Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee, USA Today
Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan for the year was simple.
She'd embark on an epic swansong around the world as U.S. secretary of state, a dizzying itinerary that would take her past 1 million miles in the air at the helm of American diplomacy and perhaps break her own record of 112 countries visited while in the post. Then, there would be a long rest, time and work with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on development issues and a sequel to her 2003 memoir Living History.
Finally, she'd make a destiny-defining decision: whether to try again to become America's first female president.
Her health got in the way: a nasty stomach virus while returning from a weeklong trip to Europe, exhaustion, severe dehydration, a faint, a fall and a concussion that led to a brief hospitalization when doctors discovered a blood clot near her brain. The woman who'd seemed to lay the perfect groundwork for another presidential bid was sidelined by circumstances beyond her control.
It was a rare sign of vulnerability in what had been a carefully charted four years, where as a peace mediator, international enforcer and global ambassador of America she fully emerged from the shadow of her husband. But it was not the only sign.
BURDEN OF BENGHAZI
The deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, revealed an episode of State Department miscommunication on her watch that could feed into her diplomatic legacy and give future political opponents, should she return to politics, an opening to exploit.
At times emotional and frequently combative, Clinton rejected Republican suggestions in two congressional hearings that the administration tried to mislead the country about the attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans. She insisted the State Department is moving swiftly and aggressively to strengthen security at diplomatic posts worldwide.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a question from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 23 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Clinton faced questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where terrorists killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, and employees Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated story
FullscreenSecretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about the attack on the consulate on Capitol Hill. In her last formal congressional testimony as America's top diplomat, Clinton took full responsibility for the department's missteps leading up to the assault on the consulate in Benghazi. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies during the hearing. "I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters," she told the committee. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
State Department officials check messages on their BlackBerry devices as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responds to a question. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton adjusts her glasses after answering a question. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton answers a question. She defended U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was vilified for stating that protests precipitated the consulate attack. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton answers questions about the attack in Benghazi, Libya. "Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum," Clinton said. The instability brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 has expanded the reach of extremists across North Africa, she said. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., questions Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. GOP lawmakers repeatedly questioned Clinton about whether she had seen earlier requests to beef up security in Benghazi. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responds to a question from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., during the hearing. "The fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?" Clinton said in exasperation. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responds to a question regarding the Benghazi attack. Clinton said the State Department is implementing 29 recommendations by an independent review board that harshly criticized the department. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton takes her seat on Capitol Hill at the start of the committee hearings Jan. 23. Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton listens during the hearing. "My faith in our country and our future is stronger than ever. Every time that blue and white airplane carrying the words 'United States of America' touches down in some far-off capital, I feel again the honor it is to represent the world's indispensable nation. And I am confident that, with your help, we will continue to keep the United States safe, strong and exceptional." Jack Gruber, USA TODAYRelated storyFullscreen
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Last SlideNext SlideIn the final spectacle of a diplomatic career that ends Friday when John Kerry succeeds her, she would not be browbeaten.
Pressed perhaps once too often on why the terrorist assault was miscast as a public protest in the days afterward, Clinton went after her Republican inquisitor with her voice rising and quivering in anger. "What difference, at this point, does it make?" she demanded. "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
On Thursday, Clinton denounced those who still insist the administration lied about the attack.
"There are some people in politics and in the press who can't be confused by the facts," she told The Associated Press in her last one-on-one interview as secretary of state. "They just will not live in an evidence-based world. And that's regrettable. It's regrettable for our political system and for the people who serve our government in very dangerous, difficult circumstances."
Clinton's responses confirmed she had lost none of the vigor that had taken her from defeated Democratic Party presidential candidate to one of the world's most popular and recognizable women.
Even before her ailments, people close to her were debating the pros and cons of another presidential run. Would it be worth the cost in time, energy and especially money - her 2008 campaign debt was just retired in January - and would it spark a new round of personal attacks on her, her husband and her character?
Polls show her as the popular favorite for 2016; no Democrat is better placed right now to unify the party. With instant national appeal and the highest approval ratings of her political career, she would also presumably have a head start on any Republican candidate in a general election. And at age 69, she'd hardly be too old to lead. She'd be five years younger than Vice President Joe Biden, a possible party rival.
Yet any sense of inevitably is decidedly premature. After all, Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the 2008 Democratic nomination for several years, right up until Obama beat her in Iowa. Like Obama, some of the potential contenders for 2016 are largely unknown quantities whose strengths cannot yet be measured.
Some of that hard-earned respect would vanish the moment she re-emerges as the face of the Democratic Party and becomes a critical player in rancorous debates over immigration, abortion, debt, taxes, health care and more.
"I haven't decided yet. I really haven't yet. I have deliberately cabined it off."
