When Abraham Lincoln appointed his secretary of state, he picked his greatest opponent in the battle for the presidency, who just happened to be an able and popular senator from New York. Just like president-elect Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in fact.
Mr Obama's greatest rival within his own Democratic Party for the White House travelled secretly to Chicago last week, and was all but offered a top job in his administration. She was first spied at the airport. Later, after Mr Obama's cavalcade left his anonymous steel and glass headquarters, a second convoy of Secret Service 4x4s was seen departing. As a former First Lady, Mrs Clinton never has to drive herself, but it was a giveaway for reporters camped outside the building.
The Obama camp, which almost never leaks, has made it clear that Mrs Clinton is in the running for the foreign policy slot or for some other top position in the next administration. Bringing her on board would be as clear an indication as any that Mr Obama intends to build an administration of political superstars for the challenges of the post-Bush era. One of Mr Obama's aides yesterday described him as "self-confident enough to want to send a message to the world about America and all that it can be – and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state would do that".
But other allies worry that choosing a former rival who voted for war in Iraq, and who is seen as a pillar of the Washington establishment, will not chime well with Mr Obama's promise of bringing about far-reaching change in America's way of doing business. Mrs Clinton's presence in the cabinet might destroy the extraordinary cohesiveness the Obama inner circle has shown over the past two years.
In one sense the possible appointment might not be surprising. Veterans from former president Bill Clinton's two terms are playing decisive roles in shaping Mr Obama's transition. John Podesta, his former chief of staff, is leading the transition team, and Rahm Emanuel, another throwback to the era, is Mr Obama's designated White House chief of staff. But some of Mr Obama's other close advisers, who are expected to get prominent positions in his administration, are less enamoured of her.
Susan Rice, a senior foreign policy adviser to Mr Obama, who is thought to be in the running for the UN ambassadorship or the post of deputy national security adviser, attacked Mrs Clinton's foreign policy credentials during the primaries. Quoting a campaign ad by Mrs Clinton – the "3am phone call" television spot that questioned Mr Obama's experience – Ms Rice retorted that the ability to handle a crisis phone call to the White House was not acquired "merely by being married to a commander in chief".
It is true that Mrs Clinton's travels to 83 countries as First Lady were as a ceremonial spouse rather than as a policymaker. During her contest with Mr Obama she also faced biting criticism after she claimed to have endured sniper fire in Bosnia, despite television footage that disproved it.
On the other hand, Mrs Clinton is on first-name terms with many world leaders, and as a presidential candidate revealed herself to be a person of extraordinary competence. If she wants the job, it seems the only question is whether she can pass the rigorous Obama vetting process for all cabinet and other high-level positions. This would include a thorough examination of Bill Clinton's private business since he left the presidency.
One reason Mrs Clinton was never a contender for the vice-presidency, Mr Obama's aides have said, was the complications surrounding the vast amounts of money her husband earned on the international speaking circuit and his links to foreign businessmen. There are also unanswered questions about foreign donors to his presidential library and aspects of a controversial deal to help a Canadian businessman secure a uranium contract in Kazakhstan.
Before joining the Obama administration, Mrs Clinton will have to fill in the same 63-question application as others. Candidates and spouses must provide details of all their finances over the past 10 years. But Mrs Clinton's approval by the Senate is considered a formality, given her good relations with her colleagues there.
Her appointment would underline the extraordinary parallels between the careers of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. Lincoln was an outsider from Illinois, a lawyer with little national experience and, at 51, was only four years older than Obama when he won the presidency in 1860. On the eve of the Civil War, one of his first acts as president-elect was to appoint William Seward secretary of state and build a "team of rivals" that would preserve the nation and free it from the curse of slavery. Just like Hillary Clinton, Seward was bitterly disappointed that the presidency had been snatched from him by an upstart lawyer, but the two men soon became great allies.
Mrs Clinton joins the former presidential candidates Senator John Kerry and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico on the shortlist for the post.
There has been much speculation about Mrs Clinton's future as it became clear that her return to work as the junior senator from New York was not going to be an easy transition. When she asked the Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, about becoming chairwoman of a special sub-committee to handle her pet subject of healthcare reform, she was told to forget about it. Despite his illness Senator Teddy Kennedy has no intention of relinquishing his life's work of overhauling America's healthcare system.
Hiring his former rival would do more for Mr Obama than fulfil the old saw of keep-your-friends-close-and-your-enemies-closer. It would prevent a very real rival and potential troublemaker from becoming a one-person Roman tribunal in the Senate. A nightmare scenario for Mr Obama would be for Mrs Clinton and her friend John McCain to form tactical alliances against him. But Mr Obama is also wooing Mr McCain, whom he is due to meet tomorrow. The speculation is that the president-elect will ask for his bipartisan help on issues of common interest, such as energy policy.
The Machiavellian theory of why Mr Obama might want Mrs Clinton in the cabinet is that it would stop her putting her oar into domestic policy issues. It's also not done for top cabinet secretaries to practise politics while in government. However badly things turn out for Mr Obama in the next four years, he would have removed a possible challenger for 2012.
Mrs Clinton's many advisers were crowing yesterday that the next move is hers. "Obviously Hillary's got to make the decision herself," Terry McAuliffe, her campaign manager, was quoted as saying. "She's a spectacular senator, and healthcare is something she wants to battle on. But as secretary of state, she would have 100 per cent name ID and she is a beloved figure who is continually rated the most admired woman in the world."
Obama by numbers
10 million online registered Obama supporters
450 anticipated number of transition staff
$12m estimated transition budget – more than half privately raised from small contributors
144,000 job applications received by president-elect's website in first five days
100-150 target number for cabinet and sub-cabinet appointments by 1 April
4 appointments to new administration so far
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