Sometimes, we get the political and celebrity news cycles we deserve—or at least the one we’ve begged for—and there’s no better example of that than this week’s onslaught of Hillary! Hillary! Hillary!
Clinton’s new memoir, the questionably titled Hard Choices, hit shelves on Tuesday (and hit them heavily, weighing in at 600 pages and over two pounds), and the monster publicity cycle means that we are getting a full dose of the former first lady, senator from New York, presidential candidate, and secretary of state. This week, she’s appearing on your television, maybe in your neighborhood, possibly at your Costco.
And if it feels over the top, well, shut it, because this is precisely what America—or, to be fair, its news media—has been jonesing for, slavering over, what they have wanted more than anything they’ve ever wanted short of Mulder and Scully finally getting it on, back in the original Clinton era. Hillary is making her re-entrance, the one that commentators have been confidently predicting for almost two years—or, who are we kidding—six years. Oh, the tease is still there—there’s no official announcement—but the hard Hillary rain currently drenching us provides sweet relief to the parched talking heads who’ve had to extrapolate and guess and fantasize about what her strategy will look and sound like for lo these many anticipatory months.
And naturally, it’s anticlimactic. The new book does not reveal some previously unknown key fact about what happened in Benghazi; it does not detail any retrospective regrets over the protracted primary battle she fought for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Her detractors on the right and the left are correct that this book launch works as a giant pre-campaign commercial for which Hillary Clinton not only doesn’t have to pay, but for which she will be paid, amply.
But here’s the thing about Hard Choices: of course it’s anticlimactic. It’s a six hundred-page book by a woman whose every habit, style and predilection have been familiar to us for over twenty years; it was never going to be surprising or intimately revealing. It’s by Hillary Clinton. Which is to say, it is carefully packaged, workmanlike, energetic, competent, diligent, and funnyish.
Those who will be most satisfied by it are her passionate acolytes, the devoted voters who love her as they love a celebrity, who will buy this book by the thousands (millions?), savor at least most of its words, and treat it as they would a bumper sticker or a campaign button, as a talisman of their support. Those destined to be simultaneously most critical and most obsessive about it are the news media, sick of her and hungry for more of her, the people—like me—who both admire and are wary of her, and of course the professional loathers who say her name over and over again like “Candyman” in the hopes that they might summon her and thus enjoy another two (or perhaps ten) years of hating her in a fashion that brings them unseemly pleasure.
We’ll all have these reactions because what we’re getting this week, with Hard Choices and its roll-out, is a pretty pure—a pretty authentic, to use a word so often deployed against her—version of Hillary. And the truth is: It’s not terrible.
It’s satisfying and diverting and reliable, as long as your hopes for it are calibrated to a reasonable expectation of what it might deliver well: a solidly crafted, just-self-aggrandizing-enough, just-self-deprecating-enough portrait of a powerful woman who probably wants to be the first female president of the United States and who believes—not without reason—that her only chance of getting there is to play it careful and safe, a mode which also has long seemed to match her natural tendencies.
There is some tightly woven rhetoric about women’s rights around the world, about diminishing middle class opportunity here in the United States, about jobs and energy. There are carefully recounted versions of every trip she took, and, seemingly, every conversation she had. Or other people had. And where they had them. Hillary Clinton is nothing if not thorough. (I’m looking at you, page 476, in which Leon Panetta steps into a kitchen area in a Perth conference center overlooking the Swan River to take a phone call from Jerusalem before joining Clinton and General Dempsey on the patio.)
There are honkingly obvious instances of self-conscious campaign set-up, casually dropped anecdotes designed to hammer home her experience, her bonhomie, her very presidential likeability. Did you know that she was at the White House more than 700 times during her four years in the State Department? Did you see the adorable picture of her losing her shoe while meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy?
But the book is fun and a little weird in places, also, I suspect, like Hillary herself.
