Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down on a plush yellow couch at the J.W. Marriott late on a Saturday morning in early May. The Beijing skyline sparkled, uncharacteristically sunny and smog-free, out the window of her 23rd-floor suite, and she was wearing sunglasses even though we were indoors, "an eye infection," she said apologetically. Clinton seemed surprisingly upbeat, especially considering that just a day earlier, she had come uncomfortably close to a major public rebuff by the Chinese -- much closer, in fact, than anyone yet realized. "It was a standoff," she told me, "for 24 difficult hours."
Until our conversation, Clinton had said virtually nothing publicly about the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident whose fate had become the object of a week of frenetic negotiations when his escape from village house arrest to the U.S. Embassy collided with a visit to Beijing by Clinton herself. Amid the unfolding drama, the secretary had smiled and nodded her way through elaborately choreographed high-level annual talks and a variety of photo ops at which she gamely recited paeans to constructive dialogue and plugged cut-rate cookstoves for the developing world.