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Category: Politics, Great Women, Media

As Secretary of State, Clinton Can Exercise a Range of Roles

| May 18, 2009

In her current job, Hillary Clinton has found the freedom to express herself in various modes that work for her and for the Obama Administration. She is winning the appreciation of the public and of political and media observers.

Because of her singular career, Hillary Clinton has had to define her own style as a leader and work to create a smooth transition over a course of travel that was previously inaccessible to American women. As her brief, yet action-packed tenure as secretary of state shows, she has developed into a leader who communicates warmth, a mastery of policy, media savvy and enviable stamina. And she’s finally ‘likeable enough.’ Heck, she’s downright popular.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared early in her tenure on a popular Indonesian program geared to teenagers. Asked about her most valuable experience during her campaign, Hillary Clinton responded by saying, “I campaigned hard against President Obama. We had an incredibly intense competition, but in a democracy, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.” Able to draw laughs and applause from this crowd of teenagers, she stretches her communications skills as she continues to evolve as a leader.

Such rhetorical elasticity prompted New York Times writer Mark Landler to note that, “On the road with Hillary Clinton, two distinct secretaries of state are emerging: the loose unscripted politician who roamed Asia’s neighborhoods and schools, and the tightly controlled diplomat who marched through the Middle East.”

She alternated a plain speaking style with heavy analysis, tailoring her message to meet the needs of the occasion with remarkable acuity. Although Hillary Clinton lost the election for president in 2008, there can be no doubt that she won the rhetorical campaign to see a woman as a front-runner presidential candidate and now as a diplomat with a background of roles that might have been seen as mutually exclusive.

Because no woman has been elected president, there is no successful role model for a woman presidential candidate to emulate. As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton had to manage a tricky terrain that included backing out of posing on the cover of Vogue in order not too appear too feminine and using tough talk to reinforce leadership in times of war—with her oft repeated mantra “ready day one” and her fear-inducing red phone ad. Still, no matter what Hillary Clinton did to use every available means of persuasion as a candidate, she had to keep going through the intense criticism that followed.

As a communication scholar, I would like to note that none of Secretary Clinton’s suffering was in vain. Women will study her presidential race and learn from her. Maybe she’ll study her presidential race and learn from herself for her next bid. Regardless, it must be a relief that in her role as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton is finally able to exercise a full range of rhetorical actions, both a feminine style and a more deductive, less emotive use of delivery.

As first lady she was restricted to a narrow range of rhetorical styles, and as a presidential candidate she was often scrutinized and measured against that first-lady image. The press was quick to go into “autopilot” and attack her as they did in her previous role. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton seems to be able to stretch her role without criticism and combine styles without igniting a barrage of criticism. By March 2009, fewer than three months into her role, The Washington Post reported that “Clinton’s State Department has embarked on a digital diplomacy drive aimed at spreading the word about American foreign policy and restoring Washington’s image.”

Hillary Clinton remains a fertile subject for rhetorical scholars. When Wellesley graduate Hillary Rodham addressed the audience at her 1969 commencement, she said, “And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.” The trajectory of her life and career demonstrates that Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to put her words into action. As a secretary of state more popular in a CNN poll than our Ciceronian president at the 100-days mark of the Obama Administration, Clinton will make it exciting to see whom her instructive career will benefit next.