Nikki Ha­ley’s as­cen­dant comet has a long tale

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION - E-mail kath­leen­parker@wash­ (c) 2018, Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

WASH­ING­TON — Seated next to Pres­i­dent Trump in the Oval Of­fice Tues­day, Nikki Ha­ley did not look like a woman who had tor­tured her­self over whether to re­sign as U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions. On tele­vi­sion at least, she looked like some­one who has a much bet­ter deal com­ing her way early next year. She looked like some­one who has en­joyed 14 solid years of suc­cess­ful pub­lic life, first as South Carolina state leg­is­la­tor, then as gover­nor and, cur­rently, as a na­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the in­ter­na­tional stage. She looked like a woman who, at just 46, sees rain­bows and jackpots in her fu­ture.

As Ha­ley and Trump an­nounced, she’ll leave the U.N. at the end of this year, but she’s not go­ing any­where — for long. Ha­ley has long been con­sid­ered a likely pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. But not be­fore 2024. In her res­ig­na­tion let­ter, Ha­ley ex­plic­itly said she “surely will not be a can­di­date for any of­fice in 2020.” Too bad. It would be such a nice round num­ber for the na­tion’s first fe­male pres­i­dent.

Most likely, Ha­ley is paus­ing to make some money. In her state­ment, she sug­gested an im­mi­nent re­turn to the pri­vate sec­tor. She and her hus­band have ac­crued con­sid­er­able debt, ac­cord­ing to the Charleston Post & Courier. Also, her par­ents’ home re­port­edly is in fore­clo­sure. With her in­ti­mate knowl­edge of in­ter­na­tional trade, pol­i­tics and re­la­tion­ships, Ha­ley could pick her job — and name her salary — at any of sev­eral top-notch con­sult­ing firms. She might even make an ex­cel­lent get for the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which would make some sense of her ef­fu­sive praise for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kush­ner and Mela­nia Trump dur­ing her Tues­day re­marks.

I’ve been watch­ing my fel­low South Carolinian closely since our first meet­ing nearly a decade ago. Ha­ley had called me for cof­fee to dis­cuss her run for gover­nor. A state leg­is­la­tor at the time, she shrewdly reached out to the only na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist in town. We met at Columbia’s Gourmet Shop, a pop­u­lar bistro, wine and kitchen bou­tique.

When I walked into the empty restau­rant sec­tion, I spot­ted a pretty, petite woman dressed in a royal blue suit —we women take note of such de­tails. She nearly knocked me off bal­ance with her bril­liant smile and pierc­ing brown eyes. Dis­arm­ing is the word — and it’s a good one if you’re a politi­cian. Greet­ing me warmly, she quickly set the tone for our meet­ing: “Be­fore we get started, I just want you to know that I agree with ev­ery­thing you said about Sarah Palin.”

“Well, then,” I said, “we’re off to a good start.”

Ha­ley was re­fer­ring to a col­umn I had writ­ten the pre­vi­ous fall say­ing that Palin, re­cently se­lected as John McCain’s run­ning mate, wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Sev­eral months af­ter our meet­ing, I spot­ted a photo of Ha­ley and Palin hold­ing hands, stand­ing on the statehouse steps. When I emailed Ha­ley to ex­press my sur­prise, she re­sponded: “I’ll never for­get that you’re the one who put me on the map.” Yes. She’s a politi­cian. Through the years, I’ve con­tin­ued to drop her a line now and then, usu­ally with­out re­sponse. We’ve had a cou­ple of dis­agree­ments over col­umns I’ve writ­ten about her, but I re­main both in­trigued and im­pressed by her per­sonal power and epic story. Born to Sikh In­dian par­ents and raised in tiny Bam­berg, South Carolina, she has built a re­sume that speaks to am­bi­tion but also to tenac­ity and courage. Forty years ago, it wasn’t easy to be a brown­skinned child whose fa­ther wore a tur­ban in a place like Bam­berg. As U.N. am­bas­sador, she has per­formed with ex­cel­lence, some­times speak­ing in­de­pen­dently rather than par­rot­ing Trump’s po­si­tions. In so do­ing, she has earned the re­spect of men and women across the spec­trum, re­gard­less of whether they agree with her of­ten­hawk­ish po­si­tions.

In decades of writ­ing about pol­i­tics, I’ve run across few with Ha­ley’s in­nate tal­ents. She’s a nat­u­ral with peo­ple, whether crouch­ing with chil­dren on the ground in Africa — rem­i­nis­cent of Princess Diana on sim­i­lar trav­els — or speak­ing to lead­ers in the tense theater of the United Na­tions. As gover­nor, she led the Leg­is­la­ture to re­move the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag from the statehouse grounds, while also guid­ing South Carolina through the shock and grief of the 2015 church mas­sacre in Charleston.

It won’t serve her pres­i­den­tial as­pi­ra­tions well to stay out of pol­i­tics for long, as Ha­ley surely knows. Thus, the burn­ing ques­tion — what’s next? — has only one cer­tain an­swer: What­ever she wants.


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