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'Alter Egos' Dissects Hillary Clinton's Tenure As Obama's Secretary Of State

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One way to get insight into the views and abilities of a presidential candidate is to talk to someone who's seen them work up close. Our guest Mark Landler covered the State Department for The New York Times when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, traveling with her to dozens of countries.

He's written a new book that focuses on her relationship with President Obama and their contrasting views on America's role in the world. As they confronted crises in countries from Syria and Libya to Northern Korea, Landler says Hillary was often the hawk, more willing to intervene with force or economic sanctions. Obama's perspective, he says, was restrained, inward-looking and radical in its acknowledgment of the limits of American power.

The book describes a Clinton who's studious, hard-working, tough and arguably influenced The Times by her own presidential ambitions. Landler details staff rivalries and fascinating details like Clinton's motorcade in Cairo being pelted with tomatoes by crowds chanting Monica and Clinton silently banging a phone on her forehead during a frustrating call with Israel's prime minister. Mark Landler is now a White House correspondent for The New York Times. He writes a weekly foreign affairs column called The Listening Post. He spoke last week with FRESH AIR contributor, Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Mark Landler, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you begin this book with a lovely anecdote of President Obama telling reporters - giving them a colorful expression for a core belief of his - on America's role in the world. Share that with us.

MARK LANDLER: Well, first off, thank you, Dave, for having me. The anecdote that you're referring to happened back in April of 2014 during a trip that the president was taking in Asia. And I was with a group of reporters in the back of Air Force One in the press compartment, and the president wandered back which was not something he normally did in the middle of foreign trips.

He typically will show up at the end of a foreign trip, but at this - on this day, he showed up in the middle. And it was clear he was unhappy when he arrived. He basically cut me off as I was trying to ask him an opening question and said he had a few things he wanted to get off his mind.

And the main thing was he was unhappy with some coverage we had done of his foreign policy, both his Middle East policy and his efforts to strike a trade deal with the Japanese. And basically what he said is that we didn't understand his foreign policy. We - in the press - didn't get it. And he was going to set us straight about it.

And so he shared this expression which I think I can't say in a word-for-word way on the radio, but it translates roughly as don't do stupid stuff. In other words, don't take steps in American foreign policy that will get the country entangled in more foreign wars or in heavy military engagements or other obligations that aren't directly related to the nation's critical security interests.

And he basically talked about how his foreign policy had avoided the missteps of the Bush administration, most prominently with the Iraq War, and that he was simply defining foreign policy in a more prudent way than certainly his predecessor and perhaps than other American presidents. And, indeed, the phrase don't do stupid stuff has become one of the most memorable that President Obama has uttered and one that is seen by many as kind of crystallizing his approach to American foreign policy.

DAVIES: Don't do stupid stuff. You describe his perspective on America's role in the world as restrained, inward-looking, radical in its acknowledgment of limits. By contrast, how would you describe Hillary Clinton's?

LANDLER: Clinton comes much more from the traditional post-World War II tradition of American foreign policy, which is to say that she views American engagement on balance as a good thing, rather than a bad thing. She's much more ready to consider using military force if necessary to defend national interests. And she's also much more cautious about diplomatic outreach than President Obama proved to be in his two terms.

So I really see the two of them as almost representing two poles of thought of America's role in the world - Obama much more constrained, defining America's role in a much more limited fashion and Clinton much more of a throwback, if you will, defining America's role broadly. In the words of George W. Bush, the American writ reaching into, quote, "you know, any dark corner of the world." That's very much where Hillary Clinton comes from.

DAVIES: Part of this is an intellectual exercise, but you also note that these people are of different generations and different backgrounds. You want to just talk a bit about how they helped shape this perspective? Let's start with President Obama.

