Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20/$35, 656 pages
It is a truth universally acknowledged that presidential hopefuls must show their earnestness by writing crushingly dull books. Anything interesting would jeopardise their prospects. Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton’s memoir, is no exception. Having already penned Living History (2003), an account of her time as First Lady, Clinton has developed something of a routine. It goes like this: secure a hefty publisher’s advance ($8m for the first one, $14m for this); employ a village of writers to ensure nothing is omitted; deliver a product heavy enough to double up as gym weight; then reap the publicity for your next campaign. So far all is going to plan.
To be fair to Clinton, a tell-all memoir would not have served her interests. The purpose of the book, which covers her four years as President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, is encapsulated in its closing lines. All preceding 600 pages are mere throat-clearing to the punchline. “Ultimately, what happens in 2016 should be about what kind of future Americans want for themselves and their children,” she concludes. “The time for another hard choice will come soon enough.” It takes much wading to arrive at this point. But it serves as the unofficial launch of Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Had Clinton opted to write a candid memoir, such a venture would have been handicapped from the start. To win the Democratic party’s nomination and build the strongest campaign possible, Clinton will need Obama’s full support. Given this, Hard Choices largely ignores the bad blood between the Obama and Clinton teams that carried over into the relationship between the White House and the State Department.
With a few exceptions, notably her advice on how to respond to Syria’s regime and how to handle Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, Clinton hints at no differences between her and Obama. In both cases – as in many that are not documented in this book – Clinton played hawk to Obama’s dove. Nor do we hear much about the White House’s controlling agenda. By any other account, this is the most White House-centric administration in recent memory. Clinton is silent on the matter.
Instead, she treats us to a dutifully admiring portrait of the man who in 2008 had turned her “inevitable” campaign into a debacle. “Tearing up, I hugged the President and told him again how much our work and friendship meant to me,” she writes of her final day in the job. “And that I’d be on call if he ever needed me.” A few months earlier, Bill Clinton had given a virtuoso speech at Obama’s 2012 Democratic convention. As America’s top diplomat, Hillary Clinton kept her distance from the political theatre. She viewed the spectacle from her hotel room in the newly independent Timor-Leste: “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,” she recalls.
In place of insight, the book provides an authentic sense of Clinton’s self-discipline and stamina – both vital qualities for winning the White House and coping with the presidency. In four years, Clinton visited 112 countries and clocked up nearly a million miles. By sheer force of recitation, the book also exhibits the undeniable depth of her experience. There are few world leaders whom Clinton does not know – some of them very well. One or two, notably Vladimir Putin, have already taken exception to Clinton’s book, in which she depicts him as an autocrat. This week Putin said: “It’s better not to argue with women. But Mrs Clinton has never been too graceful in her statements.” Of course, Clinton is also a world leader at handling misogyny.
Likewise, there are few parts of the world, from sub-Saharan Africa to central Asia, with which Clinton is not impressively conversant. She may have lacked the autonomy she needed in the job but as a résumé for the White House, her memoir will serve well. For those too busy to read the book, a quick glance at the picture selection will tell you all you need to know: Clinton posing with Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton with Dilma Rousseff, Clinton with William Hague, Clinton with Angela Merkel. And so on. The book is organised geographically rather than chronologically. From the “reset with Russia” to the “pivot to Asia”, each chapter sets the clock back to zero. The result is a numbing compendium of hectic schedules and flurried meetings.
The most interesting bits come near the end, since they hint at how Clinton will frame her presidential bid. She devotes a full chapter to the Benghazi incident in which four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, were killed in late 2012. There is no evidence Clinton was negligent. But Republicans have nevertheless tried to turn Benghazi into her Waterloo. In congressional testimony, Clinton said it made no difference in the immediate aftermath of the killings whether they resulted from a protest or a planned attack. The facts would be uncovered eventually. That line, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”, has been taken out of context to imply she was careless with US lives. Her 33-page account of how she handled the episode ought to silence the doubters. It probably won’t. “One of the best parts of being secretary of state was experiencing four years in a place where partisan politics was almost entirely absent,” Clinton writes. “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”
To judge by the book’s final section, Clinton’s campaign will be based on twin poles – a strong values-based US diplomacy that emphasises human rights, and fighting for America’s squeezed middle classes. She reserves strong language for China, which she says refuses to play on a level economic playing field. But she concedes embarrassment about Washington’s addiction to drama, not least Congress’s flirtation with a voluntary default on US debt. Clinton was treated to sardonic commentary by Dai Bingguo, a senior Chinese official, during the first debt crisis in 2011. “I left my meeting with Dai even more convinced that America had to avoid these self-inflicted wounds and get our own house in order,” she writes.
Hard Choices is something of a paradox. On the one hand it shores up the view that Clinton would make a good president – she is a tough, hard-working and very experienced figure. On the other, it is a dull affair. From the point of view of the reader, it is an easy decision. Reviewers read Hard Choices so that you don’t have to.
Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator
Letter in response to this article: