Michelle Obama went to the State Department Thursday to honor 10 courageous women from around the world on International Women’s Day. But she lavished some of her most enthusiastic praise on the woman who almost denied her and her husband the White House: Hillary Clinton.
After saying and then repeating what an “outstanding” secretary of State Mrs. Clinton has been, and what an “inspiration” she has been “to women and girls around the world,” the first lady said, “She is a role model for me in so many ways. I don’t think she realizes how what she has done has made what I am doing partially possible.”
She then added that, “with all the respect and admiration that I can give her, I will be wherever she needs me to be, whenever she needs me to be there.”
Mrs. Obama’s words went well beyond comments she made at a similar International Women’s Day event last year, when she said Clinton had been a “heckuva” secretary of State.
Clinton had her own words of praise for Obama, saying she is "so grateful to both President and Mrs. Obama for all they have done” to make women’s empowerment a priority. Clinton went on to explain how she and the first lady have used their high offices to further a mutual cause. “What Michelle and I have tried to do in our own ways is to lift up the voices of others,” she said, “because we want a great crescendo of voices, an international chorus that says clearly and unequivocally that women and girls deserve the same rights and opportunities as their fathers and brothers and sons.”
The sisterly love fest couldn’t help but conjure up the less sunny climes and less effusively praiseworthy estimations that typified relations between the two women a few short years ago. At one “Women for Obama” campaign event in Chicago in 2007, Mrs. Obama had meowed, in a clear reference to Clinton, “If you can’t run your own house, you certainly can’t run the White House. Can’t do it.”
But Mrs. Obama’s enthusiasm Thursday for the job Clinton is doing for the country – and for husband’s presidency – was so extensive, and her praise so ebullient about the secretary’s work for women and girls around the world, that the past seemed deeply buried.
Indeed, Obama’s words carried such an undertone of commitment – “I will be where she needs me to be” – that it raised a question: Is Obama looking ahead to 2013 and encouraging Clinton to stay on in what she (the first lady) expects will be a second term?
Of course Obama didn’t make the six-block trip from the White House to the State Department just to sing Clinton’s praises. The real reason was to present this year’s International Women of Courage awards to 10 recipients from around the world who stand out for their “exceptional courage and leadership” on issues ranging from democratization and fighting corruption to community violence and gender equality.
“These women come from all different corners of the globe. They have taken very different journeys to this moment,” Obama said at the ceremony. “But they are all here today because somewhere along the line, they decided they could no longer accept the world as it is.”
This year’s awardees include the following women:
• Shad Begum, who founded a women’s NGO in Pakistan and then ran for local political office and won – and has persevered even though she has been kept out of men-only council chambers and denied a microphone.
• Jineth Bedoya Lima, a Colombian investigative reporter who was kidnapped and assaulted for doggedly uncovering an arms-smuggling ring, and who pursues her work despite death threats.
• Zin Mar Aung, a Burmese political activist who refused to give up her fight for freedom and rights for the Burmese people despite 11 years in prison.
• Samar Badawi, the first Saudi woman to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for the right to choose her own husband, and was imprisoned for it.
Since the State Department created the award in 2007, the secretary of State has honored 46 women from 34 countries.
At the ceremony, Obama made special note of this year’s awardee Pricilla de Oliveira Azevedo, one of just a few women in the Rio de Janeiro military police, and one who was kidnapped by a gang she was working to bring down.
Obama noted that Ms. Oliveira has risen in the ranks to where she now commands more than 100 male officers. “We love that,” the first lady said to applause and laughter.