LANDLER: Yeah, well, President Obama is very much a child of the 1970s. He came of age in Hawaii in the early 1970s, late 1970s. But more importantly, he had a really international upbringing - obviously a Kenyan father, a mother who took him to Indonesia as a young boy. He lived in Indonesia for a few years and really was exposed to a culture that was very different than he would've had growing up in the United States, and a culture, importantly, that gave him a view of the influence of the United States overseas.

The U.S. has had a long and not always savory history in Indonesia. And President Obama has reflected on that in later years as a way of thinking about the problems of U.S. engagement overseas, that often the U.S. makes compromises for security issues that perhaps it shouldn't. And Indonesia - he's put forward as a test case of this as an example of this. So that very much gave him almost an ex-patriots view of the United States and of U.S. engagement abroad.

Hillary Clinton is a very different story. She is a child of the World War II, post-World War II era. Of course, she grew up just outside Chicago in a Republican suburb. Her father was an anti-Communist. She very much channeled his views, and although she made this very well chronicled transition from a Republican to a Democrat and indeed a progressive as she went through law school and became a young woman, some of that conservative - those conservative reflexes remained. And she's acknowledged they remained well into her time as first lady.

LANDLER: My argument is that what we're seeing now in terms of her view of the world - her view of America's role in the world - is very much a product of those earliest reflexes and lessons that she learned growing up in Chicago in the 1940s.

DAVIES: It was interesting, as we read the book, to see this relationship develop once, you know, President Obama, you know, defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary battles and then appointed her secretary of state in 2009. You talk about an early trip that the president made to Cairo for an important speech really aimed at the Arab and Muslim world and the role that Clinton played and did not play. Recount that for us.

LANDLER: It was June of 2009 and the president was headed to Cairo, as you say, to give what his aides believed was going to be a landmark speech to the Islamic world, a speech that in some ways would reset the relationship after all of the turmoil of the Iraq War and the Bush years.

And there was a great deal of debate in the weeks leading up to this speech about whether the president should also go to Israel and reach out to the new Israeli government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just put together at that time.

In the end, the White House decided that he shouldn't because they felt that if he did go to Israel, it would give the trip more of a classic shuttle diplomacy feeling, where he would visit with our allies in Cairo and then go visit with our allies in Jerusalem. And they wanted really to make this trip somewhat different.

So the president decided he would travel to Cairo and would not make a stop in Israel. Some of his senior aides, including Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago but then the White House chief of staff, worried that if nobody at a senior level went to Israel in President Obama's place, it would send a bad signal to a close American ally.

So he asked Hillary Clinton whether she would go, whether she could in effect after the speech head over to Jerusalem and check in with the new Israeli government. And she said no. She wasn't willing to do it. And this was taken as a sign by some in President Obama's inner circle that in these early days of the administration, she was still thinking more as a principal, as her own political figure, than as a member of the President's staff.

And so it left some ill will and some lingering resentment. A lot of that was overcome fairly quickly, but it was an early moment for both the Hillary Clinton camp and the Obama camp where their interests didn't yet seem to be fully aligned.

DAVIES: Yeah, it is interesting that the secretary of state gets a request from the president's chief of staff and just says, no - not I'm going to think about it, no, can I talk to the president, just no. Did that surprise you?

LANDLER: Well, it did to the extent that Hillary Clinton was across the board an extremely conscientious member of President Obama's staff. And publicly, she never allowed any daylight between herself and the president.

In the early days, she often began sentences with the phrase President Obama has said or as the president has directed. So she made an enormous public effort to always have her interests line up and to always appear to be, you know, a very obedient member of his staff. So it was unusual. And I think it was evidence that in those early days both sides were still trying to feel their way through.

DAVIES: Mark Landler is White House correspondent for The New York Times. His new book is called "Alter Egos." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mark Landler. He is now a White House correspondent for The New York Times, but he spent many years covering the State Department.

He has a new book about the relationship between President Obama and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. It's called "Alter Egos."

