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Hillary Clinton’s Ego Trips

By Michael Kinsley
January 08, 2013 10:29 AM EST

The world is a better place because of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. That’s not the question. The question is whether it is a better place because of those last 20 hours of her 80-hour work week. Or because of the extra miles she flew to distant capitals?

On one trip in 2009, according to the New York Times, “she traveled from talks with Palestinian leaders in Abu Dhabi to a midnight meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, then boarded a plane for Morocco, staying up all night to work on other issues, before going straight to a meeting of Arab leaders the next morning.”

Very impressive, but did it bring us any closer to peace in the Middle East? That may be a lot to ask. Still, as they say, if you can’t measure output, measure input. Every secretary of state since 1947 has taken a crack at solving the puzzle of the Israeli-Arab dispute. None has succeeded, but they’ve all run up impressive mileage trying.

Clinton often flew overnight and, the Times says, “after landing, went straight into a 12- or 16-hour day.” She once “spent three consecutive nights on her plane.” She has visited 112 countries as secretary of state, which is the record, but in terms of air miles (956,733) she trails her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice (1.06 million). (Rice, the Times notes meanly, is seven years younger and “an exercise enthusiast.”)

Clinton looks awful and has looked worse and worse for years, since long before her recent hospitalization for a blood clot resulting from a fall. I don’t mean to be ungallant. It’s just that she clearly has been working herself to death in her current job as well as in her past two, as senator and first lady.

And what for? Despite all the admiration she deserves for her dedication and long hours, there is also a vanity of long hours and (in her current job) long miles of travel. You must be very, very important if your work requires you to be constantly flying through time zones to midnight meetings that last for hours. Of course our secretary of state is very important -- so why does she have to prove it?

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen wrote a book, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” which asserted that you prove your status or rank in society by displaying “conspicuous leisure” -- that is, how little you appear to work. That may have been true in Veblen’s day, but it surely is not true of the generation of which Mrs. Clinton and her husband are by now the undisputed leaders. (Who else? Nobody is nominating George W. Bush.) For us, the highest form of ritual obeisance is to tell someone, “You must be very busy.”

Travel is an especially good way to stay -- and appear -- busy. Otherwise, you are at risk of actually being at your desk when someone calls. What could be more embarrassing? I don’t mean to suggest that all or even most business travel, let alone diplomatic travel, is for show. Just that much of it is.

You would think that modern technology would obviate some of this time-consuming travel. According to the Times, Clinton thought so, but discovered that showing up in person was “paradoxically” more important if you could much more easily take part in a teleconference.

This is an insight worthy of Veblen himself. Call it “conspicuous travel”: The less important the trip, the more prestige you gain by taking it.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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