Law and Public Service: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Conversation with her Chief of Staff Cheryl D. Mills, JD ’90

Intro bios followed by Q&A:

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State of the United States

Images shape popular perception of our leaders and stay with us long after the speeches have faded. The now iconic photograph of President Obama and members of the Cabinet in the Situation Room on May 1, 2011, watching from afar as the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan unfolded is likely already in the history books. Seated at the table with the president is Secretary of State 
Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the heart of American decision making, she is the president’s trusted foreign policy advisor, at the helm of a 68,000-plus-person institution that includes some 274 missions near and far. Secretary Clinton took office at a tumultuous time, when the world economy was on the brink of collapse and public opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was growing. Today she manages the foreign policy of the United States and U.S. diplomatic efforts in an era when the world’s nations are more connected to each other, with communication—and popular uprisings—a mere “tweet” away.

Born into a middle-class family in the middle of the country in the middle of the last century, Secretary Clinton is a baby boomer who came of age in the tumult of the 1960s. She was a student leader at Wellesley College during the escalation of the Vietnam War and was chosen by her classmates in 1969 to deliver a graduation speech that became a rallying cry for 
activism. Clinton earned her JD from Yale Law School in 1973. After stints with the Children’s Defense Fund in Cambridge and the impeachment staff of the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, she moved to Arkansas, where she married Yale Law classmate Bill Clinton and worked as an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville and an attorney with the venerated Rose Law Firm in Little Rock.


While Bill Clinton served as attorney general and later governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton continued her legal career and gave birth to their daughter, Chelsea. After working to strengthen the local Legal Aid office, she was appointed by President Carter in 1977 to serve on, and later chair, the board of the Legal Services Corporation. As first lady of Arkansas, she served as chair of the Arkansas Educational Standards Committee, co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, and served on the boards of the Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Defense Fund.

After her husband’s election as president in 1992, she revitalized the role of first lady, becoming an advocate for health care reform and leading successful bipartisan efforts to improve the adoption and foster care systems, reduce teen pregnancy, and provide health care to millions of children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. She traveled to more than 80 countries, representing the United States and winning respect as a champion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. Her declaration at the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights” inspired women worldwide and helped galvanize a global movement for women’s rights. She later wrote in her memoir, Living History, “I always knew that America matters to the rest of the world; my travels taught me how the rest of the world matters to America.”

In 2000, she made history when she became the “first” first lady elected to the United States Senate and the first woman elected statewide in New York. In the Senate, she worked across party lines to build support for causes important to her constituents and the country, including the expansion of economic opportunity and access to quality, affordable health care. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she was a strong advocate for funding the rebuilding of New York and the health concerns of the first responders who risked their lives working at Ground Zero. She also championed the cause of our nation’s military and fought for better health care and benefits for wounded service members, veterans, and members of the National Guard and Reserves. She won reelection to the Senate in 2006 and launched her historic campaign for the presidential nomination in 2007. After the November 2008 election, she accepted President-elect Barack Obama’s appointment to become the 67th U.S. secretary of state. She began her tenure January 21, 2009.
There is another image of Secretary Clinton that may not make it into the history books but that sheds light on her place in history nonetheless. In August this year, she was on official business in East Timor while Democrats gathered in North Carolina for the party’s convention. A news photo shows a smiling Secretary Clinton watching her husband on a computer screen as he delivered a rousing speech to the assembled delegates.

Toward the end of the Clinton presidency, it might have been hard to imagine such a scene—today, it’s hard to imagine any other. Through the highs and lows of more than 30 years in public life, Secretary Clinton has emerged as a role model for men and women in public service—and one of the most admired. She has topped many of the media’s “best” lists and has been honored with a place on the Gallup Poll’s “Most Admired Women in the World” list a record 16 times.

It’s easy to see why.

As secretary of state she has been a tenacious defender of human rights—all human rights—advocating for the establishment of an ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and
 for a U.S. presence on the United Nations Human Rights Council. She has been credited with opening diplomatic dialogue in Asia, including Burma, while at the same time navigating the U.S. response to upheaval in the Arab world. And in December, she delivered a historic speech to the U.N.’s human rights group in Geneva, declaring that it is a “violation of human rights” to commit violence or discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation and calling on other nations to eliminate laws that discriminate against the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) community.