You know, there are tensions and rivalries in government between the staffs of different institution. And the White House and the State Department are big institutions, and they had to work together and sometimes maybe be at cross-purposes. Was staff rivalry more intense in this case because Obama and Clinton had waged this, you know, sometimes bitter primary battle in 2008 for the presidency?

LANDLER: It was. In fact, as you say, the primary battle left some really lasting scars, almost a form of post-traumatic stress disorder for both sides. And those scars were - took longer to heal for the staff than they did for the principles.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually did manage to put the past behind them fairly quickly. I mean, that's owed largely to Hillary Clinton's ability to just get on with it. But on the staffs - on the part of the staffs - there were more - there was more time. It took more time to mend these scars, and it showed up in all sorts of ways.

In the early days, it showed up in battles between the State Department and the White House over staffing issues. Secretary Clinton came into her job having extracted a promise from the president that she could bring in a great number of her own people, far, far more than any cabinet secretary typically is allowed to bring in.

But when it came time to fill specific positions, there were lots of battles between the White House and the State Department. And some involved people that the White House was suspicious of, notably Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime Clinton family retainer, a former journalist who'd worked in the Bill Clinton White House. She wanted to give him a job in the State Department.

The White House said, no, they vetoed it. They were bitter at him because they blamed him for having spread dirt about Barack Obama during the 2008 election. So that's one example of the kind of staff-level tensions that percolated for at least the first couple of years.

DAVIES: When Clinton was appointed, you know, she wasn't just somebody. I mean, she was kind of a political celebrity with, you know, a long Rolodex of contacts of her own. What kind of relationship did they have? Could she see President Obama when she needed to? Did she feel included?

LANDLER: She had a standing weekly meeting with President Obama. And so she did believe that she was included. But there were some interesting, weird moments very early on that I talk about in the book and that have come out through the release of Hillary Clinton's email.

You recall that as a result of the controversy over Clinton's email that she asked the State Department to release reams and reams of her email traffic from her four years at the State Department. And in the early years, there are some fascinating emails where she actually sends notes to her aides in the morning.

There's one case where she says, I heard on the radio there's a cabinet meeting this morning. If so, can I go? Well, the idea that Hillary Clinton wouldn't know there was a cabinet meeting scheduled and would hear about it on the radio is both bizarre but also revealing about her state of mind in those days.

There's a very funny email where she tells her chief of staff that she called into the White House switchboard and asked to be transferred to someone and announced herself as Hillary Clinton, and the operator didn't believe her and asked her for proof that she was Hillary Clinton. And Hillary was not able to give her by memory her office telephone number, so she ended up having to hang up and call in again through the State Department's operation center. And she said that made her feel like a properly dependent secretary of state.

So in those early days, there were these moments where you could really get a sense for the insecurity that Hillary Clinton was feeling about her role in this administration. And while she did have this standing weekly meeting, she never had, for example, the, you know, drop into the office four times a day kind of access that, say, Henry Kissinger had with Richard Nixon. That just simply wasn't in the cards - or for that matter James Baker with George H.W. Bush. These were very close relationships. She really didn't have that with Barack Obama.

DAVIES: I want to talk about some of the specific international areas and how their different perspectives appeared. But, you know, you mentioned that President Obama was centralizing a lot of the thinking about international issues and security in the White House. And I wonder if you think that served him well. I mean, it could be isolating. You could be in an echo chamber. What's your sense?

LANDLER: Well, it's a very interesting question. And one thing that happens if you centralize things in the White House is that White House officials become overwhelmed. Agencies in the government exist to do a lot of this heavy lifting. So when you put everything and run it all out of the White House, you do run the risk of overwhelming people.

But more dangerously, I think, when you take things out of the hands of the State Department, you lose some of the advantage you get from, for example, a secretary of state who traveled as widely as Hillary Clinton did.

And one good example of that is the president ran his counterterrorism policy - and still does to this day - very much out of the West Wing. The drone policy - drone strikes against terrorist targets, suspected terrorists in Pakistan, for example, was run very tightly out of the West Wing under a man named John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser.

