Article Written by Michiko Kakutani and Originally Published in the New York Times on February 6, 2014
Many people who worked with Hillary Rodham Clinton, from low-level aides in the State Department up to President Obama, “found themselves liking her more with each interaction, even if they had been worked over,” the authors of “H R C” write. They quote a member of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’s inner circle, who somewhat patronizingly describes it as traversing the “stages of Hillary”: “You know, you first dread the prospect of working with her, then you sort of begrudgingly begin to respect her, then you outright respect her and her incredible work ethic. You know, she’s inexhaustible, she’s tough-minded, and then you come to actually start to like her, and you just can’t believe it, but you actually like this person, and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging.”
This also happens to be a pretty good description of the arc of “H R C,” a new book about Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, by Jonathan Allen, Politico’s former White House bureau chief (recently hired by Bloomberg News), and Amie Parnes, the White House correspondent for The Hill, a newspaper in Washington. “H R C” begins with a chapter about what the authors call “Hillary’s Hit List,” which seems meant to play into dark-side narratives from the Whitewater days that emphasized what reporters saw as her penchant for blaming enemies for her travails and those of her husband. But the book gradually builds into a largely sympathetic portrait of Mrs. Clinton as a smart and tireless A student, supportive of her teammates, loyal to President Obama and skilled at navigating the political and bureaucratic minefields of Washington.
The opening chapter (which was excerpted in Politico Magazine and The Hill) reports that Clinton aides put together a spreadsheet detailing who had endorsed Mr. Obama in the long primary battle, who had endorsed Mrs. Clinton and who had stayed on the fence, along with “extenuating, mitigating and amplifying factors.” The problem is that this chapter not only uses hyperventilated language to describe its material (“Mossad-style, get-you-when-you-least-expect-it payback politics”) but also recycles what is essentially old news. It was reported in 2008 that Clinton loyalists kept an accounting of people considered as enemies, traitors or ingrates.
Other sections of “H R C” will also be highly familiar to readers who have followed Hillary Clinton’s turbocharged career or have read recent books about the Obama administration like “The Promise” by Jonathan Alter or “The Obamians” by James Mann. Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes may not break a lot of news here and have written nothing likely to endanger their future access to their subject. (Bloomberg News has announced that Mr. Allen will cover the White House and the 2016 presidential campaign.) But if their book largely ratifies the narrative of Hillary 2.0 embraced and promulgated by the Clinton machine, it also provides useful context and intelligent analysis, and a highly readable account of her tenure at Foggy Bottom. (Mrs. Clinton’s own memoir is due out later this year.)
“H R C” is not much concerned with providing a broad overview of the administration’s policy making abroad — its efforts to deal with Iran, grapple with the upheavals of the Arab spring and amplify American influence in Asia — or the efficacy or wisdom of such policies. It is concerned primarily with tracking the increasingly influential role that Mrs. Clinton played in internal debates and with mapping the dynamics and personnel of Hillaryland. Its narrative is pumped full of colorful you-are-there details, like Gen. David H. Petraeus playing the role of officer and gentleman during a long flight home from Saudi Arabia, offering Mrs. Clinton his bed at the back of the plane, while he stretched out on the floor outside the door to the compartment.
The book also provides a snappy account of Mrs. Clinton’s journey from Obama outsider (“You’re likable enough, Hillary,” Senator Obama quipped during a 2008 debate) to trusted adviser and comrade in arms (after Mrs. Clinton suffered a concussion in December 2012, the president expressed his concern to one of her aides: “I love her, love her,” he is reported as saying. “I love my friend.”)
As this book and myriad other accounts have noted, such amity did not extend to the president’s and secretary of state’s staff members. “It’s like the Civil War. We’re the North, and we beat you,” one Obama aide is quoted saying in January 2013, while a former State Department official is quoted complaining that the young, controlling Obama foreign policy aides were hardly “your Kissingers or Brzezinskis.”
The authors of “H R C” describe how Mrs. Clinton learned to combine the power of her own celebrity with her knowledge of the bureaucratic levers of governance, promoting the American brand abroad while attempting to rebrand herself. In doing so, they retrace much of the same ground covered by “The Secretary” a 2013 book by the BBC’s State Department correspondent Kim Ghattas, but they do so with less hagiographic ardor and more political and foreign policy context.
The portrait of Hillary Clinton that emerges from “H R C” is that of a woman with “a bias for action,” in one source’s words, someone who would rather act than be passive in the face of opportunity. Ms. Parnes and Mr. Allen portray the secretary as adept at mastering complicated policy material, attentive to details and possessed of an “unrelenting work ethic” — so conscientious and driven that her friends and even President Obama worried, at times, about her health.
They depict her as working diligently to put “together all the pieces” (that is, information and coalition support) “needed to persuade Obama to intervene in Libya.” As for the contentious subject of Benghazi, Libya, the authors argue “there was ample evidence that, of all the major national security principals in Washington,” Mrs. Clinton “had been most on top of the situation” on the night of the attack on the American mission there, which left four Americans dead. Last month, Mrs. Clinton called Benghazi her “biggest regret” as secretary of state. (A bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee released last month concluded that the attack could have been prevented and criticized the State Department for failing to have bolstered security there; Mrs. Clinton was mentioned only in a Republican addendum, which singled her out, as head of the department, for bearing ultimate responsibility for the lax security.)
In “H R C,” Ms. Parnes and Mr. Allen depict Mrs. Clinton as part “old-fashioned Midwestern girl” and part wily pol, someone who writes thank you notes and asks after family members partly because it’s good manners and she cares, and partly because it’s good politics; perhaps she’s not the instinctive retail politician that her husband is, but she’s way more adept than Mr. Obama at nurturing personal relationships in Washington and around the world.
As she did in the Senate, Mrs. Clinton began her new job as secretary of state by keeping her head down and studying hard; she was agile at playing the role of “superstaffer” to Mr. Obama during trips abroad, the authors observe, because it was a role she’d become comfortable with as her husband’s “right-hand political and policy adviser” for decades.
Such cursory references to the past are among the book’s few efforts to situate Mrs. Clinton’s tenure at State in context with her earlier life — as a senator from New York, as a first lady frequently under fire and as an idealistic young woman who evolved from a Goldwater Girl into a liberal student activist.
The authors contend that “loyalty, for better and worse, has been the defining trait of Hillary” throughout her public career. “The failure of her 2008 presidential campaign,” they write, “could be attributed in part to the way she rewarded longtime allies with jobs that they were ill-equipped to execute, and even her fiercest advocates often wonder whether she truly learned enough from that experience to elevate competence over loyalty in building a second bid for the Oval Office.”
“H R C” as a whole suggests that Mrs. Clinton is a politician who tries to learn from past mistakes: from overseeing a dysfunctional campaign machine, she went on to win plaudits from other Obama cabinet members and many career State Department staff members, managing that huge bureaucracy with what this book describes as proficiency and a mix of idealism and realpolitik.
Some critics of Mrs. Clinton have promoted the notion that she tried to play it safe as secretary of state. The authors write that instead of big “deliverables” (like a Middle East peace accord), Mrs. Clinton left behind less tangible achievements like restoring the image of America abroad in the wake of the Iraq war and improving the relationship between the State and Defense Departments. “To the disappointment of even some of her most ardent supporters,” Ms. Parnes and Mr. Allen write, “Hillary’s legacy is not one of negotiating marquee peace deals or a new doctrine defining American foreign policy. Instead, it is in the workmanlike enhancement of diplomacy and development, alongside defense, in the exertion of American power, and it is in competent leadership of a massive government bureaucracy.”