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Hillary Clinton's Crystal Ball

How "Hard Choices" predicts her presidential campaign

Osman Orsal/AFP/Getty Images

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster)

Even while Hard Choices was still wafting its way across the Atlantic Ocean— and long before it landed on my desk in central Europe, an entire twenty-four hours after the official publication date—Hillary Clinton’s account of her State Department years had already led several news cycles, inspired thousands of megabytes of commentary, and left its subsequent reviewers with serious literary and philosophical dilemmas.

Normally, the process of writing a book review begins after the reviewer has read the book in question. The process of “reading” Hard Choices, by contrast, begins not with the physical or even the electronic book, but rather with the advance “leaks” in Politico, and the Fox News reports about the advance “leaks” in Politico, and The Wire’s report on the Fox News reporting on the advance “leaks” in Politico. To understand this book, one must be aware also of the Diane Sawyer interview with Hillary Clinton, and the Twitter rage about the Diane Sawyer interview with Hillary Clinton, and the Slate analysis of the Twitter rage about the Diane Sawyer interview with Hillary Clinton. And then there is the NPR interview, and so on.

For this reason, Hard Choices presents the reviewer with an existential problem: is it actually a book? Is it even intended to be a thing that people sit down and read, cover to cover? Or is it rather a collection of carefully crafted messages, each designed to reach a particular person, or to deflect a particular criticism, or to inspire a certain kind of remark? When my husband, who happens to be the foreign minister of Poland, saw the book on my desk, he picked it up, flipped to the index, and checked to see if he is mentioned. (He is.) I have absolutely no doubt that over the past several weeks that same action was performed by dozens of people in dozens of capitals around the world.

Of course Clinton and her team anticipated, and helped to arrange, the media frenzy, and they knew that many would read the index before the book. Each description therefore reads as if it had been vetted for that purpose. In Hard Choices, almost all of Clinton’s colleagues are admirable people who are a “living embodiment of the American Dream,” or a “terrific communicator” who works hard while always remaining decent, passionate, and unstoppable. If they are slightly difficult colleagues, they might be a “creative thinker” (Rahm Emanuel) or have a “bulldozer style” (Richard Holbrooke) with which the secretary nevertheless learned cheerfully to live.

Her foreign partners are much the same. In general they are “consummate professionals” and “enjoyable company.” A few, such as ex–French President Sarkozy, can even be “fun.” And even with more challenging interlocutors, such as the Chinese official Dai Bingguo, Clinton usually manages to speak “deeply and personally about the need to put the U. S.-China relationship on a sound footing for the sake of future generations.” Do not read Hard Choices if you seek a nuanced analysis of the people who run the world’s foreign policy, let alone any juicy gossip. Even the “candid” photos look staged: Hillary, Bill, and Bono sitting at a piano, for example.

Yet even if we accept that Hard Choices really is a book—it has a binding, after all, and has been produced by a printing press under the auspices of a publishing house—it isn’t that easy to say to which genre it belongs. It clearly is not a work of history: the book is constructed according to geography rather than chronology, and although Clinton does give accounts of her more important policy decisions, she refrains from setting them in any particular domestic or global context. Each one is told as a separate story, and most of the stories have happy endings, even if in real life they didn’t.

Clinton’s chapter on Europe, for example, begins with the deterioration of the transatlantic alliance under George W. Bush, explains how she fixed the problem by renewing relationships with “invaluable” partners, and ends with a visit to Belfast where an “old friend” is now the lord mayor of Armagh. This latter event gives Clinton a moral for her Europe story: she hopes that children growing up now in Northern Ireland will “never turn back and that their peace and progress would be an inspiration for the rest of Europe and the world.” A scant, bland paragraph or two are devoted to the European economic crisis, which was by far the most important issue at the time. There is no mention of the European Union’s longstanding failure to come up with a coherent foreign policy, no sense that anything at all is wrong with an institution which has made “many contributions to peace and prosperity within and beyond its borders.”