Well, Hillary Clinton during this period was traveling to Pakistan. And whenever she went to Pakistan, she would get an earful from people there about the collateral damage to the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. that these drone strikes were causing. And she came back frustrated and wanted to be more transparent about drone strikes, to think more carefully about the targeting of drone strikes.

But for the president's team - this very small, close-knit, highly-trusted team in the White House - they had much less interest in the Pakistani perspective. For them, there was only one goal, one cardinal goal to the counterterrorism strategy and that was to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil. So that's very much the agenda they brought to this strategy. Hillary Clinton had a broader perspective on it, but it was not a perspective that necessarily got as full a hearing inside the White House as it might have had things not been so tightly controlled.

DAVIES: This is a fascinating chapter. And, you know, you write about how Hillary Clinton was troubled that the United States would not even publicly acknowledge the drone strikes, even though it was clear to everyone that the United States was responsible for them. And there was also the matter of timing.

They would come at - she would be involved in some sensitive issue. And maybe one of the best examples was when there was an American contractor - people may remember - shot and killed someone, I think, on a motorcycle after a traffic incident in Pakistan. And she manages to negotiate his release, I think, in return for a substantial payment to the victims. And then the drone campaign intervenes.

LANDLER: That's right. There's a drone strike literally days after this agreement under which the CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, is allowed to leave the country. And, of course, the Pakistanis are furious, and it's yet another sort of thing that poisons the relationship.

There's an even more dramatic one that I spoke with the current secretary of state, John Kerry, about for this book in which Kerry, who was then a senator, was asked to go out to Pakistan in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid to try to negotiate the return of the tail section of one of the two helicopters - you'll recall - that crash-landed during the course that operation.

He's flying back to Washington via Dubai and there's a drone strike. And he hears about it, and he had just been trying to get this very sensitive deal done, only to hear that we're shooting drones and striking people and infuriating the Pakistanis.

So as he's changing planes, he calls the White House, the national security adviser, and unloads on him and says, you know, in effect, what are we doing? And as he tells me, I hit the effing roof. So these are very difficult moments for those people engaged in diplomacy. And they also point to the lack of coordination between the State Department and the CIA which is running the drone campaign. These are - the two sides are just simply not talking to one another, not coordinating well enough with these very bad results for American diplomacy.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with The New York Times reporter Mark Landler, author of the new book "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama And The Twilight Struggle Over American Power."

After a short break, they'll talk about her position in the White House debate over whether to intervene in Libya, and they'll discuss Benghazi and Clinton's emails. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Mark Landler, author of the new book "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama And The Twilight Struggle Over American Power." Landler covered Clinton when she was President Obama's secretary of state and Landler was covering the State Department for The New York Times. Landler is now a White House correspondent for The Times.

DAVIES: As you read the book, you realize what tough decisions these people faced, one of them being whether to intervene in Libya militarily against Moammar Gadhafi's forces when they were moving against the opposition in that country following the Arab Spring. Take us through that debate. How did these players state their cases?

LANDLER: Well, this was a very good illustration of the kind of role that Hillary Clinton could play in some of these great debates over war and peace. Again, as I said earlier, she was traveling around Europe during this period hearing from the Europeans, hearing from Arabs, neighbors of Libya of how bad the situation was and the risks killing of real atrocities in Benghazi. Gadhafi had promised to hunt down the rebels house by house like rats. So that was the kind of backdrop, and that was the message that Clinton was getting.

Back in Washington, President Obama was characteristically reluctant. He didn't view Libya as a core strategic interest of the United States in the way, perhaps, that France and Britain did in Europe. And he was backed up, in this case, by his defense secretary, by Bob Gates who also didn't view it as enough of a reason to get involved in yet another war in the Middle East.

But Hillary Clinton made a very strong case. She wasn't alone in making that case. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. made that case as did Samantha Power, who at that time was an NSC official who thought a lot about human rights issues. And so he was - he the president - was being faced by these fervent proponents of a military intervention to avert this genocide in Benghazi.

