HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton - book review

The biography doesn't answer the big question - will Hillary run in 2016?- but its authors suggest that is the wrong question to ask

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The Independent Culture

If the best form of revenge, as Frank Sinatra once suggested, is massive success, then Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to become the next president of the United States. Forget forgiveness or mercy.

After losing the 2008 Democrat nomination campaign to Barack Obama,  her staffers drew up a Excel spreadsheet, that noted the names of backers, defectors and traitors. It was, according to journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes,  the co-authors of HRC,  just “a necessity of modern political warfare.”

The Clinton hit-list, strategically enforced with extreme prejudice by Bill Clinton, was graded one to seven. John Kerry, the man who took over from Hillary at the State Department, merits a seven, as did Ted Kennedy.

The opening of HRC suggests that Washington DC is awash with villainy, croaking ravens and far from delicate stratagems. But ‘twas ever thus. That one aide is quoted as saying “the Clintons are into loyalty” is a bit like acknowledging that Bill enjoyed side-dishes. I prefer Lyndon Johnson’s description of how he liked his loyalty wrapped: ”I want him to kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon and tell me it smells like roses.”

Yet Hillary’s misplaced loyalty, one of the key reasons Obama sits in the Oval Office, is skimmed over in HRC. She hired the over-rated pollster and strategist, Mark Penn, who helped deliver the presidency for her husband and who also advised Tony Blair in the 2005 UK election. A portrait of Tony hangs in Penn’s Washington office, signed with the words “You were brilliant – Tony”.

But there is no portrait of Penn in the Clintons’ Georgetown mansion and Penn should rate a seven on the couple’s hate-list. His over-focus on microtrends, appealing to small, tailored interest groups and misreading the big state numbers, shredded her early lead and ultimately cost her the big prize.

The book’s placement of Penn in a soft list of “convenient scapegoats” suggests all the dark-side mechanics might have a weak under-belly. And that anatomy is a worry if she competes again in 2016.

HRC is mainly a ride through Mrs Clinton’s redemptive tenure at the State Department [the equivalent of Whitehall’s Foreign Office].  It delivers a decent insider account of  the numerous refusals to Obama, such as “ain’t gonna happen for a million reasons”, to the final acceptance of a role that ultimately wouldn’t be defined by her celebrity or by “big ticket” peace accords, but by the rather more prosaic task of  simply clearing up the mess left by George W Bush’s administration.

A DC source claims: “Her first priority, above all else, that she talked about in every single meeting, was how to restore America’s standing in the world? What’s it going to take?”

But her practice of direct “expeditionary diplomacy” had its downsides. The book’s analysis of Benghazi, where the ambassador in Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other diplomats were killed in an attack on the consul, is a meticulous description of the personal consequences of power.

However HRC’s account of the attack in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden, delivers little more than the film, Zero Dark Thirty, did – apart from one gem.

The Special Forces raid was scheduled to go down the same night as the White House Correspondents dinner, a flashy, black-tie affair. So should the intelligence folk go or pass up their invite? What would preserve the discretion of the mission best? Hillary’s stated position was made clear enough: “F*** the White House Correspondent’s Dinner”. 

After the mission’s success, Obama apparently called Bill at the Clinton’s home in Chappaqua. “Hillary probably told you,” the president began. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” Bill said.

If true – and that’s a big caveat – it’s proof of a division, a separation, that will be required if Hillary shatters another of America’s glass ceilings in 2016 to become the first Madam President.

Short on revelations that could haunt or hinder a Hillary 2016 campaign, HRC’s over-positive tone suggests Allen and Parnes were keen not  to be added to the infamous hit-list.

And although they don’t answer the big question – will she run? – they suggest this is the wrong question.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has “built and maintained a political network” that keeps her options open. What we should be asking is whether she will stop running for “the one worthwhile rung left on the ladder”.

Publisher: Hutchinson, £20.