Clinton’s chapter on Burma is similarly glossy. It begins with a description of Aung San Suu Kyi—“frail, but with unmistakable inner strength”—and ends with Burma on the road to democracy, a story that she calls a “high point” of her term in office and “an affirmation of the unique role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of dignity and democracy.” There is no hint that the Burmese army was just then beginning its vicious war against the Karen insurgency, that a brutal conflict between Buddhists and Muslims was already growing worse, or that Suu Kyi’s prestige was starting to plummet as she failed to exert any influence to stop either one of those outrages. Even Clinton’s portrayal of Haiti, where she and her husband have a long involvement, fails to note that their plan to “Build Back Better” after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 is now widely perceived to have failed.

On topics that she knew would be examined more exhaustively, Clinton is more careful to avoid overly sunny conclusions. Her account of her attempt to “reset” relations with Russia was clearly rewritten just before publication in order to include recent events in Ukraine. Here she draws what positive stories she can—there was some cooperation with Russia in central Asia, for example—but makes clear that she had low expectations for the Russian-American relationship from the beginning. As she left office in 2013, she advised the president that “difficult days lay ahead and that our relationship with Moscow would likely get worse before it got better.” Still, even this more realistic version of events is unsatisfying, for Clinton never digs very deeply. She offers no real analysis of Vladimir Putin’s motives, and never goes into the complex history of the Russian-American relationship. She acknowledges that Russia does present a very difficult problem: “Hard men present hard choices—none more so than Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.” But she doesn’t tell us on what basis she or anyone else will solve it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Clinton at a television program in Ankara, Turkey, 2009

For similar reasons, Hard Choices also cannot be called a work of political philosophy or political science. There is no overall argument in the book, no marshaling of evidence to make a particular case or to set forward a particular strategy or thesis. This is not an argument for “realism” or “idealism.” It is not an analysis of America’s priorities. There are admirable nods to human rights, a discussion of climate change, and some intelligent observations about diplomacy in the Internet age. But Clinton does not connect the dots into a larger view, clearly because does not see the need to. Early on, she does dismiss the “outdated” debate between “hard power”—military force—and the “soft power” of other kinds of influence. She prefers “smart power,” which she defines as “choosing the right combination of tools—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural” in order to advance “our core national security objectives.” Yet that is an argument about process, not about policy; about the means, not the ends. Most of the time Clinton prudently stays away from thorny debates about just what those core national interests should be.

And although the words “a memoir” appear in tiny print on the cover, this is also not an autobiography, at least in the classic sense of the term. It actively avoids any language that might be construed as “literary,” or any psychological insights of any kind. By her own account Clinton never gets angry, although occasionally she admits that she is “exasperated.” She doesn’t get tired very often either—or if she does, she doesn’t complain: “I drank copious cups of coffee and tea, and sometimes dug the fingernails of one hand into the palm of the other.”

Instead, her personal triumphs and tragedies, like her diplomatic triumphs and tragedies, are always converted into stories and more stories, usually with moral lessons for herself, for the reader, for the nation. Her mother’s death reminds her that you must “never rest on your laurels. Never quit. Never stop working to make the world a better place.” Chelsea’s wedding makes her think of her daughter’s “dreams and ambitions”: “This, I thought, is why Bill and I had worked so hard for so many years to help build a better world—so Chelsea could grow up safe and happy and one day have a family of her own, and so every other child would have the same chance.” The news of Chelsea’s pregnancy makes her recall “what Margaret Mead said, that children keep our imaginations fresh and our hearts young, and drive us to work for a better future.”

Clinton carefully puts to rest any hint of conflict between herself and her husband, or herself and President Obama. Instead she includes a scene of herself sitting in East Timor, watching ex-President Clinton nominate President Obama for the second time: “Watching from some ten thousand miles away, I was full of pride for the former President I married, the current president I served, and the country we all loved.”

