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A celebrity welcome for Hillary Clinton at State Department

January 22, 2009 |  8:14 am

When a new secretary of State arrives for work at The Building in Foggy Bottom -- which looks like a leftover from the Stalinist school of architecture -- there's an elevator waiting to take the new Cabinet officer from the main entrance on C Street to his or her seventh-floor power office.

Sometimes there's an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the agency's huge auditorium.

But today, when political rock star Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up for her first day of work, there was an enormous crowd of hundreds of foreign service and civilian employees packed along the agency's lobby balcony and stairwell that looked for all the world like an adoring political rally.

Amid the tumultuous welcome, Steve Kaskent, who represents the foreign service union, drew a laugh from Clinton -- and everyone else -- when he said, "So far we are thrilled to have you here."

Clinton lost no time in signaling to the employees -- and the international community -- that U.S. foreign policy has changed course. "I believe with all of....

...my heart that this is a new era for America," she said.

Noting that she welcomes "a good debate and the kind of dialog that will make us better," Clinton urged employees to "think outside the proverbial box."

The nomination of Clinton as secretary of State surprised some pundits who questioned why Barack Obama would give his toughest opponent in the presidential race such a plum assignment. The selection was no surprise to those who knew that Obama and his staffers were reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," in which the historian described how Abraham Lincoln effectively won over some of his key opponents by putting them in his Cabinet.

This afternoon, Obama plans to underscore Clinton's message on foreign policy when he too, along with Vice President Joe Biden and national security advisor James Jones, stops by the State Department to rally the troops.

Obama will also signal his interest in engaging in foreign policy with the appointment of three envoys who are heavyweights in their own right -- Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Dennis Ross for Iran and George Mitchell for the Middle East.

But for Clinton, a former first lady and senator from New York who had hoped to be the first female president in U.S. history, the moment was personal as well as political. "I am absolutely honored and thrilled beyond words to be here with you as our nation's 67th secretary of state," she said.

--Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News

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