The many Americans who take a binary view of Hillary Rodham Clinton — saint or villain — are likely to be disappointed with the new book about her State Department tenure by political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. The authors make a concerted and largely successful effort to go beyond the caricatures of one of the most admired and loathed figures in modern American politics.
While the portrayal of its subject is overall positive, HRC shows the complexity and contradictions of a woman whose ambition and resiliency can be sources of virtue and cold calculation.
The book begins with Clinton and her team’s response to defeat in the bitter 2008 presidential primary against the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. It describes the process of her erstwhile campaign aides meticulously rating Democratic members of Congress on their helpfulness in the race, on a scale from one to seven. There was, Allen and Parnes wrote, “a special circle of Clinton hell” for those who stayed on the sidelines or endorsed Obama after the Clintons had helped them raise money, attain a political appointment or get their kid into an elite school.
Yet her us-versus-them approach to patronage and retribution was accompanied by equally old-school graciousness: Clinton made a point of sending 16,000 personalized thank-you notes in the summer of 2008.
The accounts of her discussions with President Obama over becoming secretary of state offer a fascinating glimpse into her tough-mindedness and sense of patriotic duty. “Ain’t gonna happen for a million reasons,” she said in an email to top advisers at the outset. After at least three rejections, Clinton took the job, with assurances that she could fill top slots with her own people, a commitment that later came in handy when the White House tried to “exclude certain Hillarylanders” from hiring lists.
Allen and Parnes are steeped in Washington culture, and the bad habits of the Beltway press sometimes detract from their examination of one of the more unusual and intriguing Cabinet tenures in modern times. Time and again, international crises are viewed through the lens of domestic politics and internal staff machinations.
Then there is that other annoying tic that shows up in too much Washington coverage: the blind quote. Anonymous quotes can be necessary, even enlightening, when the source is providing description or detail that would otherwise be unattainable on the record. But blind quotes are meaningless when they are merely opinion, when what matters is who said it and with what authority and what possible motivation.
“She worked very hard at establishing, showing that she was the secretary of state, not the president,” the book quotes “a former senior government official” as saying, in one of many examples.
Fox News and no small number of Republicans in Congress are determined to make Benghazi the defining event of Clinton’s State Department reign. The book devotes a chapter to the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist assault on a diplomatic mission in Libya that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. A second chapter deals with the aftermath, including her testimony on Capitol Hill and her angry retort and the grilling over the Obama administration’s initial reluctance to acknowledge it as an act of terrorism.
The book describes Clinton as engaged and assertive as the awful events of Benghazi were unfolding. But those who are looking for exoneration or indictment will not find it here.
Clinton’s overall legacy at State contains a similar level of ambiguity subject to political spin. She visited 112 countries, which can be taken as savvy use of her global stature to spread positive messages about the United States as far and wide as possible — or an overindulgence of profile-sustaining vanity unaccompanied by landmark diplomatic accomplishments.
Bill Clinton pops into the story line from time to time, such as his gratuitous but brilliant editing of “the poetry” into her 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention. He employs his clout as an endorser and fundraiser to return favors and settle scores with those who were with her and against her in 2008. It’s fair to assume he will serve as First Meddler if she reaches the White House.
For those who are afflicted with Clinton fatigue, brace yourselves: These are merely the first 400-plus pages dissecting a diplomatic tenure that once seemed a consolation prize but is about to become fresh fuel for her 2016 run.
John Diaz reviewed this book for the San Francisco Chronicle.