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Hillary Clinton: A First Lady forever at the threshold of the Oval Office

Brendan Smialowski, AFP | Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton attends a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania on October 4, 2016.

Hillary Clinton has been at the forefront of American politics for 25 years, from serving as first lady and as a US senator to secretary of state and the Democratic presidential nominee. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at her career.

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Clinton was poised to be the first woman to be elected president of the United States after a bruising, marathon race. She defeated leftist Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary in July and later turned the full force of her campaign against the Republican nominee, New York businessman Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton pictured with her father Hugh, her mother Dorothy, and her brother Hugh, Jr.
Hillary Clinton pictured with her father Hugh, her mother Dorothy, and her brother Hugh, Jr.

At 69, Clinton boasts a career in public service that is both accomplished and unique. She first caught the world’s eye as an assertive first lady in 1992, and was hoping to return to the White House 17 years later as the nation’s commander-in-chief.

Hillary Rodham grew up in a middle-class suburb outside Chicago. Her father, a World War II veteran and staunch Republican, owned and ran a small business selling fabrics and drapes.

A smart and ambitious student, she was admitted to Wellesley, an elite women's college near Harvard, where she would eventually be elected class president. She would go on to study law at Yale, where she met and began dating Bill Clinton of Arkansas. The couple would marry in 1975 and had a single child, daughter Chelsea, in 1980.

First Lady

Upon graduating from Yale and after a short stint in Washington, she and Bill moved back to Arkansas. She taught law and began working actively on children’s issues, including healthcare and education for the disabled, but also served as first lady of the southern state when Bill Clinton became governor.

Bill became the 42nd president of the United States in 1992 after three consecutive terms by Republicans. The Clintons would be the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the next eight years.

Hillary Clinton was named Arkansas Woman of the Year in 1984
Hillary Clinton was named Arkansas Woman of the Year in 1984

Hillary played an active political role as first lady during that time, in a break with many of her predecessors’ more behind-the-scenes style – making her a prime target for the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Her first years in the White House were marked by a failed effort to reform the country’s healthcare system and then her growing emphasis on promoting women’s rights, but also the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Bill was impeached by Congress in 1998 for lying about Lewinsky, a White House intern with whom he had an affair. He was later acquitted by the Senate and served out the rest of his second term.

Bill Clinton takes the oath of office, standing between Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea, in Washington DC, in January 1993
Bill Clinton takes the oath of office, standing between Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea, in Washington DC, in January 1993

In her 2003 book “Living Memory”, Hillary would write about her husband’s betrayal and the impeachment proceedings. “These were terrible moments for all of us. I didn't know whether our marriage could – or should – survive such a stinging betrayal, but I knew I had to work through my feelings carefully, on my own timetable,” she wrote.

In 2000 the Clintons moved to Chappaqua in upstate New York, and Hillary would run a successful campaign to become one of two US senators from the populous northeastern state. Her time as a lawmaker would quickly be marked by the September 11, 2001 attacks.

President Barack Obama and members of the national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, receive updates on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.
President Barack Obama and members of the national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, receive updates on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.

She worked to secure money to rebuild lower Manhattan and to provide healthcare for Ground Zero responders. In 2002, she was among a majority of senators to vote in favour of a resolution allowing then president George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq.

It was a decision for which rival politicians, including President Barack Obama, would later take her to task. “I got it wrong. Plain and simple,” Clinton would later say in her 2014 memoir “Hard Choices”, explaining that she long avoided recognising the mistake for fear it would be perceived as a sign of weakness.

From rival to Obama ally

Clinton launched her first bid to become president in 2008 but lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.

The primary race between Clinton and Obama turned into a bitter contest with accusations flung by rival camps. But after Obama won the general election, Clinton accepted the role of secretary of state.

As America’s top diplomat Clinton travelled the globe extensively, earning credit on both sides of the aisle as a knowledgeable and level-headed stateswoman. Former Republican secretary of state Henry Kissinger remarked that Clinton “ran the State Department in the most effective way that I’ve ever seen”.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama leave Myanmar in November 2012
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama leave Myanmar in November 2012

In 2011 she was among those to advise Obama when he faced the decision of whether to launch a raid on the suspected hideout of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In “Hard Choices” Clinton wrote that she was among those who helped convince the president it was the right move, while Vice President Joe Biden was more “sceptical” of the operation.

Her record at the State Department was nevertheless tarnished by the 2012 militant attack on the US mission in Benghazi that killed four Americans including Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya. Republicans have tried to use the incident as well as the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria, to paint Clinton and the Obama administration as incompetent.

A raucous race

Clinton left the State Department in 2012 in a move that many saw as part of her preparation for a second bid for the White House. In April 2015 she formally announced her candidacy for the presidency.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine at a Florida rally in July 2016
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine at a Florida rally in July 2016

Her campaign has been dogged from the start by her questionable use of a personal email server while secretary of state. She nevertheless made history this summer by repelling a campaign offensive by Bernie Sanders, thus becoming the first female presidential nominee for a major US political party.

"There has never been any man or woman more qualified for this office than Hillary Clinton,” Obama told a campaign rally in July.

Since then the race against Trump proved to be a raucous contest, with the Republican candidate’s blustery style leading him to commit a series of unforced errors. Many observers said the election was Clinton’s to lose, but the popularity of Trump – who painted himself as an outsider vowing to reform a “rigged” system – nevertheless managed to keep the race close in key states.

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