When Secretary Clinton announced her intention to step down from her position in January 2013, she said, “After 20 years, and it will be 20 years, of being on the high wire of American politics and all of the challenges that come with that, it would probably be a good idea to just find out how tired I am.” But with all eyes on her as a possible candidate for the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket, she’s unlikely to get too much rest.

Cheryl D. Mills, JD ’90, Counselor and Chief of Staff
to Secretary of State Clinton


Every now and then we are offered a chance to play a role in history—perhaps even to influence how it’s written. For Cheryl Mills, JD ’90, that chance came in January 1999, when as deputy counsel to President Bill Clinton she stood before the U.S. Senate, leaders from the House of Representatives, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, LLB ’52 (BA/MA ’48), to deliver a key part of the president’s defense in the historic impeachment trial.

If you love the rule of law, you must love it in all of its applications. You cannot only love it when it provides the verdict you seek; you must love it when the verdict goes against you as well. We cannot uphold the rule of law only when it is consistent with our beliefs; we must uphold it even when it protects behavior that we don’t like or is unattractive or is not admirable or that might even be hurtful.

And we cannot say we love the rule of law but dismiss arguments that appeal to the rule of law as legalisms or legal hairsplitting.

It was an impassioned yet forceful argument to American lawmakers to look beyond partisan politics—to the law.

Mills was suddenly a legal celebrity, her defense of the president a topic of media reports and Sunday talk shows. The administration’s team won its case, and President Clinton was and continues to be highly regarded and loved by the American public. But during this time, Mills also connected with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And the friendship they forged under the strains of multiple legal battles during their time in the White House has endured.

Today, Mills is Secretary of State Clinton’s trusted counselor and chief of staff, a part of what the media have dubbed “Hillaryland.” She balances a hectic work schedule and family life with her partner, David Domenici, JD ’92, and their young twins.

On that winter day in 1999 when she stood alone before the nation’s leaders to defend the president, she lived up to 
America’s collective notion of what good lawyers should be—Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mr. Smith who goes to Washington in the Frank Capra film. “A 33-year-old black woman went to the belly of one of the whitest beasts of the nation—the U.S. Congress—and got the better of him” was how Joan Walsh of Salon 
described her. And the world took notice.

In the fifth grade, Mills set her sights on becoming a lawyer because she believed that lawyers made the world fair. She grew up as what she calls an “Army brat,” the daughter of a military intelligence officer who escaped prejudice and poverty through the racially diverse world of the U.S. Army. Mills spent most of her formative years living on American bases in Germany and Belgium, exposed to cultures most American kids never get to know. She was gregarious and did well in school and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Virginia in 1987—where she was the first black woman to win the school’s prestigious Arthur “Pete” Gray Award. After graduating from Stanford Law School in 1990 and spending two years with Washington, D.C., firm Hogan and Hartson (now Hogan Lovells), her career took off. She joined the Clinton/Gore campaign and later the transition team as deputy general counsel. She was then appointed associate counsel and then deputy counsel to the president.

After the 1999 impeachment trial, and Ken Starr’s Whitewater probe that preceded it, Mills was offered the White House counsel position, but declined it. Instead, she chose to leave law and politics for a new opportunity as senior vice president for corporate policy and public programming at Oxygen Media. “As a general matter, being White House counsel is no walk in the park,” Mills said in a 1999 Stanford Lawyer interview . “But that time was particularly intense. It was all-consuming.”

In 2002, it looked as though Mills was on a new career path in the more “relaxed” world of academia, with her appointment as senior vice president at New York University. But in 2008, Mills took leave from NYU to serve as counselor and senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during her historic run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In January 2009, Mills 
assumed the position she holds today, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary Clinton. Along with managing the department’s staff and serving as special advisor to Secretary Clinton on major policy challenges, Mills also leads the department’s efforts on several policy priorities. One at the start of her appoint
ment looked at agriculture and food security efforts; it became Feed the Future, an interagency global hunger and food security initiative, which Mills oversees. The Obama administration pledged $3.5 billion over three years to the effort to boost agricultural productivity. Describing the importance of food security globally, Mills said in a recent NPR interview, “We are always worried whenever people can’t feed themselves. And particularly worried when that actually might translate to destabilization of a country. It is one of the reasons this program is such an important one.”

