function very well during the Bush years, especially the first term. The interagency process was destroyed as Cheney and Rumsfeld set up what was effectively an alternative government (the veep's shadow national security council, and Doug Feith's Office of Special Plans). They bypassed then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice on many decisions, even as they were ignoring Powell. Any reasonable-minded secretary of state would have suffered Powell's fate.

But the truth is that what happened to Powell is more the norm than the exception for a State Department leader who finds himself out of step with his (or her) president. There are numerous examples from American history. When Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state, Robert Lansing, expressed reservations about the president's policy of self-determination, he was kept out of the loop and then canned. And does anyone remember the name of Richard Nixon's first-term secretary of state? If you don't (it was William Rogers), that's because he was rendered a virtual non-entity by Nixon's alter ego, Henry Kissinger, who was then national security advisor and later assumed Rogers's job as well. And don't forget Cyrus Vance, who famously resigned from Jimmy Carter's cabinet because he felt he was being dissed by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski (the proximate reason was Vance's opposition to a secret mission to rescue the American hostages, but his influence had been waning).

Dick Morris, in his blog, suggests he has a good counter-example: Jimmy Byrnes, secretary of state to Harry Truman, after he took office upon FDR's death. "Byrnes, who thought he should have been president, proceeded to make his own foreign policy. He flew to a meeting in Europe with the allied foreign ministers and barely kept President Truman posted on the deliberations," Morris writes with Eileen McGann. This is true. But Morris gives scant attention to what happened next: Byrnes was fired, to be replaced first by George Marshall and then by Dean Acheson, who became one of the most powerful and influential secretaries of state in U.S. history. How did Acheson attain these heights? It was, in large part, because of his fierce loyalty to Truman. "I have a constituency of one," Acheson liked to say, and the president never forgot the day in 1946 when Acheson turned up in formal dress at Union Station in the wee hours of morning—all alone—to welcome Truman back to Washington.

The other argument one hears against appointing Hillary is that a president should never hire someone he can't fire, and she is simply too big and too popular to suffer this fate. Wrong. There are firings and then there are firings, as Colin Powell found out. Sometimes things can simply be made so unpleasant and lonely that one feels pressured to resign. Or the dismissal can occur in a more subtle way. In his final humiliation, Powell met with Bush in the Oval Office after the latter's re-election in 2004 and waited for the words that never came: "I'd like you to stay on." He meekly resigned, and there were no howls of outrage from his admirers.

Foggy Bottom is simply too far away from the White House to be an independent power base. As secretary of state, Hillary would take over a huge, prestigious organization. But it would, for the most part, be a gilded cage. And to the extent that she might fail to do Obama's bidding, she would be ignored, neutralized and ultimately rendered irrelevant. Perhaps she ought to give Powell a call before she accepts the job.