Hillary Clinton is looking presidential to many Americans these days. A new CNN poll puts her well ahead of Vice President Biden and Sarah Palin as the “most qualified” to be president.
Now we’re getting to see a side of her that didn’t come out on the campaign trail – her favorite television show, and a certain “crush.”
Vogue contributing editor Jonathan Van Meter traveled to Africa to get a rare look at the secretary of state. His feature is in December's issue of the magazine. Van Meter joined John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
John Roberts: You spent about three weeks with her. A couple weeks in Africa, and a week at the U.N. General Assembly. Sat down with her a couple times. What most surprised you about her?
Jonathan Van Meter: I think what most surprised me was that she was more accessible and more pleasant and friendly and easy to talk to than I expected. As a journalist I've heard so many stories about how difficult she is to interview – maybe she has relaxed now that she's no longer in electoral politics. I found her sort of unguarded at moments and just pleasant. Cheerful. She was always in a good mood.
Roberts: So the very scripted person we saw on the campaign trail loosens up a little bit?
Van Meter: Yeah. I got to see her one morning in Africa, she had gone for a swim in the ocean. Her hair was wet. She came to meet me for breakfast for an interview. She just looked like a woman that had gone for a swim in the ocean. She was just incredibly relaxed and pleasant.
Roberts: We mentioned the CNN poll numbers about who is most qualified to be president right at the beginning. Let's look at the numbers a little more closely. When asked who is most qualified to be president, 67% said Hillary Clinton. 50% for Joe Biden. 28% for Sarah Palin. What do you think is driving those numbers?
Van Meter: I think it's a couple of things. I think the people in the United States are finally figuring out what the people in the State of New York figured out a long time ago when she became senator, which is that once elected to office or given a job to do, she’s indefatigable. She works really hard for her constituency. She’s not nearly as partisan as people think she is. The other thing is that she's no longer – half of the country is no longer offended by every word that comes out of her mouth because she's not running a brutal campaign and I also think that people see that she's really dedicated to the president. She’s working for her country. She's going around problem solving and doing damage control all over the world and I think people are sort of impressed by it.
Roberts: There are questions at the same time that have been raised as to whether or not her skills are adequately put to use. You talk about an interview that you witnessed in which she was talking about Afghanistan and the potential troop surge. You say, “Clinton is so clearheaded on the subject, so eloquent, that it raises the question: Why hasn't Hillary Clinton been more out in front on the most troubling foreign policy issues of the day?” Why do you think she hasn’t?
Van Meter: I think her first year in office, according to her and her staff, she basically spent the first year traveling to countries and winning back the love of other people. Another reason is that she immediately appointed several envoys … and then she broke her elbow. I think what's happened is she finally just turned the corner and is stepping out now as evidenced by so much of the press she's getting and this interview itself.
Roberts: One of the things you write about that impressed you was the way she plays with others, particularly older Republican men – eluding to Bob Gates, the secretary of defense.
Van Meter: I remember when she was a senator when she first got to the Senate everybody was so impressed, all of the Republican senators were so impressed with her. And I think that same feeling has returned again. Bob Gates seemed really enamored of her when they were together on stage during that [interview] at George Washington University. And I get the feeling – when she talked about him she – she just sort of gushed about him and said he wrote one of the best books ever written about Washington.
Roberts: And he has respect for her position as well.
Van Meter: He does. He talked about the fact that she's the lead spokesman for foreign policy in America and once you get over that, everything falls into place.
Roberts: You said she was stunned when the president asked her to be secretary of state. You quote her as saying, “I did not think it was the right thing to do. I didn't want to do it. I just really had a lot of doubts.” We haven't heard her be that frank about this. She has always said yes I considered it and took the job. She did have a lot of doubts according to your article.
Van Meter: She really did. According to her staff, you know, a lot had to do with the fact that she was still sort of battle-worn from the election and I think a lot of people wanted her to remain sort of the representative of them as an elected politician. She was looking forward to going back to the Senate. She had an extraordinary amount of debt that had to be extinguished that if she became secretary of state she wouldn't be able to use herself, her greatest asset, to extinguish that debt. And also I think she had just never considered it and couldn't wrap her mind around the idea. And then what she told me was that a friend called her and said, “What if you had won and you had asked [Barack Obama] to be secretary of state and he said no to you? How do you say no?” And she said that's kind of what did it for her. That's what changed her mind.
Roberts: It's a job that's difficult to say no to. A lot of people might be interested as to what the relationship is between her and her husband these days.
Van Meter: She told me that when they see each other, which is very rarely, they watch a lot of old movies together at the house in Westchester.
Roberts: When you say rarely, how rare is rare?
Van Meter: I saw them together once at the Global Clinton Initiative when she gave a speech there. He got up on stage to introduce her. She was the big speaker that moment. And he said, “…I haven't seen her for a week and thanks to you people I get to see her.” She travels for 12, 13 days at a time constantly. I don't think they see each other very often.
Roberts: We mentioned this at the top. Favorite television show, and who does she have a crush on?
Van Meter: "Mad Men," and David Miliband the Foreign Minister of England, who she referred to as attractive and vibrant. Her body language around him is adorable.