Since 2009, Mills has led the department’s diplomacy and development efforts in Haiti, including in the days after the tragic 2010 earthquake. Working with the government of Haiti, the international community, and the private sector, Mills has made sustainable economic development and job creation in Haiti a top priority. She recently joined Haiti President Martelly and Secretary Clinton in the opening of the Caracol Industrial Park in Northern Haiti.

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Mills: Can you talk about the U.S. and its place in the world at this point in history?

Clinton: When I became secretary of state in early 2009, there were questions about the future of America’s global leadership. We faced two long and expensive wars, an economy in free fall, fraying alliances, and an international system that seemed to be buckling under the weight of new threats.

Under President Obama’s leadership, the U.S. has ended the war in Iraq and begun a transition in Afghanistan; we have revitalized American diplomacy, strengthened our alliances, and reengaged with multilateral institutions.

From my point of view as secretary of state, American leadership isn’t on the wane at all. On the contrary, it’s fervently desired. Every hour, requests for our leadership pour in from all corners of the world. Countries ask us to mediate disputes. NGOs ask us to protect human rights. Companies ask us to create the conditions for open commerce. Scientists ask us to support innovation. Universities ask us to expand access to education; hospitals, to improve health; churches, to defend religious freedom.

Other countries see our strength, the stability we offer, the conditions for growth we help set and defend, the breadth and depth of our diplomatic relationships, and the space we provide for other countries to succeed, and they look to us to lead.

Mills: You’ve been credited with opening up diplomatic dialogue in Asia, including with Burma. 
What are your biggest concerns when looking to Asia?

Clinton: Today, the web of connections linking the United States to Asia is vast and complex and reaches into just about every aspect of our societies. Our economies are tightly entwined. And so is our security. We face shared threats like nuclear proliferation, piracy, and climate change, and we need each other to solve these problems. The opportunities before us are also shared, and they define our relationship much more than the threats. We have the chance, if we seize it, to work together to advance prosperity, pursue innovation, and improve the lives of our people and others worldwide.

China has become the second largest economy in the world. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty and have joined the global economy. All of this effort has taken place within a larger regional push to strengthen our ties throughout the Asia Pacific. We’ve enhanced our relationships with our treaty allies Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines. We’ve broadened our relationships with other emerging powers, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore. We’ve strengthened our unofficial relationship with Taiwan.

We’ve reengaged with Burma. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, someone who has represented the struggle for freedom and democracy, for human rights and opportunity, not only in her own country but seen as such around the world, visited the U.S. this September for the first time in 40 years. She came as a symbol of the flickers of progress President Obama spoke of last year, a free and forceful leader of a country opening up to the world in ways that would have been difficult to imagine even recently. Even since my last visit to Burma those flickers of progress have been growing and strengthening. The United States is committed to standing with the government and the people of Burma to support this progress that has begun but is still a work in progress.

We’ve also invested in regional multilateral institutions, including the East Asia Summit and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. We’ve increased our economic engagement, updated our regional military posture, and amplified our advocacy for the rule of law and universal human rights. In short, we are working around the clock to do everything we can to defend and advance security and prosperity throughout Asia Pacific.

Mills: You lobbied for the creation of a new diplomatic position, an ambassador-at-large for global women’s 
issues. Can you tell us why that position is important and how it has made a positive impact?

Photo of Cheryl Mills delivering remarks. USAID Administrator Raj Shah and U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander General Douglas Fraser stand behind her.
Cheryl Mills, JD ’90, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, at a State Department briefing

Clinton: Melanne Verveer is our country’s first ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues and she has traveled around the world promoting the political, economic, and social empowerment of women. As Melanne often reminds us, the world is full of remarkable women whose work goes unnoticed or undervalued. I’m grateful that this administration and this country have elevated the roles and rights of women around the world in our foreign policy. For me, Melanne has been not only a colleague and a friend—but an inspiration. And together, we are working to translate our hopes and dreams into action. We have launched initiatives to combat gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sexual violence against girls and women worldwide. We’ve worked to improve maternal health and women’s rights in Afghanistan and to focus on integrating women into every aspect of American foreign policy. We’ve launched the “mWomen Program” to close the gender gap in mobile technology and done what we could to support women’s economic opportunities.