- Hillary Clinton on what's in her futureWHAT'S NEXT?
Asked on the eve of her departure from the State Department if she still had contributions to make, she replied "Absolutely," but stressed that the how and when were not yet clear.
"I haven't decided yet," she told the AP. "I really haven't yet. I have deliberately cabined it off. I am going to be secretary of state until the very last minute when I walk out the door. And then I am going to take the weekend off and then I may start thinking about all the various offers and requests and ideas that have come my way."
In the final months of her tenure as secretary of state, Clinton helped secure a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip and ordered a series of changes in the operations of her department in response to the Benghazi attack.
She also has remained committed to core interests such as women and children in developing economies and civil society in repressive countries - issues she has tried to elevate to an equal diplomatic footing with peace processes and trade talks.
THE BILL SHADOW
Former President Jimmy Carter, left, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, arrive at the Capitol.(Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
It was not always an easy path. Early on as secretary, amid talk that she was losing influence within the administration, Clinton embarked on a lengthy trip to Africa to highlight those issues, only to be upstaged by the arrival of her husband and his entourage in North Korea to free two American journalists.
Despite a historic visit to war-ravaged Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the seven-nation, 11-day tour of the continent is best remembered for her testy exchange with a student in Kinshasa who asked what Bill Clinton thought about Chinese influence in Africa. "You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she asked. "My husband is not the secretary of state. I am. So, you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I'm not going to be channeling my husband."
In one early embarrassment, she presented a Russian official with a button that was supposed to say "reset," conveying the Obama administration's wish to mend ties with the Kremlin. The button had been erroneously translated into Russian and read "overcharged."
VOICE OF HER OWN
And, she has not been shy in speaking her mind.
At an event in Pakistan in 2009, Clinton said she found it hard to believe that no one in the Pakistani government knew where Osama bin Laden was, prompting an outcry. Again, in Pakistan Clinton defended deeply unpopular drone strikes against militant targets.
On her first trip abroad as secretary of state, Clinton raised eyebrows by saying that differences over human rights could not hold the entire U.S.-Chinese relationship hostage. This upset human rights activists, who had been sympathetic to her presidential bid.
Clinton stuck to her guns, though, and three years later, she was able to negotiate the release of the blind Chinese lawyer who had taken refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, while re-opening a human rights dialogue with Beijing.
It was one of her biggest diplomatic triumphs, alongside her historic trip to Myanmar. With signs of the long-repressive regime opening, Clinton in December 2011 became the first secretary of state in 56 years to visit the country, urging it along its reform path and sitting down with the long-imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
She traveled to every country in Southeast Asia in the end, strengthening ties with old enemies from the Vietnam War and showing China that it wouldn't be able to steamroll its smaller neighbors in maritime and other disputes without also facing U.S. resistance.
Successes also included a tenuous oil deal between Sudan and South Sudan, persuading China and others to implement crippling oil sanctions against Iran and elevating gay rights - much like she did with women's rights in the 1990s - to a new level of global credibility.
Yet Clinton leaves with many international crises unresolved, such as Syria's civil war and Egypt's democratic future. The U.S.-Israel alliance is on shaky ground, terrorism is on the rise in North Africa, there's an unclear endgame to the Afghanistan war and Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a two-state peace solution than they were four years ago. And, despite endless warnings, Iran's nuclear program has moved closer to weapons capacity.
In all, Clinton spent 401 days on overseas travel and almost three months in the air.
Oftentimes she made a splash in the world without even trying.
In Italy, an impromptu 2011 shopping expedition to the Salvatore Ferragamo store with her aide de camp, Huma Abedin, caused a major traffic tie up in central Rome. A visit to ancient ruins at Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex turned the heads of hundreds of other tourists.
Photos of her drinking a beer at a bar in Colombia made newspaper front pages. A video of her dancing at a dinner in South Africa became a hit online as did the "Texts from Hillary" meme, featuring a photo of a stern-looking Clinton peering through sunglasses at her Blackberry while aboard a military plane en route to Libya.
A village in India is named for her. In 2010 in Kosovo, Clinton's motorcade made an impromptu stop at a store called "Hillary" just a stone's throw from a statue of her husband on the main road from the airport to the capital of Pristina. She happily posed for pictures there with her entourage.
She dealt confidently with the first major hiccup of her watch, the release of hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables by WikiLeaks, which caused deep embarrassment as it laid bare confidential and often harsh assessments of foreign leaders by U.S. diplomats around the world and put at least several informants at risk.
Aside from her recent health scare, Clinton has not been immune from personal tragedy while serving as top diplomat.
One of her foreign policy mentors, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whom Clinton tapped to run Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, died in December 2010 after suffering a ruptured aorta during a meeting in her office. Less than a year later, Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, died at the age of 92.
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