Will We Settle for Hillary Clinton?

Anne Applebaum has not-very-nice-things to say about the latest book written by Hillary Clinton’s incredibly vapid ghostwriters Hillary Clinton:

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.

The review goes on like that, pointing out that Clinton’s book is so overloaded with saccharine sweetness that readers are in danger of lapsing into diabetic comas. This, of course, is the funny part of Applebaum’s review.

Here is the scary part:

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 inHard 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.

I can just imagine the Clinton campaign’s slogan: “Hillary Clinton: Boring and Soulless Enough to Be President.” Is this really the best we can do in 2016?

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