It was the most iconic facial expression from inside the Situation Room during the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, but days after it was photographed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismissed it as an allergic reaction. "It was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs," Clinton said a year ago, when asked about the photo. "So it may have no great meaning whatsoever." At the time, it sort of felt like she had robbed the country of a legendary—and legendarily human—reaction to an historic event. It turns out now, the excuse was probably not real, thanks to two new follow-up interviews with Clinton and President Obama.
During last night's hour-long Rock Center with Brian Williams on NBC, the president and secretary of State said the photo depicted the sense of trepidation and concern during the high stakes mission: No mention of pollen. "This picture was taken right as the helicopter was having some problems," President Obama told Williams, in reference to the stealth helicopter that crash landed outside bin Laden's compound. "I remember Hillary putting her hand over her mouth at that point. There's silence at this point in the room."
Speaking to Williams in a separate interview, Clinton seems to finally give it to us straight. "That's the way I usually look when my husband drags me to an action movie," she said. "What it conjures up is all of the emotions that were running through my and ever other person in that small group. It was just an extraordinary experience."
So why did she say otherwise last year? It's hard to say for sure. But one might suspect that she wanted to avoid appearing weak, as the individual with the most visible appearance of concern in the photograph. As National Journal's Kathy Kiely reported last year, "A colleague who knows her well suspects Clinton might have been a bit irritated over the White House decision to release a photo that looks like the modern day version of something Rembrandt would have painted." Reason being is that "now forever frozen in time, Clinton stands out not just because of her femininity but her lack of impassivity." Kiely wrote, with some elegance, that for women of Clinton's generation, masking her true motivations makes a lot of sense.
"Women who spent most of their careers being the sole representative of their kind in rooms full of men made a survival strategy of trying to blend in," Kiely wrote. "Because any thought or reaction that set them apart from their male colleagues tended put them at the wrong end of an invidious comparison." You could also add, that Clinton especially, has long made a point of selling her toughness, such as the famous White House 3 a.m. phone call ad or her 2008 claim that she remembered "landing under sniper fire" in the Balkans in 1996 when in fact that never happened.
In any case, now we know what always made sense from the beginning. She was pretty freaked out, like anyone, man or woman, would be.