But it was really Hillary Clinton who carried the day who made the most persuasive case dialing into a White House meeting from Europe where she had just met with one of the heads of the rebel government who told her how bad things were, and also she was able to cobble together support from enough Arab countries that she felt that the U.S. had enough legitimacy to take part in this mission.

And so this was a critical moment where she really, I think, carried the day over Gates and others, and then in turn set the stage for a military intervention that has, of course, had an extremely bloody aftermath with lots of misgivings and second-guessing on President Obama's part, and one that's even shadowed her into her current election campaign - lots of questions asked about whether Libya was worth it, was it mishandled, did the U.S. not go in afterwards the way we should have? So these are all questions that played out of that fateful decision.

DAVIES: Yeah, you know, the president's maxim, don't do stupid stuff, partly reflected, you know, his view of the Iraq War where the United States went in without a plan for what would happen once Saddam Hussein was deposed.

In Libya, there was no plan for the United States to move in with much of anything, right? And Obama was clearly concerned about that. What happened after Gadhafi fell?

LANDLER: Well, this in effect, Obama was trying to learn the lessons of past interventions, you know, both positive and negative. During the Clinton years, the U.S. waited a long time before intervening in Srebrenica, and there was a terrible slaughter there.

In Iraq, the U.S. intervened full force, went in and really occupied the country with all the mayhem that played out there. So in a way, the president was trying to learn these lessons and get intervention right, intervene to avert a slaughter, a mass killing but not send in tens of thousands of troops or American advisers, not attempt to rebuild the nation of Libya.

The problem was by not doing that, there was an enormous security vacuum in Libya when Gadhafi finally fell and lots of militias some with ties to al-Qaida or ISIS basically swept into that vacuum and turned Libya into, you know, a very lethal place, a place that's really awash in guns and feuding militias and fighting.

And so as the president has looked back on this experience, I think he views it very much as kind of confirming all his worst suspicions. He told Bob Gates it was a 51 - 49 decision whether to do this, and he's been very frank in the aftermath that, you know, he regrets the way it played out.

He's faulted the Europeans for not doing more themselves in the aftermath, but he's also admitted that there's a conundrum here, which is that if you get involved in a big way, you risk being stuck and creating dependency as happened in Iraq. But if you don't, you risk leaving this country to violence and mayhem.

DAVIES: And how does Hillary Clinton view the decision in retrospect?

LANDLER: Hillary Clinton's view, I think, is that, you know, Libya is a work in progress. There were mistakes made and then crucially - and we haven't talked about this yet - after the four American officials were killed in Benghazi in Libya in 2012, it became impossible to really do anything to fix the situation. The political climate in Washington was so toxic that there really was nothing one could do.

I think Hillary Clinton would probably argue and will argue in this campaign that it was still the right thing to intervene in Libya. She wouldn't second-guess that decision.

I think she would say that these things are always extremely difficult. They sometimes take a long time to really work out. And I think she'd probably be inclined to present it as a work in progress, but still worth doing.

I think President Obama would be much more inclined to say, you know, I think in hindsight maybe this was the wrong idea.

DAVIES: You know, so much has been said, written and more is to come about the tragedy at Benghazi where that attack killed ambassador Chris Stevens and, I guess, three other Americans. As you look at it, do you think Hillary Clinton deserves blame either for inadequately - for inadequate security preparations or for misleading public - the public about the nature of the attack?

LANDLER: I think the State Department under her leadership obviously deserves criticism for the security situation. That's been well-established in the course of a number of reviews of this episode, including one that was commissioned by the State Department. And she's taken her share of the responsibility for that.

On the question of the story that the administration put out in the aftermath, it's a very murky tale, but it is true based on reading the emails that were being sent around by Clinton and her aides in the immediate aftermath of the attack. There was always a suspicion that there was a terrorist angle to this that the Ansar al-Sharia brigade which carried out this attack, you know, had links to al-Qaida.