At the United Nations we’ve helped to create a new mechanism to fight discrimination in the U.N. Human Rights Council. We thought it a little odd that discrimination against women had never been a focus of the Human Rights Council, so we decided that it should be. We’ve worked to lead the Security Council in passing unanimously a resolution establishing a special representative to the secretary-general to lead and coordinate our efforts to end conflict-related sexual violence, and we’ve strongly supported the creation of U.N. Women, a new agency headed by the former president of Chile, a friend to many of us, Michelle Bachelet, to mainstream gender issues throughout the U.N. system.

I think I can speak for Ambassador Verveer when I say, as much as we’ve been doing and trying to do, we know there is so much more that has to be done. We will keep working together to support women and girls. And we will do it because it’s not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. As I constantly remind my colleagues, not only in other governments but in our own, supporting women and girls worldwide is in the national security interest of the United States and we have to remember that.

So what we hope is to institutionalize this work, to make it clear that it doesn’t depend upon who the secretary of state is or even who the president is, but the United States of America stands for women’s rights and we know that that is unfinished business.

Mills: What inspired you to make the LGBT/gay rights speech in Geneva last December and what has the 
feedback been from your colleagues across the globe, 
as well as back home?

Clinton: I gave that speech because I wanted to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens, while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse. They are denied opportunities to work and learn, driven from their homes and countries, and forced to suppress or deny who they are to protect themselves from harm.

I spoke about this subject knowing that my own country’s record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, being gay was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home.

Photo of Hillary Clinton watching Bill Clinton on TV
Secretary Clinton on official business in East Timor watching her 
husband, former president Bill Clinton, addressing delegates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention (Photo: Nicholas Merrill)

Mills: How have you managed to “have it all”—balancing a law career, family, marriage, and then government 
service? And how can more women be encouraged to 
follow in your footsteps and run for public office?

Clinton: When I was much younger, I really had no idea what I would be doing at this age. I always felt an obligation to study hard and to work hard and to do the best I could in anything I was doing, but I certainly never thought I would be secretary of state or a senator from New York or married to a president. I’ve been a very fortunate person to be able to do so many interesting jobs and to make a contribution to my country and to the many concerns that I have about women and girls and human rights and peace and security. So it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience. But it is something that is hard to map out, because you have to be prepared to take what opportunities come your way, but you may not always know what those will be.

When it comes to preparing women to run for public office, I believe so strongly that all women need to lay a strong foundation by getting a good education and being prepared for whatever opportunities life might present. In spite of the challenges, there are many benefits of bringing more women into government service, whether they are elected or appointed, whether they work in the public eye or more quietly for the public good.

But public service is not only about running for elected office. We need women at all levels of government from executive mansions and foreign ministries to municipal halls and planning commissions, from negotiating international disarmament treaties to debating town ordinances.

In December 2011 the Department of State launched “The Women in Public Service Project,” an innovative initiative that pairs the power of public service with leading women’s colleges Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke 
College, Smith College, and Wellesley College to engage and 
inspire future generations of women leaders in the United States and around the world. The project will identify and educate a new generation of women committed to public service, create an infrastructure of support and mentoring, and help enable more women to enter public service and political leadership.

Mills: Can you speak to the role of lawyers in 
international diplomacy?

Clinton: An example is work by students at Stanford Law. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs recently announced a five-year, $7.2 million grant to Stanford Law School to expand its innovative legal education program in Afghanistan, the Afghanistan Legal Education Project (ALEP). The grant will build on ALEP’s existing partnership with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) to develop a full, five-year integrated Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degree program at AUAF’s campus in Kabul. This new degree program trains Afghan students to become professional lawyers who can provide much-needed legal representation services, help enforce Afghanistan’s constitution, help stabilize the country through rule of law, and become legal educators to teach Afghanistan’s next generation of lawyers. (see “In Brief”

Mills: What are your plans for the post-secretary 
of state years? Would you consider teaching, perhaps at Stanford Law School?

Clinton: I don’t want to think about what might come next, because I don’t want any of us to divert our attention. I think the best case we can make is to do the work we’re doing every day at the highest possible standards and try to achieve the best outcomes for our country. SL