As this is being written, the newspapers and airwaves are awash with speculation that President-elect Barack Obama may name Sen. Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state. As a political columnist, I am painfully aware of how dangerous it is to rule such a possibility out. So let me acknowledge the theoretical possibility -- and promptly add that I will be flabbergasted if he does any such thing.
Newly elected presidents often reward their former rivals with high posts in the incoming administration. Lincoln famously appointed William Seward, whom he had just bested in a hotly contested battle for the Republican nomination, as his secretary of state, and history is rich with other examples. After all, such appointments can go far toward healing intra-party wounds, and thereby strengthening the position of the incoming president.
But every case is different, and the designation of Clinton as Obama's secretary of state would involve some very different considerations indeed. In the first place, Clinton continues to be one of the most prominent and powerful politicians in the country, and is on everybody's short list (most definitely including her own) for the presidency in 2012 or 2016. Far from becoming a loyal soldier in Obama's ranks, ready to do his will even at the risk of her own popularity, she would be absolutely bound to view every action she took as his secretary of state in the light of her own perceived necessities as a future presidential candidate.
What's more, her own large group of political supporters and managers will remain in existence, ready and eager to promote her interests, even at the risk of damaging Obama's. The media would be awash with anonymous stories describing her differences with the president, and recounting her allegedly desperate efforts to prevent or rectify his "mistakes." Clinton herself would not be the source of these stories, and might even sincerely deplore them; but they would emerge from her huge coterie of supporters and be designed to make her look good -- certainly better than Obama.
Finally, the media themselves, always eager to fan a spark into a blaze, could be counted on to work diligently to enlarge any gaps that do develop between Obama and Clinton -- and there would be bound to be some. Leaving everything else aside, Clinton is no shrinking violet and couldn't blend quietly into the background as a member of the Obama Cabinet even if she wanted to.
Obama and his advisers know all this very well, and almost certainly are not going to let their brand-new administration assume the form, from Day One, of a knock-down, drag-out contest between their tiger and the Clintons.
I say "the Clintons," because we mustn't forget that Bill and Hillary constitute a tightly woven package. Moreover, Bill Clinton has by now had a good deal of experience in foreign affairs and is almost certainly better known and liked than Obama in capitals all over the globe. He might well know better, and in any case think he knows better, than Obama on almost any subject in the field of foreign affairs. And Hillary would be likely to agree.
So, to repeat, I don't think Obama is likely to stick his head into that particular noose.
There are plenty of attractive alternatives. Bill Richardson, the Spanish-speaking former governor of New Mexico, is one, and there are half a dozen others. If Obama is looking for a little bipartisan flavor, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., comes to mind.
But Hillary? No.