It’s a quiet Sunday morning and I’m playing with my baby when the phone rings. My producer, Justin Stevens, has a jaw-dropping offer: the US State Department wants to know if I can go to Washington, D.C. to host Hillary Clinton’s final ‘Town Hall’ interview as Secretary of State. I had hosted a similar event in Australia in late 2010 and apparently the Secretary had warmed to me. I ask Justin when. Tuesday morning, he replies. ‘Tuesday morning? It’s Sunday morning now!’ I shout. Have they forgotten that Australia is a 24-hour flight away? Maybe they think they’re inviting an Austrian TV anchor. My generous husband takes over full-time baby-wrangling and off I go.
On the Qantas flight over, I watch three episodes of The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin’s latest offering. I’ve been resisting because I suspect it’s going to be preachy. As anticipated, it’s dripping in moral smugness, but it’s entertaining enough. And a bit thought-provoking too. The executive producer constantly barks questions and patronising commentary into the earpiece of the anchor. If anybody did that to me, I would march out of the studio into the control room and deck them.
I land in D.C. on Monday night, 14 hours before the event starts. I go straight to the venue: the Newseum, an institution charting the history of the news media. A very competent American TV crew gives me a rough walk-through of what will happen. The hour-long broadcast will involve a studio audience, questions from Twitter and six live satellites around the world, including to Bogota and Lagos, which sends me to water because I’m convinced they’ll be technically fraught. I know nothing about Colombia or Nigeria so I head back to the hotel and study most of the night, certain I’ll have to ‘vamp’ while the director scrambles to establish connections, there and elsewhere.
A few hours later, a make-up artist earns her fee making me look half-alive. Hillary Clinton’s advisors are full of flattery, no doubt trying to put me at ease. The Secretary herself sweeps out of the lift about 15 minutes before airtime, trailed by the usual bustling entourage. She greets me warmly, thanking me profusely for making the trip in such a rush. I go to complain about the jetlag and then remember to whom I’m speaking. Despite her recent health troubles — a fall and a resultant blood clot — she looks robust and energetic. Like somebody who might have another Presidential campaign in them.
The questions from around the world are what you would expect: China’s rise, Iran’s nuclear threat, Islamic extremism. But the only question she’s asked multiple times is if she’s going to run for President in 2016. She swats it away each time, saying she’s just not thinking about it at the moment. Does anyone believe her? The only thing she reveals is that she intends to write a memoir about her four years as Secretary of State. After the event, Hillary Clinton suggests I join her in the control room to thank the crew. She generously poses for photos with anyone who asks for one. I don’t think most people are political; I just think they like to get pictures with celebrities.
America 2013 is a different America to the one I knew as a Washington correspondent from 2001 to 2006. Then it was all about terrorism. Now it’s all about the economy. The night of the Clinton event, I have dinner with a friend who has been the national security correspondent for a major US media organisation for the best part of a decade. She’s about to transform into the global economics correspondent. ‘Terrorism ain’t what it used to be,’ she blackly jokes.
While in Washington, I also sit down for an interview with the former US Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. His military career ended in 2010 after a Rolling Stone reporter trailed McChrystal and his team for a few weeks and wrote a rollicking account, reporting their contempt for the civilian leadership in Washington, especially Vice President Joe ‘Bite Me’ Biden. McChrystal is now teaching leadership at Yale University and running a consultancy. He is strikingly charismatic. It’s easy to understand why his commander at West Point took him aside more than 40 years ago and told him he would one day be a great leader. McChrystal’s less than dignified exit from the military was followed by the even more awkward departure of General David Petraeus from the CIA. It seems a shame that two distinguished careers of service and sacrifice ended with humiliating lapses of discipline.
Like everybody in Washington, McChrystal is thinking about gun control. He has been around military-style weapons for his whole life and his view is that there’s no place for those types of guns in the hands of civilians. On the day of the McChrystal interview, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband testify before a Senate committee considering gun law reform. A would-be assassin shot Giffords in the head in Arizona in 2011. Her laboured speech, frozen face and shaky, assisted walk are chilling and she is obviously lucky to be alive. But her appearance will not sway the powerful pro-gun lobby.
I’m only in Washington for three full days. On my final morning, I’m walking through Foggy Bottom. A stranger comes up to me and says: ‘Great job with Hillary Clinton.’ After the exhausting scramble to get here, I’m relieved to know that somebody watched. Even if, given the neighbourhood, she’s probably a State Department employee.
Leigh Sales is presenter of ABC1’s 7.30.