Groundhog day, all over again, and we’re already off and running. Out in front of the pack for 2016, just as in 2008, is HRC, which is what Hillary Clinton told Ellen DeGeneres to call her. Whatever she’s called, she’s still ahead in the polls and, as usual, a media favorite. But there are miles to go, and she’s dragging a heavy load of baggage from decades past, to say nothing of the new luggage acquired during her tenure at the State Department: a destabilized Middle East and North Africa, where we’ve abandoned old friends and made new enemies, and where those who once feared us now laugh.
Much of the blame for this lies with her former boss, President Obama. But Hillary applauded Obama’s ill-considered Cairo speech, helped the administration give Hosni Mubarak the boot, and countenanced the brutalization, torture, and murder of Colonel Qaddafi—a weirdo, to be sure, but after a contentious period, our weirdo.
That’s not quite the way Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, well regarded Washington journalists of the newsy what’s-happening-right-now variety, and authors of this largely friendly, first-of-many Hillary books to be published between now and 2016, want us to see it. They have done their best to put the nicest label possible on the luggage labeled “Egypt, Libya, Benghazi.” Nor are they interested in rummaging through the older suitcases. Their book begins at the end of the 2008 primaries, and that’s as far back as they want to go: no Whitewater, no Troopergate, no Travelgate, and only a couple of references to Monica Lewinsky. (Of course for longtime readers of TAS, fellow members of HRC’s “vast right-wing conspiracy,” these scandals need no introduction.)
Most of the characters we meet here are forgettable. An exception is Huma Abedin, Hillary’s constant companion, personal assistant, valet, and gofer, who had the extraordinary bad judgment to marry the pervert Anthony Weiner. Her beauty is celebrated here as if she were Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, floating on her barge in the Nile. According to the authors, the Clintons were angry with both Weiner and Huma for “drawing parallels between her own situation and Hillary’s decision to remain with Bill through the Monica Lewinsky affair.”
HRC opens with a group of the Clinton’s staffers cleaning up at the end of the 2008 campaign, updating Bill and Hillary’s infamous enemies list, adding new names—among them John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Patrick Leahy—all entered into an Excel spread sheet and assigned numerical values indicating the degree of their treachery. The authors report that she sent personal thank-you notes to some 16,000 supporters. Interpret that how you will: Either she was already planning another campaign, or she’s the most grateful woman in history.
From here we move quickly to Obama’s offering Hillary the top job at the State Department, a position she is said to have accepted reluctantly. The State Department gave Hillary a golden opportunity to remedy a glaring deficiency in her résumé. Despite her decades in the public eye, she had yet to lay claim to any major accomplishment of her own. Long before Obamacare there was Hillarycare, the initiative that was meant to distinguish her as an activist First Lady with a hand in the big game. But she made a hash of it, and despite a friendly House and Senate, it went down in flames. Now, with 2016 in her sights, she needed to demonstrate that she could shape major initiatives and win.
It was an opportune moment, with what was being called the Arab spring beginning to spread like a virus through the middle east and North Africa. “But America,” write the authors, “the leader of the free world, still didn’t know what it wanted to say—much less do—in the face of a democratic transformation” in the region. That was especially true of our president, whose rhetoric may have helped to set the whole series of upheavals in motion.
Hillary’s solution? Get out in front of that parade, even if it meant throwing longtime allies to the wolves. And the president bought in, concluding that “the United States couldn’t do anything to save Mubarak, and it was better to get on the right side of the revolution as soon as possible.” Then when tensions began to rise in Libya, she persuaded our allies to assist in bringing Qaddafi down. And she succeeded. ‘“We came, we saw, he died,’ Hillary crowed,” the authors write, “laughing as she clapped her hands together.”
The clapping ended after Benghazi, the murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his three colleagues. With the established governing structure of Libya in shambles, the country open to a great influx of terrorists, and continuing turmoil in the region, the administration was forced to reconsider the wisdom of supporting revolution.
The authors devote a chapter to the aftermath of Benghazi, including the frantic political attempts to defuse the issue during an election year and dodge both blame and responsibility, as Hillary did by sending Susan Rice in her place to appear on the Sunday talk shows and read those bogus talking points.
