Yesterday on a panel on “Face the Nation,” we briefly discussed Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming memoir of her four years as secretary of state. It is called “Hard Choices”—they appear to be running low at the book-title store—and will be published June 10. The announcement of the title alone made news, which is a measure of how much interest the book, good or bad, will engender.
Books are good and it’s good to write them; the always more or less beleaguered publishing industry needs bestsellers, and Mrs. Clinton has provided them, most spectacularly with her previous memoir, “Living History,” in 2003. The public, which foots the bill for American diplomacy, has a right to be told as much as possible about the creation of U.S. foreign policy.
The book is being put forward as “a master class in international relations,” which is quite a claim and a rather silly one: a professional diplomat would be slow to make it. But members of political dynasties are not in the modesty business.
A quick look at the political utility of the memoir.
First, the book itself can provide a template for a presidential run. It can make the case for a coming national candidacy by asserting a breadth of experience and accomplishment. At the same time it allows Mrs. Clinton to get everything out there that she wants understood about her tenure as secretary of state.
Second, the book tour can function as a discrete pre-presidential campaign before the real 2016 campaign begins. Actually it can serve as a perfect predicate for a big national campaign. The launch will be highly planned—staff, organization, an emphasis on presentation, appearances across the country and on every major television news show, etc. Mrs. Clinton will have an opportunity to share her views in soft-focus settings and will no doubt uncork a few amusing or spirited deflections when asked if she is running for president. Clips of these moments will be played all over the place. All of this will keep her candidacy in play daily and raise her elevation as the most interesting and important Democrat on the scene. If she does not run, her party will be left high and dry. She crowds everyone out even as she doesn’t announce.
It will be interesting to see if in the book she reveals or unveils any 2016 campaign themes. She seemed to put forward a new line at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit two weeks ago in New York. There Mrs. Clinton said partisanship is keeping America from greatness. This line manages to be critical of Republicans while also being obliquely critical of the president: It takes two to tango, and he led his partner poorly. No one can deny this has been a sharply partisan era; stressing the obvious is a triangulating move that suggests Mrs. Clinton is observing things from above the fray, which puts a happy emphasis on her maturity.
Third, the very fact of the book allows Mrs. Clinton to attempt to counter a growing perception, at least among Republicans, that she didn’t really have any accomplishments as secretary of state, and also that in American diplomacy in general the past few years there have been few triumphs to claim and many embarrassments to explain. During her time at Foggy Bottom a trend that preceded her continued and worsened: Foreign policy didn’t bubble up from the State Department anymore but was coming out of the political office of the White House. The secretary was more a public talker than a major voice in the creation of policy. Her communications people inadvertently lent credence to the charge by stressing that she’d visited more than 100 countries and traveled almost a million miles. Secretaries of state didn’t use to live on a plane.
She was a good soldier and accepted the reigning reality. But her successor, John Kerry, like him or not, is an example of what a secretary of state who takes chances and claims some autonomy looks like.
To counter the perception that she has little to tout, Mrs. Clinton will probably go heavy on recollections of personal meetings with heads of state and foreign ministers, late-night phone calls, and the telling of a personal sense of satisfaction and disappointment in various outcomes. The publisher calls the book a “personal chronicle.”
Fourth, Michael Duffy of Time magazine noted on “Face the Nation” that the book will be an opportunity to answer criticism in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s own recent memoir. I’d forgotten that. Mr. Gates had praise for Mrs. Clinton and noted that both he and she had been offended by the “controlling” nature and obsessive credit-taking of the Obama White House. But he also charged that both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama had, as senators, opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq for purely political reasons. “Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary,” Mr. Gates wrote. Mr. Obama, he said, “conceded vaguely” that opposition to the surge had been political. “To hear the two of them making those admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
It is hard to think Mrs. Clinton will not feel the need to answer that.
Fifth—we’re still on the political utility of the book—it will be an opportunity for Mrs. Clinton to address on her own terms and with her own data the question of Benghazi, which still lingers not only among conservatives but among others, especially veterans, their friends and families, who have a strong impression something bad and not fully on the up-and-up happened there, and in the weeks and months following the attack. Mrs. Clinton’s communications staffers will want to finish it off as a subject this summer so it doesn’t dog her in the campaign. At the same time, they won’t want the book tour dominated by the subject, which suggests a lot of interesting ground will have to be covered so that Benghazi doesn’t stand out too much.
Mrs. Clinton’s default is often to share her emotions about an event. Television interviewers like that too, because it makes for a dramatic interview. She and her advisors have a way of anticipating in advance what clips television producers will use in the making of a piece. One would be her famous retort to the questioning of a Senate committee: “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Those are among her most famous words. Something tells me they’ll be followed by a lengthy meditation on her anguish at learning of the death of her friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens, in the attack.
Sixth, a book is an extended document you can hold in your hand. It is standard media practice for political figures who are often asked the same question because they never seem to answer it, to begin their reply with , “As I’ve said before . . .” “As I’ve previously suggested many times . . .” I think media professionals believe that noting you’ve answered the question before subtly suggests your interviewer may be cluelessly unaware of your previous answers, or hectoring you. I don’t know whether this tack is effective or not—to me it always looks and sounds shifty—but Mr. Obama uses it a lot, as does Mrs. Clinton. Anyway, a book allows you to say, “As I’ve said before and as I went into at great length in my book . . .” It sounds like the predicate to something true.
Things to watch for? The degree, if any, to which she distances herself from the president; the degree, if any, to which she distances herself from ObamaCare. There’s probably a safe spot between warm support for its intentions and general outlines and acknowledgement of its problems. Maybe she’ll find it.
A final purpose of the book tour will be this: It will be personally energizing and heartening for Mrs. Clinton, who will be surrounded by her fans and by people saying, “Run Hillary, run.” It will be politically pleasurable for her. It is an insufficiently noted aspect of adult life that everyone’s pretty much trying to keep their morale up every day. A book tour is a morale enhancer for a political figure. If she didn’t walk in wanting to run for president, she’d walk out that way.
The great question is how tough the press will be, how acute in its questioning, how disciplined and tough-minded. That is, how seriously journalists will take their role as questioners, on behalf of the public, of a potential candidate for president of the United States. That remains very much to be seen.