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February 11, 2014 5:47 pm
HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Hutchinson, RRP£20 / Crown, RRP$26, 448 pages
Among the staffers who devote their lives to Hillary Rodham Clinton – the worker bees of “Hillaryland” – is a group that keeps meticulous lists of those to whom she owes favours. Their index system is second to none. Following Clinton’s defeat to Barack Obama in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination of 2008, she sent out 16,000 thank-you notes to people who had supported her campaign – often with a scribbled aside. No personal detail was missed.
The database also includes those who have betrayed her. Like the Bourbons, the Clintons never forget. While Hillary Clinton was clocking up 956,000 air miles as secretary of state, Bill Clinton was intervening in Democratic primaries to endorse the opponents of lawmakers who had switched sides. In most cases, such as that of Jason Altmire, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, Bill’s opposition proved the kiss of death. Loyalists deny it is an “enemies list” along the lines of Richard Nixon’s. But the difference is one of degree. “He is dead to us,” is a Clinton phrase. And they mean it.
Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, co-authors of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, have earned a place on the thank-you side of the ledger. Their book offers an account of Clinton’s tireless four years as Obama’s first secretary of state. As a profile of a long-distance political runner, HRC offers insights into Clinton’s stamina. As an account of the big themes underlying US diplomacy, it falls short.
Obama, whose correct relations with Clinton gradually turned into something like affection, billed her selection as part of his “team of rivals” approach. The other big rival was Robert Gates, a holdover from George W Bush’s administration. Clinton and Gates stood apart from the rest of Obama’s cabinet as virtual untouchables. They forged a warm relationship that was often decisive in the big foreign policy debates of Obama’s first term. As time went on, a surprising rapport also developed between the president and his chief diplomat.
There is much to say about Clinton’s effect on US diplomacy, a great deal of it positive. Alas, the authors – both Washington-based reporters – allowed themselves to be imprisoned in an often cloyingly uncritical narrative. If there are independent voices in the book’s 400-plus pages, I missed them. By contrast, if there was anyone from Hillaryland – however tangential – whom Allen and Parnes failed to consult, they should feel slighted. It is little surprise that the authors developed Stockholm syndrome in the process. HRC is an example of reporters getting too close to their subject. Here is a typical observation: “Like a veteran hitter who remains even-keeled under pressure, her steadiness is born of her experience.”
Clinton’s achievements were respectable. These include using her star power to help restore America’s reputation after the damage from the Bush years, assisting in the US “pivot to Asia”, prodding Myanmar to take some tentative steps towards democracy, helping stave off complete disaster at the Copenhagen summit on climate change and clinching the green light for the French-British-led overthrow of Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi. She played a key role lobbying her former colleagues in the US Senate to vote for a new arms limitation treaty with Russia. It passed by four votes. She also did her best to push the “reset” button on relations with Moscow, even if it failed to outlast Dmitry Medvedev’s stint as president.
Clinton’s diligence earned her the grudging admiration of Obama staffers who had once seen her as a “monster”, in the words of Samantha Power, now US ambassador to the UN. Yet she was equally studious in avoiding anything that could damage her 2016 presidential ambitions. Afghanistan and Pakistan were farmed out to Richard Holbrooke, who tragically died as he approached two years in the job. The Arab-Israeli portfolio was handed to George Mitchell, the former US senator. And the remnants of US Iraq policy were taken by Joe Biden, the vice-president. The contrast with current secretary of state John Kerry, who has embraced most of the above with kamikaze zeal, is sharp. Clinton has a future to curate. Kerry is thinking of history.
Clinton used the job to prepare for the ultimate stage of her political journey. Shortly before the 2012 election, however, her record was upset by the assault on US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi that claimed the lives of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya. Although she was cleared of negligence, Republicans tried to pin the deaths on Clinton’s support for “expeditionary diplomacy” – the practice of encouraging US officials in dangerous outposts to get out and engage with civil society. They also accused her of cynically handing over the task of explaining it to Susan Rice, the then US ambassador to the UN (and a 2008 turncoat-in-chief). The fallout cost Rice the job as Clinton’s successor. Benghazi will doubtless resurface if Clinton runs in 2016.
Clinton is now in a “beaches and speeches” mode, as it is called in Hillaryland. In spite of its limitations, HRC does a good job of showing the tentacular reach of Clinton’s network. It is hard to imagine all these people are sticking around for old time’s sake.
Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator and author of ‘Time to Start Thinking: America and the Spectre of Decline’ (Abacus)
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