WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday she is "thrilled to be back" at work after a monthlong absence due to illness, a concussion and a blood clot near her brain. But she said she is looking forward to leaving the job as America's top diplomat and taking a break for at least "a little while."
"I am back in the swing," Clinton told reporters in her first public appearance since returning Monday to the State Department, where she was greeted by cheers and a standing ovation by senior staffers. "I am thrilled to be back and I am also incredibly grateful for this fabulous team that I have here at the State Department who never missed a beat during the time I was away," she said at a ceremony to honor the retiring U.S. ambassador to Ireland, Dan Rooney.
The former first lady and New York senator is the popular favorite to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016 despite her repeated assertions that she isn't interested in running.
But her lighthearted comment in response to a question about what she planned to do after leaving State Department is likely to fuel speculation that she may be open to changing her mind.
Asked if she was going to enter "retirement," Clinton replied with a smile: "I don't know if that is a word I would use, but certainly stepping off the very fast track for a little while."
Clinton said she had had "the most extraordinary experience" as secretary of state and wants to wrap up unresolved issues before turning her office over to her successor. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has been nominated to succeed her.
"We are focused on continuing our work, finishing up everything that we can and helping Senator Kerry with his transition," she said, calling her return to work "somewhat bittersweet" because she will be leaving shortly.
Among those remaining issues will be her long-awaited testimony before Congress about the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Clinton is expected to testify during the week of Jan. 21 before Kerry's confirmation, after having to postpone an earlier testimony date because of the stomach virus.
Clinton had been absent from the State Department and had not been seen in public since she returned from a trip to Europe on Dec. 7 and was sidelined by the virus, then a fall and a concussion and finally a brief hospitalization for a blood clot near her brain.
The stomach bug forced her to cancel a planned visit to North Africa and the Middle East and left her severely dehydrated. While at home, she fainted and fell and suffered a concussion that was diagnosed by doctors on Dec. 20.
During a follow up examination on Dec. 30, doctors discovered a blood clot in a vein that runs between the skull and the brain behind her right ear and she was admitted to New York-Presbyterian Hospital for treatment with blood thinners. She was released from the hospital last Wednesday and returned to work on Monday.
On Monday, her staff presented her with a gag gift of a football helmet and a blue football jersey with "Clinton" and the number 112 — the record-breaking number of countries she has visited since becoming secretary of state — printed on the back. Aides said Clinton was delighted with the gifts but did not try on either of them.
At the ceremony for Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL franchise, Clinton joked that Washington was such a contact sport that she now had a football helmet.