Looking through Abedin’s closet, you can see the progression from a young college graduate who wore Ann Taylor suits, thrilled to land a job as an intern in the White House, to, eleven years later, a Chanel-wearing, deeply confident 32-year-old woman.
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Hillary’s Secret Weapon; Huma Abedin oversees every minute of Senator Clinton’s day.
Byline: Rebecca Johnson
Note: While a link to the original article is usually customary, this article isn’t available on Vogue’s website.
It’s the morning after the second set of Democratic debates. Huma Abedin has had three hours of sleep and four cups of coffee, but her black Prada suit is wrinkle-free, her skin is flawless, and her long, luxurious hair is blow-dried into the kind of bouncy waves you see mostly in shampoo commercials. Her mind, however, is on her boss. As Hillary Clinton basks in the adoration of 500 of New York’s most powerful women, all of whom paid $250 a head for breakfast, Abedin watches proudly from the back of the room. “We’re on such a high from last night,” she says. “I was so nervous I got teary. It was like watching your kid go off to kindergarten, but I thought she did great.”
Today, however, is a new day with a new set of problems waiting to be solved. At the moment, it’s the generic ballroom in a Hilton hotel, which looks too much like, well, a generic ballroom in a Hilton hotel. Where are the Hillary banners? Or the floor with the campaign logo that looks so good in photographs? “It’s just,” Huma explains, clicking away on one of the two BlackBerrys that constitute her traveling office, “you want everything to be perfect.”
Actually, the banners could be anywhere. For the previous ten days, Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin, her traveling chief of staff, have been flying around the country nonstop. First Northern and Southern California, followed by Las Vegas, Iowa, then New Hampshire. Today in New York their itinerary is six pages long, with the day sliced into fifteen-minute increments. After the breakfast, there is a private meeting with a local New York politician, followed by a meeting with magazine editors, a photo shoot, an interview, then back to D.C. and yet another debate with rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards. It’s a schedule no ordinary person could maintain. But, then, Hillary Clinton is no ordinary person. Neither is Huma.
“Both Hillary and Huma are extraordinary people who are also workaholics,” says Oscar de la Renta, who has often hosted the two at his house in the Dominican Republic. “The E-mailing! It never stops. I tell Hillary, ‘Just because you are working in the sun, that doesn’t make it a vacation.’ They are lucky to have found each other.”
“I don’t think you could say they are like mother and daughter. It’s more like an older sister-younger sister relationship, but it’s definitely familial,” according to a longtime Hillary friend, actress Mary Steenburgen.
“I’m not sure Hillary could walk out the door without Huma,” says Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald. “She’s a little like Radar on M*A*S*H. If the air-conditioning is too cold, Huma is there with the shawl. She’s always thinking three steps ahead of Hillary.”
Abedin is remarkably cheerful about holding shawls-”There’s no detail too small for me,” she says-but there’s a lot more to her job than that. “Huma does make the trains run on time,” says Bob Barnett, the Clintons’ longtime personal lawyer, “and she does it well, which is important when you are as in demand as the senator is. But she also has an incredible ability to remember people and get things done. I’m always looking to her for her judgment and encyclopedic knowledge of what’s been said, where, and by whom.”
Among all of Abedin’s qualities, however, the most important may be the most ineffable-she says “no” better than anyone. “A lot of people who are in jobs with major public figures tend to get sour and exclusive over time,” says Barnett. “Huma is the opposite. She is always inclusive. She makes people feel good even when she’s saying no.” And there’s a lot of no when your boss is one of the most famous women on the planet, running for president.
“Campaigns are unwieldy, hard-to-control things. Decisions have to be made on the fly; you need somebody you can trust at that moment,” explains Mike Feldman, a Huma friend and former traveling chief of staff for Al Gore during his presidential campaign. “The senator and Huma have a unique relationship. Watch them together, and there’s this nonverbal communication between them. Sometimes it’s as little as a glance, but the senator knows she can hand off a head of state, a senator, or an important donor to Huma and that the conversation is going to end well.”
I once saw a movie that spoofed beauty pageants by having a contestant pack a suitcase as her talent. Watching Abedin fill her suitcase for that ten-day trip, I realized the movie had it wrong. Packing is a talent, one Abedin has clearly mastered. (Note to self-folding jacket on the horizontal makes much more sense.) “I’ve learned over the years how to do it; I don’t even bother with what doesn’t work anymore,” she explains as we sit in the bedroom of her Washington, D.C., apartment, a sleek, loftlike space with a view of the Capitol in the background, a bright-green bedspread on the bed, and a bookcase filled mostly with political books, including a prized edition of Bill Clinton’s My Life translated into Arabic. Each outfit-a black-and-white checked suit, a white silk shirt, the black Prada suit-is mentally slated for a destination. “It’s the only way to do it,” she insists. Watching her pack also answers a mystery: Those bouncy waves of great-looking hair? Be prepared to carry around a professional hair dryer that weighs at least five pounds.
