No matter how famous the person in the spotlight, Senate confirmation hearings have certain fixed rules. The nominee must repeatedly assure Senators that he or she will seek their advice and counsel on all matters. Every question from every Senator, no matter how ludicrous, must be given deep deference. If the hearings are not televised, attendance by Senators is optional, but if the cameras are rolling, they must use the opportunity to grandstand. In that sense, Tuesday's hearings at the Foreign Relations Committee to confirm Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton are a good test of her preparedness for the grinding hours of meetings with self-important, highly sensitive foreign officials.
The hearings begin just the latest stage in Clinton's ongoing evolution as a political celebrity. From the powerful, embattled First Lady and junior Senator to the hard-nosed, hard-luck presidential contender, Clinton is now set to emerge as Barack Obama's top diplomat, charged with managing multiple crises that threaten the success of his presidency. (See the members of Obama's White House.)
Clinton has been preparing for both her job and her confirmation hearings with her usual intensity. She spent the better part of last month moving between her Senate offices, the presidential transition building on 6th Street and the State Department. In the cramming sessions at State, she was briefed by officials on U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy around the world, from Gaza to Moscow, and from Darfur to Beijing which served the dual purpose of preparing her for the job and the hearings.
At the same time, Clinton has been interviewing candidates for important positions under her at State. She has already picked two experienced deputies in James Steinberg, a former top official under Bill Clinton, who will be her chief aide; and Jacob Lew, who will be in charge of planning and managing the financing needed for her proposed expansion of the department. More recently, Clinton tapped two key advisers: Dennis Ross for the Middle East, and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both men are powerful, occasionally controversial figures, known for taking blunt positions on issues and pursuing ambitious diplomatic agendas.
The confirmation hearings are expected to cover much of the territory Clinton will likely have to deal with early in her tenure. Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican and a mentor of sorts to Obama, is particularly interested in containing Russia's bad behavior in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Democrats will ask Clinton about plans to withdraw from Iraq, close Guantánamo Bay and boost troop levels in Afghanistan. Junior Republicans, like Lisa Murkowski, will ask about regional issues, like the U.S.'s role in the Arctic.
There is little doubt that Clinton's husband will figure in the conversation as well, no matter how much she might prefer that he not. Former President Clinton's wide-ranging international activities include tours on the lecture circuit, which earn him tens of thousands of dollars per speech, and a massive charitable foundation, which has received contributions from multiple foreign sources, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as the military contractor Blackwater. Republicans like South Carolina's Jim DeMint are expected to grill Clinton on the disclosure requirements that she and her husband agreed to in lengthy negotiations last month. In the end, however, the scrutiny by Clinton's colleagues on Capitol Hill will seem a light challenge compared with those she will soon face abroad.