And so, you know, this was always in people's minds, but it must also be said that the administration's stated explanation of what happened also seem plausible in those early hours. That explanation, of course, was that there were these spontaneous protests that erupted in response to a video that denigrated the prophet Muhammad. And so that this was in a way a sort of a surge of anger that spilled over, and these protests spun out-of-control.

In the end, the reality was that Ansar al-Sharia did plan this attack. It is also true that the prophet Muhammad video may have been a triggering event. One of my colleagues, David Kirkpatrick, did an exhaustive study of this a few years ago and determined that the video did play a role.

So I think the fairest thing to say was that, you know, there was a bit of a fog of war situation, but the administration was also being very careful not to put at risk the counterterrorism reputation that President Obama had built over the past couple of years, notably with killing bin Laden.

One of the major things he said is we've degraded the threat from al-Qaida. And so this attack and its links to al-Qaida put some of those claims at risk. And it is also true if you look back at the emails that there was a lot of massaging, a lot of worrying inside the administration of how can we explain this in a way that does not make it look like everything we've achieved on the counterterrorism front has come to not?

DAVIES: You know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a challenge for any secretary of the state. Did Hillary Clinton make a serious effort to start or restart the peace process in the Middle East?

LANDLER: Hillary Clinton did not make as sustained or fervent an effort as several of her predecessors and certainly as her successor John Kerry, who has thrown himself into this, you know, in fairly spectacular fashion. She had good reasons for taking the approach she did.

One I referred to earlier, George Mitchell had been named as a high-profile special envoy for the peace process. And in the early days, he wasn't interested in having a secretary of state medal. I think she also took measure - good measure - of the political climate on both sides.

The Israelis had just elected a Likud government under Benjamin Netanyahu that didn't seem as inclined to take risks for peace. The Palestinians were under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, who's, you know, in his '80s and had not shown himself to be a bold leader in this area. And I think she felt that the odds were low. There was a lot of other things to do in the world and then also getting very involved in the peace process carries a certain domestic political risk.

And this is something that every politician has had to think carefully about. If you throw yourself into this process, do you risk alienating in particular American Jews at home? I think this was something in the back of her mind as well.

And I think it explained her relatively hands-off approach. I don't want to say it was hands-off the whole time. She certainly threw herself into an effort to get Netanyahu to extend a moratorium on the building of settlements in the West Bank. She did throw herself into that.

She encouraged President Obama to hold a summit and to try to get Netanyahu and Abbas to begin face-to-face talks. But I think if you were to look at the overall record and compare it to that of James Baker or Kissinger or certainly John Kerry, you'd have to say that she took a much more subdued hands-off approach for all of those reasons, I think.

DAVIES: Mark Landler is White House correspondent for The New York Times. His book is called "Alter Egos." We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mark Landler. He is a White House correspondent for The New York Times. He has a new book about the relationship between Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and President Obama. It's called "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, And The Twilight Struggle Over American Power." You know, she is criticized by some as performing as secretary of state with an eye to a future political campaign for president. And I'm wondering if you think that's fair. I mean, did she work hard to showcase her successes or avoid things that might undermine her political ambitions?

LANDLER: I think there are elements of truth to this. I don't want to over dramatize it because there were also areas where she was willing to take some risks and, you know, throw herself into situations. There was a case where she flew to Egypt and Israel to try to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in 2012. That was a dangerous situation. It could've ended in failure. It would've made her look bad, and she was still willing to do it. That's one example.

But it is true that some of the development things we talked about earlier were things that reflected very well on her personally, that really improved her image. And in fact, if you look at some of her press clippings from her years as secretary of state, there's a great emphasis on some relatively uncontroversial things - bringing clean cook stoves to the developing world. Cook stoves are a cause for a great deal of health trouble, particularly for women. And she started a program to bring clean cook stoves to women and went around the world promoting it and got a lot of credit and a lot of press attention for that. And these are the types of relatively noncontroversial things that burnished her image as a development person and really set her up well for a future political career.

