WASHINGTON - It was vintage Hillary Clinton. For those who may have thought that prolonged illness might have taken a toll, the feisty secretary of state proved once again why she's a force to be reckoned with.
She may have disappeared off the radar for several weeks -- felled by flu and later a blood clot caused after she fainted and suffered a concussion -- but Clinton showed Wednesday that she's back, and in fighting form.
For several hours, the 65-year-old Clinton gave a consummate performance displaying political skills honed over decades first working as a lawyer and then in public life as a first lady and US senator from New York.
At a Senate hearing into the attack on the US mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi, she choked back tears over the lives lost but, in a flash of anger, unleashed long-held frustration at Republican charges of a bid to cover up the actual sequence of events on the night of September 11.
"Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?" Clinton shot back, pounding the table.
That remark could come back to haunt her.
For as she prepares to step down at the end of her four-year stint as the top US diplomat, Clinton's testimony will once stoke speculation about her plans.
The ghost of futures yet to come stalked the hearings, as Clinton faced questions from young senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul -- both of whom have been eyed as possible Republican party presidential candidates in 2016.
If so, they could find themselves up against Democrat Clinton, who many observers believe will run again to be the nation's first woman president after taking time out to rest and recuperate.
"Watching Hillary Clinton eye Marco Rubio as he begins questioning calls to mind the way a tiger eyes a gazelle," tweeted one eager Twitter user.
Although Clinton has repeatedly denied she harbors ambitions to be the next president, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday said 67 percent of all Americans -- a record high -- had favorable views of her.
With a nod to her possible White House bid, Republican Representative Steven Cahot wryly told her at a later House hearing, "I wish you well in your future endeavors -- mostly," eliciting one of Clinton's famous laughs.
"I'm biased in saying this, but I think she has been, and history will show her to have been, one of the great secretaries of state," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
"She came in office at a time when we were dealing with a diminished reputation worldwide, where our alliances were frayed... she did extraordinary work in advancing the president's agenda," he added.
In one of her last appearances before US lawmakers, Clinton, wearing the black-rimmed glasses which she had previously mostly kept hidden from public view, accepted full responsibility for security lapses in Benghazi.
But with an eye on defending her legacy, she reclaimed her mantle as America's top cheerleader abroad.
"After four years in this job, traveling nearly a million miles, visiting 112 countries, my faith in our country and our future is stronger than ever," she told lawmakers.
"Every time that blue and white airplane carrying the words 'United States of America' touches down in some far-off capital, I feel again the honor it is to represent the world's indispensable nation."
On Thursday, Clinton will appear before senators again to introduce the man tapped to succeed her -- Senator John Kerry. He is likely to sail through his Senate confirmation hearing and could take over by the end of the month.
And Clinton will step back into the shadows, for the first time in decades, leaving everyone guessing when or if she will return to public life again.
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