Already much has been made of Clinton’s refusal to condemn Sarah Palin for trying to take advantage of her disaffected female adherents, but Clinton does offer a gratifying dig at Palin, recalling how, on the morning that John McCain first announced his pick of the former Alaska governor, “A resounding ‘Who?’ echoed across the nation.”
Clinton writes about her “service gene,” which reminded me of Brad Pitt’s “missing sensitivity chip,” and opens one chapter about relations with Europe with the “Make New Friends” song that Diane Keaton so awkwardly sang about Woody Allen some months back in an incident that Clinton probably didn’t intend to bring to mind.
One of the book’s loveliest anecdotes is about how Hillary and Chelsea waited on a rope line in London to meet Benazir Bhutto in 1987. In her description of Bhutto, Clinton writes of how the former prime minister of Pakistan was “elegantly swathed from head to toe in yellow chiffon” and then, years later, about her donning of shalwar kameez, the national dress of Pakistan, “a long, flowing tunic over loose pants that was both practical and attractive. ... Chelsea and I were so taken with this style that we wore it for a formal dinner in Lahore. ... I wore red silk, and Chelsea chose turquoise green.” What’s interesting about this sartorial run-down is that it highlights one of the oversimplifications that became a by-product of Clinton’s 2009 race: It’s wasn’t inherently sexist to have remarked upon Clinton’s jewel-toned pantsuits, or even her hair. In fact, it’s interesting and it matters when new kinds of leaders, with bodies and styles different from those who came before them, in turn make different aesthetic choices; pretending not to notice is dishonest. Clinton also includes this sharp point in her memories of Bhutto and her husband Zardari: “Much has been written and gossiped about their marriage, but I witnessed their affection and banter and watched how happy he made her.” Got it?
Many of Hard Choices’ photos are pretty winning. She includes a wacky, very blurry shot of herself, sitting at a piano with Bono after Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, as well as a strangely snuggly shot of Joe Biden whispering into her ear that recalls nothing so much as an affectionate version of George Bush giving Angela Merkel a shoulder massage. The best photo is one of Clinton looking truly beside herself as a whale comes to visit her boat off the coast of Mexico during the 2012 G-20 meetings.
Is it strategic? Yes. Is it way too careful? You bet. But there are a couple of reasons for this, and the first is that as a two-party country, and as a media, we take anything that’s nuanced or messy and make it blunt and one-dimensional, turn it into a club with which to incapacitate any confusion that might briefly hurt our brain. Was there ever a vanishing chance that we could have absorbed in-depth reflections on gender, power, race, partisan tactics, and political marginalization from Hillary Clinton? No. There was no chance of that. We would have just called her a “feminazi” in right-wing quarters and on the left asked with earnest concern about whether or not she was “playing the gender card.” That’s on us.
But it’s also true that any hope—including my own hopes, I should add—for anything more soul-searching than what Clinton has produced here is more about us—me—and less about Hillary Clinton. Those looking for a subtle prose stylist, raking introspection or a crusading activist are not really looking for Hillary Clinton.
And that’s okay; it’s normal. When one figure—especially a member of a group otherwise under-represented in the public eye—emerges as a public figure, those who recognize anything of themselves in them promptly project on them all our desires for representation and reflection. We pin our every dream and transfer our every hope to them, leaving them destined to disappoint us by not being every version of us that we can imagine. It’s a weight of impossible expectation that is carried not just by Clinton but by Barack Obama and all the other firsts and seconds and thirds to cut new paths in the world.
But Hillary Clinton is, and will always be, Hillary Clinton. In Hard Choices, she playfully extends the oft-cited Team of Rivals comparison, likening Abraham Lincoln’s choice of William Henry Seward as secretary of state to Obama’s choice of her. Clinton writes of how she warms to the comparison, citing a contemporary of Seward’s who described him as “ruffled or excited never, astute, keen to perceive a joke, appreciative of a good thing, and fond of ‘good victuals.'" Sound familiar? It does to Clinton. “I could relate to that,” she writes.