Last June, under an oppressive sun, at a rally to save the Niagara military base at the University of Buffalo, all of New York’s top politicians—George Pataki, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton—poured sweat.
Yet there was exactly one member of the wilting delegation who managed, somehow, to stay cool: Hillary Clinton’s mysterious, glamorous and eerily unflappable aide de camp, Huma Abedin.
“It was like 110 degrees outside,” recalled the source, a political aide who asked to remain anonymous. “We were all just pouring down with sweat. But I have this distinct memory of Huma traipsing in in this blue pantsuit—it was like this wool pantsuit—not a bead of sweat on her brow, not a hair out of place, with everything perfectly organized in her Yves Saint Laurent handbag.”
That sort of fantastical, supernaturally tinged tale is not unusual. Indeed, in the insular world of New York and D.C. politics, Huma Abedin has become a sort of mythical figure.
On a day-to-day basis, Ms. Abedin is responsible for guiding the Senator from one chaotic event to the next and ensuring that the many hundreds of situations that arise at each—the photo ops, the handshakes, the speeches—go smoothly. The job of “body person”—industry-speak for the catchall role of an omnipresent traveling assistant—is a notoriously grueling one, requiring unfaltering level-headedness and a zeal for multitasking. These folks are constantly on the move, juggling 20 different chores, and they consequently often appear slightly disheveled (or even sweaty).
By most quantifiable measures, Ms. Abedin has the most challenging of those gigs. In the last 10 days, she has accompanied Mrs. Clinton to more than 20 events, involving nine plane flights and several trains. At each stop, they were mobbed.
“I think she has special powers,” said public-radio broadcaster Katia Dunn, who recently crossed paths with Ms. Abedin and Mrs. Clinton at a café on Capitol Hill.
Ms. Dunn explained that she had heard about the “cult of Huma,” but had never met her. “All of a sudden, I turn around and there was this woman I now know to be Huma. And it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous—she did just sort of have this presence. She stopped me in my tracks for a second.”
“It’s not like she’s incredibly coiffed,” Ms. Dunn continued. “She just looked very composed and confident in her natural beauty. She momentarily arrested our progress. What’s amazing is that she didn’t even yell at us or anything—she didn’t have to.”
Representative Anthony Weiner, a swingingly single Brooklyn Democrat who has known Ms. Abedin since before Hillary Clinton was elected to office, talked about her ability to perform under pressure “preternaturally.”
“This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer—I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma,” said the Congressman, who watched Ms. Abedin in action earlier this month at the internationally covered march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
Crossing the bridge was a logistical minefield: huge crowds to navigate, innumerable V.I.P.’s—including former President Clinton—to hand-hold, countless photo ops to facilitate and a strict timetable to keep. “There were a hundred things that could have gone wrong,” Mr. Weiner recalled. “And Huma was sort of the all-purpose trouble-shooter of first response. It was a tour de force, and what was most impressive is that she maintained a level head the whole time.”
He added: “In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human or not.”
But, Really, Is She?
Which gets at another facet of the cult of Huma: She’s something of a mystery, even to the people who have worked in her proximity for years.
Very little is publicly known about her, which of course leaves plenty to talk about. And the rumors abound. According to various accounts from Huma acquaintances interviewed for this story: She’s Lebanese, she’s Jordanian, she’s Iranian, she’s 26, she’s 36, she has two children, she lives with the Clintons.
“No one knows anything about her,” said one political aide. “She’s like Hillary’s secret weapon.”
In point of fact, many people from countless different corridors across the globe know something of Huma Abedin. But apparently she has a rare knack for letting people in without really letting them in.
“This might seem too over-saccharine, but I love Huma,” said Oscar de la Renta, who is a personal friend and intensely loyal supporter of the Clintons. The legendary designer was speaking to The Observer on the phone from his compound in the Dominican Republic. He has known her for nearly a decade. Indeed, he noted, Ms. Abedin has actually been a guest at his island home. He described her as “discreet,” “loyal,” “beautiful” and “half-Pakistani.”
“She is an unbelievably feminine and gentle person, but at the same time she can accomplish so much,” offered Mr. de la Renta. He recalled that she had great style, but hastened to point out that “she’s a Muslim” and “she’s very conservative.”
“I always say I don’t want to die without seeing [Huma] in a strapless dress,” he said, with a laugh. But did the dapper dressmaker know, say, where his dream girl grew up?
“I don’t really know much about her history,” said Mr. de la Renta, “because Huma is not such a talkative girl.”
Other political players with Clinton connections were just as effusive—and just as vague on the personal details.
“I’m so fond of Huma, if she were to run for office, I would volunteer for her campaign,” said public-relations man and Democratic super-fund-raiser Robert Zimmerman. Pressed for any biographical details about his prospective candidate, Mr. Zimmerman said, “I really don’t know much of her back story.”
The Huma Story
The back story, as it were, begins 32 years ago in Kalamazoo, Mich., where Ms. Abedin, who declined to participate in this article, lived until the age of 2. Her family then relocated to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she lived until returning to the States for college. She attended George Washington University. Her father, who died when she was 17, was an Islamic and Middle Eastern scholar of Indian decent. He founded his own institute devoted to Western-Eastern and interfaith understanding and reconciliation and published a journal focusing on Muslim minorities living in the diaspora. Her mother, a renowned professor in Saudi Arabia, is Pakistani.
Ms. Abedin recently bought an apartment in the vicinity of 12th and U streets in Washington, D.C. When she comes to New York, she stays with her sister, who has an apartment in Manhattan—not, as one popular rumor has it, in Chappaqua with the Clintons. She has no children and has never been married. She’s single.
Ms. Abedin began working for Mrs. Clinton as an intern for the then First Lady in 1996. She was hired as a staff assistant to the First Lady’s chief of staff, Maggie Williams. For several years, she was the backup to Mrs. Clinton’s permanent personal aide, Allison Stein, and she officially took over as Mrs. Clinton’s aide and advisor around the time of the 2000 Senate race.
Her Presidential c
ampaign title is “traveling chief of staff.”
‘Hoh My God!’
So she’s eminently qualified, and functions in the most visible position for the most visible candidate now running for President. Still, that’s only part of the explanation for why she has become an object of fascination.
“Have you seen Huma?” asked James Carville, the former advisor to President Clinton. “Her appearance is just like, ‘Hoh my God!’ She takes your breath away. She’s an unbelievably, stunningly gorgeous woman. Nobody in that position can be that good-looking; it just doesn’t happen.” He added that she is also “damn smart.”
Ms. Abedin is 5-foot-6 but invariably wears high heels—even to the multitude of parades she is obliged to walk in. She has full lips and long auburn hair, always worn down. And, despite a penchant for cheeseburgers and a schedule that doesn’t allow much time for Equinox, she is fashionably trim.
According to a friend, her favorite designers are Mr. de la Renta, Catherine Malandrino, Charles Nolan and Prada. “And she has a weakness for Marc Jacobs bags,” said the friend. “She is known for her bags.”
Robert Barnett, the Clintons’ longtime attorney, said that in 11 years of knowing her, he has never seen her wear the same outfit twice. He also said he holds Ms. Abedin’s intellect in the highest regard. “She has extremely good instincts and extremely good judgment,” he said. “She is also gorgeous and the most terrifically dressed young woman you will ever encounter.”
A Special Category
Assistant Secretary of State Dina Habib Powell, a 33-year-old who was born in Cairo, also speaks fluent Arabic and is also uncannily stylish—she says she has been told on many occasions that she is Ms. Abedin’s Republican doppelgänger—had some insights into what her colleague is really passionate about.
“[Huma] certainly feels a deep responsibility to encourage more mutual understanding between her beliefs and culture and American culture,” said Ms. Powell. “I think you will see Huma coming out of that role in the background.”
“I think she’s going to emerge as a woman to watch,” she added.
It may have happened in the background, but Ms. Abedin has indeed become a trusted advisor to Mrs. Clinton, especially on issues pertaining to the Middle East, according to a number of Clinton associates. At meetings on the region, they say, Ms. Abedin’s perspective is always sought out.
And more and more, she’s becoming known for that expertise as well.
“She is a person of enormous intellect with in-depth knowledge on a number of issues—especially issues pertaining to the Middle East,” said Senator John McCain, in a statement relayed by one of his aides.
“Huma is an example of why more people, particularly in Washington, need to understand the rest of the world, need to recognize what an asset it is to have cross-cultural experiences,” wrote Queen Noor of Jordan in an e-mail. “She is loyal, intelligent, diplomatic, energetic and brings a broader understanding to the table—one that I wish there was more of in the world. It is this sensibility that has contributed to her being an enormous asset to Hillary in Washington and New York and now in this next endeavor, and I am proud of her.”
And so, apparently, is the boss.
“I’d call Huma one in a million,” said Mrs. Clinton’s press secretary, Philippe Reines, “but that would mean there are 5,999 others in the world just like her, and there simply aren’t. She is truly one of a kind, one in a billion. We are all in awe of her poise, grace, judgment, intellect and her seemingly endless reserve of kindness, patience and energy.”
Special powers, definitely.