WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton's plan for 2013 was simple.
She'd embark on an epic swansong around the world as secretary of state, a dizzying itinerary of east-west and north-south flights that would take her past 1 million miles in the air at the helm of American diplomacy and perhaps break her own record of 112 countries visited while in the post. Then, there would be a long rest, time and work with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, on development issues and a sequel to her 2003 memoir Living History.
Finally, she'd make a destiny-defining decision: whether to try again to become America's first female president.
Her health got in the way: a nasty stomach virus while returning from a weeklong trip to Europe, exhaustion, severe dehydration, a faint, a fall and a concussion that led to a brief hospitalization when doctors discovered a blood clot near her brain. The woman who'd seemed to lay the perfect groundwork for another presidential bid — indeed, who'd made a life carving out her own path — was sidelined by circumstances beyond her control.
It was a rare sign of vulnerability in what had been a carefully charted four years of often grueling overseas travel and behind-the-scenes politics, where as a peace mediator, international enforcer and global ambassador of America she fully emerged from the giant shadow of her husband. But it was not the only sign.
The deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, revealed an episode of State Department miscommunication on her watch that could feed into her diplomatic legacy and give future political opponents, should she return to politics, an opening to exploit.
And so, when she testified to Congress about the attack, both the drive and the drama forever associated with the Clintons were suddenly back. In the final spectacle of a diplomatic career that ended Friday when John Kerry succeeded her, she would not be browbeaten.
Pressed perhaps once too often on why the terrorist assault was miscast as a public protest in the days afterward, Clinton went after her Republican inquisitor with her voice rising and quivering in anger. What difference, at this point, does it make? she demanded. It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.
Clinton denounced those who still insist the administration lied about the attack.
There are some people in politics and in the press who can't be confused by the facts, she told The Associated Press in her last one-on-one interview as secretary of state.
Even before her ailments, people close to her were debating the pros and cons of another presidential run. Would it be worth the cost in time, energy and especially money — her 2008 campaign debt was just retired in January — and would it spark a new round of personal attacks on her, her husband and her character?
Polls show her as the popular favorite for 2016; no Democrat is better placed right now to unify the party.
With instant national appeal and the highest approval ratings of her political career, she would also presumably have a head start on any Republican candidate in a general election. And at age 69, she'd hardly be too old to lead. She'd be five years younger than Vice President Joe Biden, a possible party rival.
Yet any sense of inevitably is decidedly premature. After all, Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the 2008 Democratic nomination for several years, right up until Obama beat her in Iowa.
Like Obama, some of the potential contenders for 2016 are largely unknown quantities whose strengths cannot yet be measured.
There's no question Clinton's years as a well-regarded senator and especially her statesmanship in the Obama administration have lifted her above the partisan fray and improved her standing with the public.
Her favorability rating in polls is at its highest point in her career, 67 percent in a recent Washington Post-ABC survey, indicating that the polarization that marked her years in the White House, seen again in the 2008 campaign, has been overcome.
Now, reaction to the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, in particular, is being looked at by her allies as a cautionary tale of the tone that awaits any future presidential bid.
Although no investigation has specifically faulted Clinton or backed up claims of a conspiracy by the Obama administration to provide disinformation about the assault, Benghazi's timing in the final weeks of a close presidential contest led to bitter and personal criticism of Clinton in the blogosphere, on cable television and on Capitol Hill.
It went so far that some critics suggested she was faking a diplomatic illness, as John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador for President George W. Bush, put it, to avoid testifying on Benghazi.
Clinton seems not to have made up her mind on a presidential run, although she insists, seemingly less strenuously than before, that she is through with the high-wire of politics. Certainly many of her supporters, who just days ago launched a super PAC to support another presidential run, want her to go for it.
Asked on the eve of her departure from the State Department if she still had contributions to make, she replied Absolutely, but stressed that the how and when were not yet clear.
I haven't decided yet, she told the AP.
I really haven't yet. I have deliberately cabined it off. I am going to be secretary of state until the very last minute when I walk out the door. And then I am going to take the weekend off and then I may start thinking about all the various offers and requests and ideas that have come my way.
Early on as secretary, amid talk that she was losing influence within the administration, Clinton embarked on a lengthy trip to Africa to highlight those issues, only to be upstaged by the arrival of her husband and his entourage in North Korea to free two American journalists.
Despite a historic visit to war-ravaged Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the seven-nation, 11-day tour of the continent is best remembered for her testy exchange with a student in Kinshasa who asked what Bill Clinton thought about Chinese influence in Africa.
You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? she asked. My husband is not the secretary of state. I am. So, you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I'm not going to be channeling my husband.
Clinton leaves with many international crises unresolved, such as Syria's civil war and Egypt's democratic future.
The U.S.-Israel alliance is on shaky ground, terrorism is on the rise in North Africa, there's an unclear endgame to the Afghanistan war and Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to a two-state peace solution than they were four years ago.
And, despite endless warnings, Iran's nuclear program has moved closer to weapons capacity.
In all, Clinton spent 401 days on overseas travel and almost three months in the air.
Get into the arena, stand up for what you believe and put together the arguments that can win the day, she told the AP as she prepared to leave office, imparting advice to anyone who might be considering a career in politics.
I am making no decisions, but I would never give that advice to someone that I wouldn't take myself, she said.
If you believe you can make a difference, not just in politics, in public service, in advocacy around all these important issues, then you have to be prepared to accept that you are not going to get 100 percent approval.