If the look and the sound of a presidential campaign—large crowded auditorium, screaming fans—can have a soft rollout, it would possibly look something like the scene at the Kennedy Center Tuesday evening for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards, where the headliners were the two most talked-about contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential ticket. The double bill was Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who gave her first speech since leaving President Obama’s cabinet. In their remarks the two veteran politicians did not veer away from the message of the evening: women—their rights, protections, and potential worldwide. On this subject they sounded less like future opponents and more like running mates.
Clinton, just back from a vacation in the Dominican Republic, looked happy and rested. She no longer wore the thick eyeglasses ordered by a doctor due to medication prescribed after she fainted, fell, got a concussion, and was hospitalized. A close friend said that the episode is behind her and she’s off the meds and “all better.” Clinton also seemed to be delightedly in her natural habitat, among hundreds of like-minded individuals, mostly women, who support Vital Voices, an organization she formed as an initiative 15 years ago as First Lady. She also presented an award to her longtime friend and lieutenant, Melanne Verveer, who is currently perched at Georgetown University while Clinton figures out what’s next.
“When women participate in peace-keeping and peace-making, we are all safer and more secure,” Clinton said. She added that when women participate in the economy, “everyone benefits.”
Clinton was introduced by designer Diane von Furstenberg, who had her arm in a sling, which she referred to as a “skiing misadventure.” Clinton walked out from the wings in a white jacket and dark pants to a standing ovation. She seemed to take special satisfaction in recalling her long association with Verveer, remembering in particular when Verveer was her White House chief of staff; their focus then, too, was global women’s issues. “We often had meetings in a place called the Map Room, where FDR used to track the progress of our armies in World War II,” Clinton said. “We thought it was an appropriate place for women of the White House to meet.”
Continuing with the map theme, she said, “Maps can tell us as much about ourselves as [about] the world around us. You can look at a map of the world and see nothing but problems as far as the eye can perceive. That is especially true for those of us committed to the struggle for women and girls. We see too many countries where women still face violence and abuse, too many political systems that treat women as second-class or even worse. Too many economies that deny women the chance to participate and prosper.”
Clinton said she sees progress, however, “because we know people who are making that progress against the most extraordinary odds.” She said for the women struggling for an opportunity, a piece of land, an education, or to start a business or run for office, “all it takes is for them to have a fighting chance.” She said that as Secretary of State she was determined to “weave this perspective into the fabric of American foreign policy.”
Once introduced, and after a warm embrace, Verveer went to the podium to say her thanks while Clinton stood behind her, displaying an expression that was nothing less than pride.
Vice President Biden spoke after Clinton and, as he tends to do, bounded across the stage. When he got to the podium he played to the audience, praising women in general and one in particular. He started to say “and women like” Hillary Clinton, but caught himself. “Actually, that’s not an appropriate phrase. There’s no woman like Hillary Clinton. That’s a fact.” A certified applause line, of course. Biden said her “declaration in China some decades ago that women’s rights are human rights still echoes so forcefully around the world nearly two decades later.” More applause.
Biden led the Senate in passing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which was recently reauthorized. “I want to thank you all, not only in the writing of the Violence Against Women Act, but in its passage the first time and its continued reauthorization,” he said, looking out into the dark, packed opera house. “If I could see out into the audience I’m confident there are scores of you who are the reason it was able to pass in the first place and be reauthorized.”
Biden noted that his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, whom he called his “best friend,” was in the audience. She had run all his campaigns, but on this night he wanted to steal from a speech she had written for herself. “You’ve got to answer your cell phone,” he declared, breaking from his script. “I wanted to get your permission to quote the speech.” He looked into the audience for her. “Is it okay?” Then he looked up. “Y’all think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding,” he said, prompting loud laughter. Presumably he got the okay from Owens, because he quoted parts of her speech that had to do with abuses against women and how they affect all women. “I want to make it clear, I am attributing this to her, although she’s written many of my speeches,” he said.
Warming to the audience’s response to his words about his sister, Biden added, “You can always tell a man who is comfortable dealing with a powerful woman in his work, because you’ll know then he was raised by a strong woman, and has a sister, a wife, and daughters who are equally strong. My sister, who is much younger than me, raised me.”
Biden presented the Solidarity Award to Ravi, Nishi, and Rishi Kant, three brothers from India who formed an organization, Shakti Vahini, that works against human trafficking and sexual violence. Other honorees included Dr. Hawa Abdi, a physician and human rights activist in Somalia; Sandra Gomes Melo, the director of the Civil Police Academy in the federal district of Brasilia, Brazil; Tep Vanny, who fights for human and land rights in her native Cambodia; Manal Yaish Zraiq, a Palestinian businesswoman and property developer; and Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old Pakistani blogger, who could not be at the Kennedy Center to receive her Global Trailblazer Award because she is recovering from an October assassination attempt. She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest nominee ever, for her work on behalf of girls’ education.
After speeches and films, the guests moved from the opera house up to the roof terrace for a buffet supper. At the start of the evening, a cluster of Clinton supporters gathered outside the Kennedy Center, holding up makeshift campaign posters. By the evening’s end, they had gone.