Looking through Abedin’s closet, you can see the progression from a young college graduate who wore Ann Taylor suits, thrilled to land a job as an intern in the White House, to, eleven years later, a Chanel-wearing, deeply confident 32-year-old woman whose BlackBerry contains some of the most famous names in America-she lets me look only if I agree not to say who. (I do manage to learn she has been close with actor John Cusack and Lance Armstrong.)
Truthfully, she was a little disappointed when she was assigned to the First Lady’s office in 1996 instead of the press office, as she had requested. And not just because she comes from a family of Independents and Republicans. Didn’t her new employers know about the plan she’d hatched at fifteen to become the next Christiane Amanpour? No matter. Once she actually met Hillary Clinton-on the infamous intern line, in Arkansas, after President Clinton’s reelection-she was hooked. Then, as now, Abedin believed there was something irresistible about Hillary’s presence. “I’ve seen it again and again,” she says. “Once people see her and meet her, they change their minds.”
You can see why the First Lady wanted Abedin. Fluent in Arabic and a practicing Muslim born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a Pakistani mother and an Indian father, Abedin moved with her family to Saudi Arabia when she was two years old. There, her father, an Islamic scholar, founded an institute devoted to fostering religious understanding between the East and West. Her mother, a sociology professor, helped create one of the first private women’s colleges in the country. “I grew up in a very traditional family,” she says, “but there was never anything I didn’t think I could do.”
Fashion is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of traditional Muslim values, but Abedin knows the truth is more complicated. “I remember going with my parents to weddings where the women would arrive covered in black veils, but underneath they’d be wearing the most exquisite brightly colored Dolce & Gabbana suits. They were like peacocks showing off their tails.” The women in Abedin’s family (she has two sisters and a brother) would order knockoffs based on the clothes found in the pages of Vogue. To this day, she keeps those back issues under her bed in her Washington apartment.
Among Clinton’s inner circle, Abedin has been referred to as “Hillary’s secret weapon,” but last March the New York Observer profiled her (without her cooperation) in an article titled “Hillary’s Mystery Woman: Who Is Huma?” The takeaway message was that Huma is preternaturally calm under pressure and one fine hottie. “Hoh, my God,” James Carville panted to the reporter, “have you seen Huma? She takes your breath away.” Huma was taken aback. “I like to be well put together,” she says, “but I was really, really surprised by the perception in the article. I don’t think of myself that way at all.”
“I don’t know,” Philippe Reines, Senator Clinton’s spokesperson, pipes up from the backseat of the Jeep Cherokee Huma has borrowed to get around D.C. for the day. “I would say the women in our office definitely watch what Huma wears.” And sometimes the men, as well.
“Remember that day you wore a belt around your shirt without loops?” Reines asks.
“No,” Abedin answers.
“Oh, yeah. That day all the men took their belts off and wore them around their shirts, just to show how stupid it is to wear belts without loops.”
Just to show that she has a sense of humor, Abedin laughs.
Abedin claims to love politics, but after talking to her for a while, you begin to suspect otherwise. It’s not the horse race or the ins and outs of policy that get her animated. What she really seems to like is the way that politicians are uniquely invested with the power to help individuals-as with, say, the woman whose legs were badly broken by a piece of plane fuselage on September 11. After reading about Deborah Mardenfeld’s plight, Clinton and Abedin went to visit her several times in the hospital. The first time, Mardenfeld wasn’t even conscious. The next time, she was awake and told her visitors that she was a big Meryl Streep fan. Clinton had a set of DVDs starring Streep sent to the hospital. Over the next few years, Huma kept in touch with Mardenfeld, helping her cut through red tape to get the right doctors and treatment. Two years ago, Mardenfeld was able to dance at her own wedding reception. Both Hillary and Huma attended. “To me, that’s one of the blessings of this job,” Huma said. “In some tiny, tiny way I am part of history, but I am also able to help people.”
“What Hillary and Huma share,” says Steenburgen, “is an absolute lack of jadedness. In that job, it’s easy to become numb because so much of what you hear is a complaint. But they have both managed to maintain a sense of outrage and sorrow. If anything, I think Hillary is feeling things more intensely than when she was younger. I don’t know if it’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing-Hillary affecting Huma or the other way around-but together they work.”
After hearing from so many people that Huma Abedin is the master of the velvet no, I finally got to experience it firsthand. Following Hillary’s breakfast in the Hilton ballroom, her traveling press person introduced me to the senator so I could get a quote about her employee. Just as I was about to ask, Abedin swooped in. “No, no, no,” she said, waving her hands. “She has to go.”
Clinton smiled and shrugged. “I go where I’m told,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Huma later apologized. “She’s just so busy today. I don’t want to bother her with my stuff.”
No matter. That evening, I received an E-mail from the senator herself. “Huma Abedin has the energy of a woman in her 20s, the confidence of a woman in her 30s, the experience of a woman in her 40s, and the grace of a woman in her 50s. She is timeless, her combination of poise, kindness, and intelligence are matchless, and I am lucky to have had her on my team for a decade now.”
She also appeared again in Vogue in September 2010 dishing on her fabolous wedding gown and wedding to Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY).