Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Tough job, hard choices, pretty good book

Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives for a book signing in New York City. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP)
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives for a book signing in New York City. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP)
Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives for a book signing in New York City. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / AP) Gallery: Tough job, hard choices, pretty good book

Hard Choices

A Memoir

By Hillary Clinton

Simon & Schuster. 635 pp. $35.


Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer and John Timpane

 


Nobody can say Hillary Clinton didn't work hard as secretary of state. She visited 112 countries, logging nearly a million miles and more than 2,000 hours in the air during her four years on the job.

Whether she was any good is up to history and, perhaps, the voters to judge.

Though not an overt campaign book, Hard Choices clearly was written with a presidential run in mind. Its self-confident style is the product of both Clinton and her "book team," including speechwriter Dan Schwerin, which she thanks profusely in her acknowledgments. Clinton - who will appear in a sold-out book signing at the Free Library at 11:30 a.m. Friday - portrays herself as a credible leader, well-connected and capable of dealing with tough guys like Vladimir Putin.

The memoir covers Clinton's tenure as the 67th secretary of state, an office held by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. (The last secretary of state to become president was Pennsylvania's own James Buchanan, widely considered the worst president in American history.) The book is not an autobiography. Don't pick it up expecting dish about Bill. Don't flip to the index looking for Lewinsky, Monica.

But if you want to know about the Obama administration's foreign-policy buzzwords - pivot, smart power, reset - this is your book.

Inevitably, Hard Choices has the self-congratulatory tone endemic to the writings of politicians, and it reads like a self-evaluation for a performance review. But when was the last time a politician wrote a memoir and called it Confessions?

Books by politicians are seldom known for literary merit, and Clinton's prose is serviceable, not memorable. Hard Choices won't make anyone forget former Secretary of State Dean Acheson's Pulitzer-winning Present at the Creation. Still, Clinton is remarkably clear, an admirable thing in any writer.

It's interesting that she deeply admires William Seward, the New York senator who lost the presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln in 1860 but became Lincoln's secretary of state, the most prominent player on his "team of rivals."

At first, Clinton relates, she tried to turn down President Obama's offer of the job. (She did later turn down his offer to stay on for his second term.) His argument: He had to concentrate on domestic matters and needed someone he could trust to take charge of foreign policy. Accepting the post was the first of her hard choices.

"Our team inherited a daunting list of challenges at a time of diminished expectations at home and abroad about America's ability to lead the world," she writes. She then leads us on a world tour, beginning with Asia, her first foreign destination as a cabinet member: "By the time I became Secretary, I had come to believe the United States had to do more to help shape the future of Asia and manage our increasingly complex relationship with China."

She devotes chapters to China, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Europe, Russia, Latin America, Africa. It's an exhaustive, and exhausting, account of crises, negotiations, petty betrayals (nasty is a prominent word), and long back-channel talks.

Many may turn first to "Part Five: Upheaval," in which Clinton focuses on the Middle East, including a chapter on Benghazi.

Ah, Benghazi. Clinton may know more than she tells, but her treatment seems careful, responsive to objection, and regretful. Her version of events, which offers nothing new, won't placate her savagers. Yet "Benghazi: Under Attack" may, in the end, satisfy most readers. The detail and knowledgeability of this section deserve consideration.

Clinton takes responsibility for the lives lost - she seems heartbroken over the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens - and the absence of adequate defense. She says that large-scale help was far away and that she never saw any e-mails begging for better protection.

First reports of the attack, crossing the Atlantic to Washington, were, she claims, obscured by the fog of war. To this day, no one understands exactly what happened, who attacked, or how Stevens died of smoke inhalation (he and another officer were separated, for reasons unknown, from a man guiding them to the roof). She - again, apparently - painstakingly details steps to aid the compound's defenders, and later a nearby CIA outpost.

 Clinton defends U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's public statements at the time, which largely have been supported by reports in the last year. She also defends her own maligned "what difference at this point does it make" speech before a congressional hearing. As well she might, she bemoans the "terrible politicization of this tragedy" - if she runs, it will be shoved in her face daily. But no competing account of "what really happened at Benghazi" has lasted past an eyeblink; until one does, hers may hold up.

"Part Six: The Future We Want" amounts to a Clinton 2016 platform. Planks include climate change; fair play for world trade; continued work for international development (she believes U.S. contributions have been "remarkable"); Internet-driven changes in politics and diplomacy (which this woman, who became the meme "texting Hillary," saw first-hand with Benghazi, the Arab spring, Iranian elections, and WikiLeaks); and expanded human rights for women and LGBT people.

This book, so excruciatingly laundered, still manages to be an engaging look at the mud-wrestling of high-stakes international diplomacy. It won't win or lose her the presidency, if she runs - but it may impress readers with the hard job she held down between 2009 and 2013.

 


mschaffer@phillynews.com

215-854-2537

 

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