Hillary Clinton enters the reception area outside her office in Washington where my photographer and I are waiting, suddenly rather nervous. dressed in her trademark dark suit she is expressionless, but there is an air of supreme confidence and importance about her.I instantly get the feeling that she isn’t the kind of person given to taking bullshit from people, particularly not from 19 year old student reporters. Surrounded by a small crowd of advisors, press secretaries, assistants and other associated handlers, she issues a few whispered instructions plainly relating to significant matters of national security, but then calmly brushes them aside while she sizes us both up.For one or two seconds she stares at us with her huge and rather unnerving eyes. I start to stammer something vaguely along the lines of “Good Afternoon” when suddenly her face breaks into a smile. Relieved to see that she appears to be less intimidating than she is sometimes portrayed in the American press, I stand up and shake her hand.She welcomes us and leads us from the reception area into her office, showering us with cordiality and superficial compliments: “Thank you so much for coming down to see us”, “All the Clintons, Bill, Chelsea and myself, just love Oxford, you know.” Still nervous, I sit down opposite Clinton and we begin to talk about politics.Her experience in the field is broad to say the least. While doing some research I was interested to discover that during her campaign for the Senate she had voiced strong support for the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that not one single Senator voted for when it was presented to Congress.So I decide to start by asking her about Kyoto and the general American attitude to climate change. “Well,” she answers, “although the Kyoto Treaty is still a moot point for us, ie. in the Senate, because President Bush won’t present it for ratification, I am deeply concerned by the effects of climate change. Still, since I don’t like wasting my time on futile efforts, I don’t see any point in talking about Kyoto from an American perspective so long as there is a Republican majority in Congress and a Republican in the White House.She continues, What I wish the President had done, if he was not going to support Kyoto, was to create another process. The Senators’ claim as to why they wouldn’t support Kyoto was that it left China, India and other developing countries out. Well, fine! Let’s have a different process, then. The irony today is that China and India are moving ahead to deal with the impact of their contributions to greenhouse gases more vigorously than the United States.”She does drop in a hint of optimism though: “At the time the vote was held, the energy industry in America had a tremendous hold over the political leadership and they didn’t want the treaty ratified. They had enough control and influence to be able to sway a lot of votes.However, that is beginning to change. Some of the more enlightened gas and oil companies are calling for conservation measures and other kinds of action to deal with the long term impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”Pausing for a moment, I glance around the room. The Senator’s office looks like a photograph from an interior-design magazine. It’s amazingly well-lit and immaculately neat. Everything seems to be very carefully placed, making it a bit difficult for me to imagine someone drawing up complex pieces of legislation here.Looking over at the corner to my right, I find Clinton’s press secretary sitting quietly at a small table, listening intently to my questions. He seems to be ready to jump in and tell me off if I ask anything unsuitable.Vaulting around the room like a grasshopper is my photographer who is determined to take a number of brilliant pictures of Clinton from various angles during our 20-minute interview, even if that means standing on top of an armchair to take a shot. I decide to move on, and ask her about England and America. “You know,” she says, “the Blair government is doing some things that I wish America would follow in. I think it’s very important for Britain to have an agenda that is an example for the United States because we have such a close relationship. There is such a sense of comradeship between our two countries that it is very helpful for someone like me in the Senate to be able to say, ‘Well look at what Tony Blair is trying to do about energy’. Look at what he’s doing about Kyoto. Look at what he wants to do with debt relief. Look at what he’s willing to do about contributions to alleviate poverty. Still, it’s difficult because this administration is not very willing to give much back to anyone, including our close allies. It’s their way or no way. They don’t want to be inconvenienced by discussions of climate change or development aid, which are not part of their ideological framework. They are more than willing to accept Britain’s help, to use Tony Blair as a spokesman, a more articulate defender of their policies in Iraq than their own President can be. But they’re not going to go the extra step and actually form a partnership on some of these other very important international issues.”Her mention of the difference in the oratorical skills possessed by Bush and the Prime Minister makes me wonder why Blair had so much more difficulty making the case for the war. Her reply is fairly blunt: “You weren’t attacked. We were, and that changes everything. It’s similar to World War II: Churchill didn’t have any trouble convincing the British to fight, but Franklin Roosevelt did; again, until we were attacked. That is the difference in the perspectives of the two countries.” Obviously and understandably, the experience of September 11 changed the way Americans think about the world, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something more to it than this. I ask whether she thinks that America is perhaps an inherently more right-wing state than the rest of the world. “I think there is an element of that,” she replies. “Our politics grow out of different traditions. We had a frontiermentality which put a premium on rugged individualism to settle the west and that’s remained part of our culture. We’re a much younger country, we haven’t been around as long as European countries and we haven’t had the intense pressures that Europe has faced for centuries. There’s a feeling of invulnerability on the part of many Americans. It’s based on experience. But at the moment we’re fighting over what the proper role of government should be in today’s world, and there’s a big philosophical divide over this issue.”That there is “a big philosophical divide” in American politics is hardly breaking news, but Clinton’s assessment of it does appear rather unique. While most politicians and pundits seem to blame the strength of an opposing ideology (from evangelical Christianity to neoconservatism and multiculturalism to secularism, depending on who you ask) for the political wars in the States, Clinton looks at the problem from a historical perspective. Unlike many other left-wing leaders and writers in America and around the world who, rather condescendingly, classify the 62 million people who voted for George W Bush as religious fanatics, ignorant rednecks or jingoistic warhawks, she seems willing to believe that there is a rational reason why many Americans are so conservative compared to the rest of the world.If she does, as current speculation has it, run for President in 2008, this kind of approach to the voters in ‘red states’ will be vital. A column in July’s American political magazine, Washington Monthly, cautioned that Clinton was unelectable because too many Americans have already decided they don’t like her. She’s allegedly seen as being out of touch, pushy and self-righteous. That said, if she is willing to try and understand why people have that impression, there’s no reason why she can’t change their opinions.ARCHIVE: 3rd week MT 2005