None of this looks good for Hillary, as even the authors of HRC admit. But the authors point to some would-be successes:
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.
Small ball, in other words. About the only positive gauge of her tenure was the odometer: She logged some 956,733 miles, hoping to burnish her image in foreign policy. But her attempt to flesh out that résumé failed badly, and what the authors report, as opposed to what they assert, proves it. She went for the beef, but settled for padding.
The Hillary camp argues that her personal intervention with the Burmese junta securing the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and her role in freeing the blind Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, are major achievements. Also, according to her advisers, without Hillary, the president might not have gone through with the mission that ended in the execution of Osama Bin Laden. Joe Biden was against it, we’re told, as was Bob Gates. But not Hillary. “She would stand with Obama on this,” the authors write, “come hell, high water, or political attack. She voted yes on the raid.” Since the capture and killing of bin Laden may well prove the Obama administration’s only major achievement in foreign policy, highlighting the key role she played is good poker. And it also works to undercut poor old Biden, a potential rival for the nomination, whose “dovish tendencies” (the words of Allen and Parnes) contrast nicely with her “hawkishness.”
There may also be a hint here of something new in the Hillary/Bill relationship. According to the authors, she didn’t tell him of the bin Laden raid when it was approved. He only learned about it later when he received a phone call from President Obama, who assumed he’d already heard:
“Hillary probably told you,” the president started, according to a Hillary aide.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill replied. Hillary hadn’t mentioned it.
We also learn that Bill rewrote her 2008 convention speech without her consent or knowledge—and that she stetted all his changes, perhaps, finally, trying to put him in his place.
Does one detect a measure of independence here? The Clintons have always come as a package. As Hillary liked to tell audiences during the first Clinton presidential campaign, with a vote for Bill, you get “two for one.” Does she recognize how damaging that offer might be these days? Or this just a clever ploy by staffers who fed the authors such tidbits to present Hillary as her own woman?
True or not, the narrative seems to resonate. As one well-connected Republican woman put it in a note to me, “Women in my demographic—educated, suburban Moms with careers—are almost universally behind HRC—regardless of political views. The idea that a woman who has endured such personal humiliation despite being the smartest, best prepared girl in the class her entire life—the idea that she can overcome that to be Secretary of State and then a legitimate contender for POTUS? Nothing short of thrilling.”
A powerful sentiment, and if widely held, a significant threat to whomever Republicans nominate in 2016.
On another front, there may be new clouds on Hillary’s horizon, involving the size, reach, and money-making activities of the Clinton family foundation and related spin offs and PACs. It’s a tangled web of huge amounts of donated cash; special favors and quid pro quos; employment given to friends, cronies, former staffers; and bag men, money raisers, money distributors, and political operators, all looking for a slot in the next Clinton administration. Allen and Parnes shed some light on the activities of the foundation, but they do so uncritically. However, given recent critical pieces in a number of erstwhile Clinton media strongholds, such as the New Yorker, it’s not at all certain that the Clinton apparatus will be acceptable to Democrats. Members of the party’s growing neo-liberal wing—adherents of what outlets like the New York Review of Books call “the new populism,” no doubt causing the old populists to roll over in their graves—seem more keen on convincing the fearsome faux-Cherokee Sen. Elizabeth Warren to hit the campaign warpath.
And finally, although the authors don’t belabor the point, they do point out that some question whether Hillary “can physically sustain the demands of both a modern presidential campaign and the presidency, back-to-back.” When sworn in, she’d be nearly seventy, and as we all know, once we make it to the appointed marker, threescore and ten, we’re playing with house money. Hillary already has problems with her vision and, apparently, her balance, and she recently “suffered a sobering series of ailments, one of which could have killed her.”
Good reasons, one thinks, not to run in 2016. But not so good for the authors HRC. If in the next two years Hillary politely bows out, copies of this heavily sourced and enthusiastic semi-biography will quickly fill the remainder bins—and its authors will be left holding handfuls of uncollectible IOUs promising future access from once-grateful Clinton staffers.