John Kerry, by contrast, came in and immediately threw himself into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and within a few months had failed to move either side. And, you know, let's just assume for the sake of argument that Kerry was going to run for president after he were secretary of state, that would probably be a burden he would carry around with him. It's not a burden that Hillary Clinton carries around with her.

DAVIES: You know, we've heard so much about Secretary Clinton's emails that I think most of us are confused about the whole issue and how seriously we should take it. I mean, what do you make of the controversy? Let's start with her decision to, you know, keep her emails on a private server.

LANDLER: Well, I think nobody thinks that was (inaudible) she said that herself. She hasn't said it quite as contritely as people would like, but that was clearly a very bad judgment on her part and the part of whoever was advising her. And of course, it opened the door to a much bigger problem for her, which is that by having the State Department release these emails, there's been this extraordinary turf battle over classifying emails. What emails can be released? What emails need to be redacted for national security reasons?

And so you've got a number of government agencies all in the process of reading her email and retracting some number on the grounds they have classified information, which in turn has raised the issue of whether she was mishandling classified information and putting the country's national security at risk.

So that small decision - or what may in those days have seemed like a small decision has had this very long tail, this long series of ramifications for her that have led all the way into her campaign. And of course, there is an FBI investigation underway. And so, you know, it gives her opponents a chance to raise the question of whether she faces an indictment on this. And so the email scandal I wrote, as with many scandals - it begins as one thing and it ends up mutating into other things that become - a sort of a referendum on her character and on her trustworthiness.

DAVIES: Do you think there's a realistic chance of her being indicted?

LANDLER: I think for me to opine on that would probably be unwise because I don't have a particular insight into the workings of the Justice Department or the FBI. Politically, indicting her in the middle of a campaign would be a fairly monumental thing. When I talk to people who know more about this than me, they seem to think that an indictment still seems less likely.

You'll recall General Petraeus us and others have been involved in issues involving classified information that have not resulted in a felony indictment. So some people think it's a longshot, but the shadow lingers. And it's an FBI investigation, and I don't think anybody could ever take something like that for granted.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things I like about this book is the inside view it gives us of the government. And, you know, we tend to assess political candidates - particularly presidential candidates on the basis of their ideology, and of course policy matters. But there's also leadership skills. You know, does the person appoint good people and empower them? Can they develop the kinds of relationships that you need to get things done? I mean, are you smart enough and hard-working enough to get deeply involved in policy issues? And I'm wondering how much weight you think Americans should give, you know, demonstrated leadership ability as they look at presidential candidates as opposed to just ideology.

LANDLER: Well, I think that's the core of Hillary Clinton's campaign message - that she's got that background experience, those instincts, that kind of mettle that she can make those tough decisions, that she can put in place the people that can handle those issues. And I think that's a really significant issue particularly in this election, where it looks as though at this moment in time that she's going to be facing a candidate on the Republican side who won't have that set of experiences. Whether it's Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, you're not going to have a candidate who comes with that long experience.

And I think in some of these very big war-and-peace debates of the Obama years, she did show herself to be unflinching in her judgments and to be decisive. She did show herself at the State Department to be someone who could manage an institution, put in place some strong-willed people and listen to them - Richard Holbrooke I cited earlier. There are a number of other people that carried out sensitive diplomacy for her that were people that she promoted. So she's got a proven track record there. And I guess the question in an election year where outsiders and insurgencies are all the rage is how much voters are going to value that. She certainly believes they should, and I think I do, too.

DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, you've seen government up close. You've seen people that do it well and do it poorly. You think these skills really matter.