Of course Hard Choices could be shelved alongside the memoirs of other statesmen— Henry Kissinger, say, or Margaret Thatcher. But those books, while also painting the world in colors designed to flatter the author, are generally composed by people who did not anticipate a further career in public life. Clinton’s book, by contrast, does not seek merely to establish the author’s place in the nation’s past; it is designed also to establish her place in the nation’s future. This is clear to the reader from the cultural context—from Diane Sawyer and NPR and Fox—but also from the volume’s enigmatic conclusion. After 593 pages of writing about foreign policy, Clinton suddenly shifts gear. “Our strength abroad depends on our resolve and resilience at home,” she declares in her epilogue. “Citizens and leaders alike have choices to make about the country we want to live in and leave to the next generation. ... We need more good jobs that reward hard work with rising wages, dignity, and a ladder to a better life.”

We know why she has made this gear shift—and she knows that we know. But she tells us anyway: “Over the past year, as I’ve traveled around the country once again, the one question I’m asked more than any other is: Will I run for President in 2016?” And the answer? “I haven’t decided yet.” She explains:

Whatever I decide, I will always be thankful for the chance to represent America around the world. I have learned anew the goodness of our people and the greatness of our nation. I feel blessed and grateful. Our future is so full of possibility. And for me and my family that includes looking forward to a new addition— another American who deserves the best possible future we can offer. ... There have been too few quiet moments like this over the years. And I want to savor them. The time for another hard choice will come soon enough.

And thus, having spent 595 pages eschewing anything that might look remotely like a literary device, Clinton finally resorts to the oldest one of all: the cliffhanger.

In the end Hard Choices is not history, and not political philosophy, and not auto-biography. It belongs to an altogether narrower genre. Like Mitt Romney’s No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Newt Gingrich’s A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters, and John Kerry’s A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America, Hard Choices is, quite simply, one of those books that people write when they are running for president. Since it calls itself a “memoir,” and focuses on her four years as secretary of state, and since it does not have the word “America” in the title, Clinton’s version is a little different from the others. But really there can be no doubt that this is a campaign book in an autobiographical and statesmanlike disguise.

I am not sure when it became de rigueur for presidential candidates to publish a work between hard covers, but nobody now runs for high office without having written, or having arranged for the ghostwriting of, a very large book. The advantages are obvious. Such books provide some vignettes for voters to chew over, and some pre-approved quotes for the press. They offer a narrative about the candidate that is entirely of the candidate’s own construction, a story that Hillary or Mitt or Barack can control from start to finish. Above all, the publication of a book, if judiciously planned, can provide an excuse for interviews, a book tour, and quite a lot of highbrow media, and all of this many months or even years before the candidate begins the tedious process of running an actual campaign. If the candidate proves really adept at the writing/ghostwriting/marketing of the thing, he or she can even make some money.

But once the reviewer understands that Hard Choices belongs to this genre, then its positive attributes become much clearer. If you leaf through this book, as I initially did, looking for insight into particular people or events, you will be disappointed. If you look for a grand strategy, you will be similarly let down. But if instead you peruse the book in search of clues as to how candidate Clinton is going to portray herself over the next two years, then it becomes somewhat interesting, even downright useful.

It is impossible not to notice, for example, that throughout the book Clinton emphasizes very particular personality traits. She returns again and again to the ethic of service that her parents bequeathed to her. At one point she speaks of her “ ‘service gene,’ that voice telling me there is no higher calling or more noble purpose than serving your country.” Clinton also hints at personal sacrifices: “When I chose to leave a career as a young lawyer in Washington to move to Arkansas to marry Bill and start a family, my friends asked, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I heard similar questions when I took on health care reform as First Lady, ran for office myself, and accepted President Barack Obama’s offer to represent our country as Secretary of State.”

That is a clear message: Clinton is not enjoying all of this, and she is not going to pretend otherwise. She didn’t move to Arkansas or tackle health care reform or become secretary of state because those were pleasurable things to do. She was not seeking personal gratification—on the contrary. Unlike some of the men who have been or will be her competitors, she is not motivated by narcissism, arrogance, and egotism. She is animated entirely by her “service gene.”

