On a recent Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton walked with her husband onto a stage at the New York Sheraton to cheers and whoops and a standing ovation that only got louder as she tried to quiet things down.
It was a friendly crowd — the annual meeting of her husband’s foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative — and people may have been eager to hear her speech about using U.S. aid to target investment barriers such as old land tenure laws. But really, they were there to see her.
“She’s just looked so sad and so tired,” said Ritu Sharma, a women’s rights activist, referring to Clinton’s appearances in the days after the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
They wanted to defend her, to rave about her, to say how sick they were of people talking about her hair, and then to talk about her hair, which, several men and women offered, definitely looked best in a simple chignon.
Mostly, though, people wondered what the woman walking across the stage — now smiling as a soaring, presidential-sounding score began playing — would choose to do next. Maybe now, in her final months in office, she would provide a clue.
Bill and Hillary Clinton looked at each other and laughed. He rolled his eyes.
Then she began talking about how effective development can advance global peace and prosperity — the sort of long, detail-laden speech that Clinton has given a thousand times, the kind that says exactly nothing and everything about her future.
In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has reiterated that she will not stay on for President Obama’s second term, unleashing fresh waves of speculation about her plans.
There is hypothesizing that she is merely entering a hibernation period before a 2016 presidential bid. There is talk that she will start her own women’s rights initiative. There is the prospect, too, that this might really be it for one of the most iconic figures in American political history.
What is clear is that despite lingering questions about Benghazi, Clinton is more beloved than at any point in her long and at times controversial career, commanding soaring approval ratings, a vast fundraising machine and supporters who gush more than ever that she should run for president again.
The truth is, though, that no one is sure what Hillary Clinton will do, possibly not even Clinton herself, who has said her plans include sleeping and watching the home-improvement show “Love It or List It,” which she finds calming.
But there is one way to figure out what Clinton may ultimately decide, and that is to examine what she has already done: not the obligatory things such as jetting to the Middle East as she did last week, but those things that as a first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state she has chosen to do.
Beyond carrying out the Obama administration’s foreign policy and troubleshooting global crises, Clinton has deliberately carved out her own agenda during her four years as secretary of state, making an array of choices that reflect who she is after more than 30 years in public service.
Of these, the first was her decision to sublimate any resentment that had come between her and Obama during their fight for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The most controversial may be her push for “expeditionary diplomacy,” the idea that diplomats should engage more with people beyond embassy walls, which Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, exemplified.
The rest are more obscure. They include promoting a milk cooperative in Malawi and low-pollution “clean” cookstoves in China and attending an environmental summit in Greenland’s capital, Nuuk. They include decidedly unglamorous events, such as a conference devoted to gender-specific data collection, and thousands of miles traveled to often-overlooked places.
“I’m very happy that my 100th country was Latvia,” Clinton told students in Riga in June.
From the start, Clinton has explained her agenda as part of a new “21st-century diplomacy” that demands the United States be more attuned to the grass roots of the world and relies on development and civilian power as much as military might, an approach foreign policy gurus will debate for years to come.
Some say that Clinton diluted her energy and failed to achieve any signature triumphs, such as an end to the Syrian crisis. Others argue that through a thousand lesser-known efforts and initiatives, she has achieved nothing less than a transformative shift toward a more effective and modern American diplomacy.
What is certain is that Clinton’s choices tell a story about who she is, how she thinks and perhaps what she will decide to do in the future. And so the answer to the question of whether she will run for president in 2016 might begin on a trans-Atlantic flight this summer, the first leg of one of her longest trips as secretary.