LANDLER: I do because I think the decisions are often ones where every option is bad, and it's a question of choosing the least bad. And I also think there are decisions that are so difficult that you're temptation is to avoid making them. We didn't talk about Syria in any detail, but Syria is a decision that the president has not really wanted - he has not wanted to get involved in Syria. He stayed away from Syria for several years now.

I think President Hillary Clinton might be less inclined to do that. And I think presidents do need to be willing to make decisions, even when it appears that all the options before them are bad and it's only a question of the least-bad option.

DAVIES: Mark Landler, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

LANDLER: Thank you so much, David.

GROSS: Mark Landoll spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Landler is author the of the new book "Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, And The Twilight Struggle Over American Power." He's now a White House correspondent for The New York Times. Coming up, the story behind Billy Paul's hit "Me And Mrs. Jones." He died yesterday at the age of 80. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY PAUL SONG, "ME AND MRS. JONES")

GROSS: Singer Billy Paul, who had the 1972 hit "Me And Mrs. Jones," died yesterday at the age of 80. He'd been recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In a moment, we'll hear the story behind this song, a song about an affair with a married woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND MRS. JONES")

BILLY PAUL: (Singing) Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on. We both know that it's wrong. But it's much too strong to let it go now.

GROSS: "Me And Mrs. Jones" was written by the songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the founders of Philadelphia International Records, home of the Philly sound. When I spoke with them in 2008, they told me they got the idea for the song while sitting at a downstairs bar they used to go to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENNY GAMBLE: We used to go down there every day and talk to the barmaid. And this guy used to come into the bar every day - little guy looked like a judge or something like that, man. So me and Huff, we're watching everything. See, we're songwriters so when we sit - everything we're doing, we're thinking about a song.

So we see this guy coming in. We said OK. Then the next day, he come in there again. But when he come in there every day, this girl would come in maybe 10, 15 minutes after he'd get there. They'd sit in the same booth, go to the jukebox, play the same songs every day.

So me and Huff we said, oh, that's me and Mrs. Jones or whatever the name we was going to call it. But that's how that song evolved itself. And then when they get ready to leave, he would go his way and she would go hers.

So we - it could have been his daughter. It could have been his niece. It could have been anybody. But we assumed - we created a story out of this, that there was some kind of romantic connection between these people. And we'd go upstairs in our office, and we wrote the song "Me And Mrs. Jones."

GROSS: So how come this ended up with a more jazz-like sound to it?

LEON HUFF: 'Cause Billy is a jazz artist.

GAMBLE: Yeah, Billy Paul has...

HUFF: He can sing that type of song.

GAMBLE: Yeah, but still, it, you know, it just felt like that.

HUFF: (Laughter). Yeah, it did.

GAMBLE: The whole thing just fell in place. I knew "Me And Mrs. Jones" was going to be a hit because Billy Paul used to perform in all the clubs around here in Philly. So we had recorded "Me And Mrs. Jones". We hadn't put it out yet, but Billy was doing it onstage. And the people would tell him to sing that song. He might have to sing it three, four times.

They had never even heard this song before. But the story was so commonplace and just - I mean, everybody kind of like knew what the end of the story was going to be, you know what I mean? And so it became one of them songs where it fits everyday life.

HUFF: Yeah, got a thing going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND MRS. JONES")

PAUL: (Singing) Me and Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on. We both know that it's wrong, but it's much too strong to let it go now. We meet every day at the same cafe, 6:30 and no one knows she'll be there, holding hands, making all kinds of plans while the jukebox plays our favorite song. Me and Mrs. - Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones.

GROSS: Billy Paul died yesterday at age 80. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING")

TOM HANKS: (As Alan) Guys, come on, we are in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with the deserts and the camels and the shieks and the tents.

GROSS: My guest will be Tom Hanks. We'll talk about his new film, "A Hologram For The King," and about growing up in a fractured family, the movies and music that shaped him and why he became so interested in projects related to World War II. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND MRS. JONES")

PAUL: (Singing) 'Cause she's got her own obligations and so, and so do I. Me and... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.