And also by her work ethic. She lets us know that she travels doggedly and works obsessively, almost to the point of making herself ill. She tells us more than once how many countries (112) she visited while secretary of state and how many miles (nearly a million) she clocked up. She says that she encouraged her staff to “do whatever they could to stay sane and healthy amid the rigors of a grueling schedule.” Diplomats who have dealt with her do indeed testify that she really was always well-briefed and well-prepared. Whichever of those 112 countries she happened to be in, she always knew what the issues were, and she always understood to whom she was talking. Unlike Joe Biden, she never mixed up the president and the prime minister.

This necessarily meant that she relied on the State Department and its employees rather than on her own relatively narrow knowledge of foreign countries—and this, frankly, is a lot better than winging it. Indeed, there is more than a hint of the technocrat about Clinton. She doesn’t delve into policy debates much herself, at least not in this book, but she likes to surround herself (along with her retinue of loyalists and handlers) with people who know about things, and she has the technocrat’s desire to find the best solution to the problem, whatever its origin. She studiously avoids anything that could be misconstrued as “ideological,” or even as an “idea.” She admires experience, preferring the sage advice of Richard Holbrooke over the “younger White House aides” who rolled their eyes when he spoke. What she seems to mean by “smart power” is policies that work.

From all of this, it is possible to make a few good guesses about what kind of candidate Clinton hopes to be: deeply non-ideological, a centrist. She intends to run as a hard-working, fact-oriented pragmatist—someone who finds ways to work with difficult opponents, and not only faces up to difficult problems but also makes the compromises needed to solve them. Again and again she portrays herself sitting across the table from Dai Bingguo or President Putin, working hard, searching for a way forward. Similar methods, presumably, can be applied to the Republican leadership.

Though pretty stultifying to anyone who wants a bit of moral uplift from their presidential candidate, this might well be a brilliant campaign strategy. It might even be a brilliant presidential strategy. Clinton wants to be the politician who will rise above the partisanship that has hamstrung the Obama administration, end the gridlock in Washington, cut deals, and move forward.

In order to do this, she will transform herself into a figure of benign neutrality. Unlike Obama, she will not inspire, but she will also not enrage. Perhaps she provoked angry passions as First Lady, but that is all behind us now. Hillary Clinton circa 2016 will promote not the left and not the right, she will promote America.

To anyone whose memory stretches back beyond the two most recent presidential administrations, this may sound familiar. In the Bill Clinton years, this stance was called “triangulation,” and it meant that the president kept an equal distance from both the Republicans and the Democrats in Congress. Those who didn’t like it complained that, in practice, triangulation required a rejection of anything that looked like political principle or moral consistency in favor of whatever policies might be politically feasible. On the other hand, a decade’s worth of bitter partisanship hasn’t gotten us anywhere, either. After eight years of Bush and eight more of Obama, the nation might well be tired of Big Ideas, and might well prefer some old-fashioned wheeling and dealing instead.

As for Clinton’s lack of emotion, and the reliance on stiff formulations and cliché— well, we might as well get used to it. For there is another message in Hard Choices: by writing the kind of book that she wrote, Clinton is indicating that she is not going to open up and reveal herself in some new way—ever. If there is more depth beneath the surface, if she is less stolid and lackluster than she appears to be, then we aren’t going to know about it. This is a woman who is aware that every outfit she wears, every hairstyle she adopts, every word she utters can create an international debate, and she intends to control as much of that conversation as she can. If, once upon a time, there ever was a spontaneous Hillary Clinton who said what she really thinks and did not worry about how the media would respond, that person was suppressed long ago.

Maybe, if she really wants to be president, she was right to have done so. It really is true that one slip of the tongue could end Clinton’s career. It is also true that the stories with edifying morals, the glossy photographs, the promise of bipartisanship, the work ethic, the devotion to service and duty—all of this makes sense in the context of a national campaign: a lot of people who are only remotely, or not at all, interested in the nuances of the Russian-American relationship can identify with this package very easily. Those who do not want or do not need a grand strategy for America, at home and abroad, may find her “journey” very compelling. And many people will like the positive spin she puts on even the most negative world events: it is so cheerful, so upbeat.

Hard Choices is not remotely a book for the ages. It does not belong on the same shelf as Dean Acheson’s memoir. But maybe it contains the winning formula—and for this author, winning is what counts.