Madame Secretary

“Gay rights are human rights.” With that declaration — and the team she has assembled at the State Department — Hillary Rodham Clinton has elevated the dialogue on LGBT rights around the globe.

BY Kerry Eleveld

January 10 2011 4:00 AM ET

Hillary Rodham Clinton was in the midst of running damage control on one of the most revealing and frenetic episodes in State Department history when I interviewed her by telephone in early December. Two weeks earlier I’d still been planning for a sit-down meeting to discuss her work on LGBT rights at the State Department when I received an ominous preemptive e-mail from the White House press office.

“We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments,” the statement began, foretelling a tidal wave of international correspondence that would become equal parts historical treasure trove and diplomatic nightmare. From that moment on, my place on the secretary’s calendar was tenuous at best. Finally, Clinton’s schedulers managed to work in a call two days before this magazine went to press.

Feeling your way through an interview with one of the world’s most powerful women is more art than science. Marriage seemed like the place to start, since Clinton had been caught off guard by a recent inquiry on the issue while visiting Australia. Her husband has said that he now supports full marriage equality: Many of his gay friends are in committed relationships, former president Bill Clinton said in 2009. As far as marriage goes, he said, he had just been “hung up about the word.”

Did she share his experience? I wondered. Was she at odds with President Barack Obama’s stated position in support of civil unions but against marriage equality?

But on the phone, Clinton is circumspect about her husband’s comments. “Well, I share his experience because we obviously share a lot of the same friends, but I have not changed my position,” she says without elaborating. The secretary wasn’t taking any political bait, nor was she going to tangle with anything that could figure negatively for her boss.

Clinton’s chief of staff and counselor, Cheryl Mills, had modeled the same on-message discipline when I sat down with her a few weeks earlier, avoiding any comparison between the secretary’s movement on LGBT issues and the president’s. Mills and Clinton have been friends for nearly 20 years, dating back to when Mills served as deputy White House counsel for President Clinton. She arrived on the national stage as part of a legal team defending the president during the 1999 impeachment trial. A quick Google search of Mills’s name turns up the crux of her argument, spoken on the Senate floor from the perspective of an African-American woman: “I’m not worried about civil rights, because this president’s record on civil rights, on women’s rights, on all of our rights, is unimpeachable.… I stand here before you today because President Bill Clinton believed I could stand here for him.”

Anyone who’s worked in a high-level government position knows the hours are grueling, the pay is paltry, and the demands are endless. But when Hillary Clinton asked her friend Mills to leave her position as a senior vice president at New York University, Mills acquiesced. Despite her intellectual heft and considerable accomplishments, Mills is surprisingly down-to-earth. When I first meet her in the maze of State Department hallways and address her by title, she is quick to say I should just call her “Cheryl.”

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