NEW YORK — Women around the globe continue to face a double standard when being judged as leaders, Hillary Rodham Clinton says, but their prospects and the appreciation for their roles are improving everywhere from Liberia to Japan.
Not to mention in American presidential politics.
In an interview Monday with USA TODAY about her new book, Hard Choices, published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, Clinton said a woman running for president in 2016 (whether her or someone else) would encounter a different and friendlier political landscape than she did in 2008. Then, she faced sexist catcalls at some rallies and more subtle sexist jibes in a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that was won by Barack Obama.
"It feels different," she said in a conversation that ranged from her tenure as Secretary of State to her perspective on Washington dysfunction. "It feels like our country, our society — we've gone through a learning process." There would be "vestiges" of sexism, as President Obama has faced vestiges of racism, she predicted, "but I do believe it would not be as reflexive. It would not be as acceptable."
She parries questions on whether she herself will run in 2016, the topic of fevered political speculation and a call she says she won't make until at least late this year. But in words her supporters might want to turn back on her, she does offer advice for women with high aspirations: Toughen up. Then do it.
"Women need to develop, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, skin as thick as the hide of a rhinoceros, because when you go in the public arena ... you will run into the double standard. You will be held to a different standard in the way you dress, the way you present yourself, all of that. We see it every day. Young women or any woman who wants to be on the stage — whether in politics or business or journalism or anything — just has to toughen up."
Don't let the critics' barrage determine your decision on whether to compete, she goes on. "If you allow it to define you, if you allow it to adversely impact you and your dreams, then you're going to be blocked, and you're going to be blocking yourself."
The interview took place in a ornate gilded room at the Council on Foreign Relations decorated with portraits of the group's past leaders — all of them, the interviewer notes, white men. "I was just looking around," she says, indicating she had noticed the same thing but adding with a smile: "There's a lot of space left" for new portraits.
RESTED AND READY
Clinton looks rested and relaxed, laughing at several points in the interview and pounding the table when the topic turned to growing income inequality, around the world and in the United States. (She cites husband Bill Clinton's policies in the White House as a template for how to address that.) She says she suffers no symptoms from the concussion that briefly gave her double vision and dizziness. "I'm feeling great," she says.
That's good, because Tuesday she officially launches a cross-country blitzkrieg to promote the 635-page memoir of her years as secretary of State. The copies in circulation before the official publication date already have been dissected for evidence of differences with Obama, fodder for attacks and hints for whether she will run in 2016. Polls of Democrats nationwide show her in a commanding position to become the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination, if she wants it.
"It's going to give me a great opportunity to get out around the country and meet with a lot of people," she says of the book tour. "I hope it gives people a chance to hear from me and make up their minds about what I did and what I wrote and what they think."
She says what surprised her most when she became secretary of State was the damaged state of the U.S. reputation around the world.
"I did not expect to see the depth of suspicion and disappointment in the United States that I found from Europe to Asia and parts in between," she says. "There was a well-held feeling on the part of many that the United States was in decline, that our economic crisis was the beginning of the unraveling of the American dream, that you couldn't count on the United States, that we had been absent in Asia, dissing our old friends in Europe, betraying our values in the war on terror."
She bristles a bit at analysts who say she traveled indefatigably, logging nearly a million miles, but failed to score a defining, signature achievement.
"I helped restore American leadership around the world," she says, ticking off issues from the Arab Spring to Iran's nuclear program to poverty. She urges Americans to look beyond "headline" issues. "We're living in a period when it's going to be less possible to have the big peace treaties because that's not the way wars end any longer," she says.
Her worst day in office, she says, was when four Americans were killed in a 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. But she says the administration's initial misleading explanations of the violence were the result of "the fog of war," not political calculation, and insists the tragedy has been thoroughly investigated — an argument not likely to dissuade congressional Republicans who have launched a new inquiry.
On other topics, Clinton:
• Says she's not surprised by the furor that has erupted over the negotiations that freed Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay. "Any time you let somebody out of Gitmo and in this case have a prisoner swap, it's going to have political blowback," she says.
The deal struck was not one she supported in earlier secret talks with the Taliban that would have included "non-negotiable" demands for an end to fighting and a break with al-Qaeda. But she notes she wasn't privy to the situation the administration faced now. "I'm not going to second-guess," she says, adding, "It's part of the American experience that we try to recover our prisoners."
• Says cliffhanger negotiations in Congress over raising the debt ceiling and shutting down the government caused first bewilderment and then contempt in foreign capitals.
"There is a minority but a very aggressive minority that really doesn't believe in our political process," she said in words that seemed directed at the Tea Party movement, although she didn't cite it by name. "They don't believe in compromise. They proudly tell their constituents that they will go to Washington and never compromise because, after all, they know the answers. They have all the truth.
"It's like listening to the debate in a theocracy, not in a democracy."
• Expressed exasperation and alarm at Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the book, she called him "thin-skinned and autocratic." Last week, he said she "has never been too graceful in her statements" and said "maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."
"He's not the first world leader who made a sexist comment about women," she says in response. "He and I have had a lot of verbal volleys over the last several years." But she calls his attitudes worrisome and notes she raised concerns with Obama about the need to take a "pause" in the U.S.-Russian relationship well before the takeover of Crimea prompted a break.
AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE
Clinton is no longer Obama's top foreign-policy adviser. But she and her husband have been giving the president and Michelle Obama advice on a different topic: what to do after the White House.
"We've actually talked about it," she says. "In general, Bill and I have described what it was like to build the presidential library ... but that's not enough. If that's all you did, it probably wouldn't be very satisfying." They've discussed the educational and advocacy programs that the Clinton Library and the Clinton Global Initiative have pursued.
One lesson: Get ready to raise money. "It's hard," she says.
On another issue, Hillary Clinton finds herself in good-natured disagreement with another White House veteran, Barbara Bush. The former first lady has decried the dynastic politics that in 2016 could have yet another Bush (this time, Jeb) running against another Clinton (this time, Hillary).
"I don't see it as a problem," Clinton says, laughing. "We have a very open, competitive political system, as I know first hand, and it's really up to voters to decide."