WASHINGTON — Seated next to President Trump in the Oval Office Tuesday, Nikki Haley did not look like a woman who had tortured herself over whether to resign as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
On television at least, she looked like someone who has a much better deal coming her way early next year. She looked like someone who has enjoyed 14 solid years of successful public life, first as South Carolina state legislator, then as governor and, currently, as a national representative on the international stage. She looked like a woman who, at just 46, sees rainbows and jackpots in her future.
As Haley and Trump announced, she’ll leave the U.N. at the end of this year, but she’s not going anywhere — for long. Haley has long been considered a likely presidential candidate. But not before 2024. In her resignation letter, Haley explicitly said she “surely will not be a candidate for any office in 2020.” Too bad. It would be such a nice round number for the nation’s first female president.
Most likely, Haley is pausing to make some money. In her statement, she suggested an imminent return to the private sector. She and her husband have accrued considerable debt, according to the Charleston Post & Courier. Also, her parents’ home reportedly is in foreclosure. With her intimate knowledge of international trade, politics and relationships, Haley could pick her job — and name her salary — at any of several top-notch consulting firms. She might even make an excellent get for the Trump Organization, which would make some sense of her effusive praise for Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Melania Trump during her Tuesday remarks.
I’ve been watching my fellow South Carolinian closely since our first meeting nearly a decade ago. Haley had called me for coffee to discuss her run for governor. A state legislator at the time, she shrewdly reached out to the only nationally syndicated columnist in town. We met at Columbia’s Gourmet Shop, a popular bistro, wine and kitchen boutique.
When I walked into the empty restaurant section, I spotted a pretty, petite woman dressed in a royal blue suit. (We women take note of such details.) She nearly knocked me off balance with her brilliant smile and piercing brown eyes. Disarming is the word — and it’s a good one if you’re a politician. Greeting me warmly, she quickly set the tone for our meeting: “Before we get started, I just want you to know that I agree with everything you said about Sarah Palin.”
“Well, then,” I said, “we’re off to a good start.”
Haley was referring to a column I had written the previous fall saying that Palin, recently selected as John McCain’s running mate, wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Several months after our meeting, I spotted a photo of Haley and Palin holding hands, standing on the statehouse steps. When I emailed Haley to express my surprise, she responded: “I’ll never forget that you’re the one who put me on the map.”
Yes. She’s a politician.
Through the years, I’ve continued to drop her a line now and then, usually without response. We’ve had a couple of disagreements over columns I’ve written about her, but I remain both intrigued and impressed by her personal power and epic story. Born to Sikh Indian parents and raised in tiny Bamberg, South Carolina, she has built a resume that speaks to ambition but also to tenacity and courage. Forty years ago, it wasn’t easy to be a brown-skinned child whose father wore a turban in a place like Bamberg. As U.N. ambassador, she has performed with excellence, sometimes speaking independently rather than parroting Trump’s positions. In so doing, she has earned the respect of men and women across the spectrum, regardless of whether they agree with her often-hawkish positions.
In decades of writing about politics, I’ve run across few with Haley’s innate talents. She’s a natural with people, whether crouching with children on the ground in Africa — reminiscent of Princess Diana on similar travels — or speaking to leaders in the tense theater of the United Nations. As governor, she led the Legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds, while also guiding South Carolina through the shock and grief of the 2015 church massacre in Charleston.
It won’t serve her presidential aspirations well to stay out of politics for long, as Haley surely knows. Thus, the burning question — what’s next? — has only one certain answer: Whatever she wants.