Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greet each other before a meeting in Kolkata, India, on May 7.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee greet each other before a meeting in Kolkata, India, on May 7. Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gets questioned about her political future wherever she goes. She says she plans to get off the "high-wire" of politics after she wraps up her tenure as secretary of state, but her trips sometimes feel like she's campaigning — for America's image and for her own legacy. NPR's Michele Kelemen has this behind-the-scenes reporter's notebook of Clinton's most recent swing through Asia.
Clinton certainly has stamina. She's traveled more than 770,000 miles, meeting leaders of dozens of countries. But she really comes to life in those events that rarely make news.
She visited young Indian women last weekend in Kolkata, victims of sex trafficking who use dance as therapy. Clinton told them she was entranced by their performance.
In a nearby room, an older village woman held up a painted scroll for Clinton. She told the story of how men come to villages in West Bengal and ask not for dowries but for girls.
Shannon Stapelton/Reuters /Landov
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was treated to a karate demonstration in Kolkata, India, during her Asia trip.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was treated to a karate demonstration in Kolkata, India, during her Asia trip. Shannon Stapelton/Reuters /Landov
Clinton signed autographs for one girl who showed off her karate moves, and encouraged another activist to hand out plastic green campaign bracelets that say "Cool men don't buy sex." The secretary checked up on the press corps later to make sure we were all still wearing them.
She often talks about programs to help women and girls around the world. However, what people most often ask about are her personal ambitions and whether or not she still wants to be America's first woman president.
At a lively talk show, Indian TV host Barkha Dutt kept showing pictures of Clinton — drinking a beer with U.S. diplomats in Cartagena and working on her Blackberry on a trip into Libya that went viral. Dutt at one point said Clinton now has a "bionic woman image."
"Why have you been saying no to 2016?" the host asked. "You're going to be that woman who's going to break the final glass ceiling."
"I'm very flattered, but I feel like it's time for me to kind of step off the high-wire," Clinton said. "I've been involved at the highest levels of American politics for 20 years now."
Clinton is at ease not just in those public forums, but also when she comes to the back of the plane to chat with reporters or sits down over drinks to talk off-record.
On this trip, she didn't do that until nearly a week in — after a tense period in Beijing. In China, she kept her distance from us, while her staff dealt with the drama over the Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng.
"Was it tough on you or is this — are these trips just routine for you at this point?" I asked her.
"Well, I have the most amazing, dedicated staff. I hope they're not listening because I don't want it to go to their heads, but they literally work around the clock," she said.
She said she will miss this kind of thing.
"I'm going to miss a lot of it because it's an incredible rush to represent the United States of America — walk down that stair from the plane, get into those meetings, do the hard negotiating that we have to do on a lot of important issues," she said. "It's been the most extraordinary experience and privilege that I could ever imagine. But ... it's, in my view, time to move on."
Before she does, though, she has more trips in the works.