Hillary Clinton’s private messages reveal the banality of email

Not even the world’s most powerful can tame the email inbox

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The Independent Online

Mid-afternoon on 30 September 2009, Hillary Clinton was feeling thirsty. So she did what any dehydrated, high-powered woman would do. She fired off a one-liner email to her aide: “Pls call Sarah and ask her if she can get me some iced tea.”

What a chain of command for one glass of Lipton, but then Clinton was then the US Secretary of State. With great power comes great perks. For example, if I see a carpet I really like when I’m abroad, there is no one in my inner circle to email back home for further information. No one. Clinton has people. In an email titled “Don’t Laugh!”, she asks an assistant: “Can you contact your protocol friend in China and ask if I could get photos of the carpets of the rooms I met in during the recent trip? I loved their designs and the way they appeared carved. Any chance we can get this?”

These are just two snippets from 3,000 pages of emails released by the State Department this week. It emerged in March that Clinton had her own private account, routed through a server at home when she was in office, potentially contravening protocols on record-keeping and security. Clinton has handed over 55,000 pages of emails which will be released over the next few months. A further 32,000 pages concerning her family, “vacations and yoga routines” were deemed private by her lawyer and have been deleted. Still, to judge from this batch, there is plenty to be going on with. If, that is, what interests you is the endless minutiae of a political life.

Not even the globe’s most powerful can tame the teeming inbox, apparently. There are emails about coats – one Clinton wore in Kabul got a “77 per cent favorability rating” according to the assistant secretary of state, queries about private jets and in-jokes about yurts. There are fawning congratulations on this or that speech, and an anxiety-inducing number of “are u awake??” memos sent at all hours, both from and to Clinton.

There is a worryingly insecure grasp of social media – “We should not be twittering in the Secretary’s name since she is not the person actually twittering…” – and a hilarious exchange in which Clinton tries and fails to send a fax (“I’ve done it twice now. Still nothing.”) which took place on 23 December 2009, when no right-thinking person should be sending a fax.

Like any busy boss, Clinton keeps her emails brusque and lower case. There are no niceties, no how are yous, no all the very bests. She has a gimlet eye for detail – and not just about carpets. When an aide tells her cover of Time is “gorgeous”, she shoots back: “How does the article compare to the cover??” If you wanted to pop psychologise, you could make much of one Veep-like email that says: “I heard on the radio that there is a Cabinet mtg this am. Is there? Can I go?” Or of the fact that she hears of Bill Clinton’s new role as UN Special Envoy to Haiti only via a UN leak. “Wjc said he was going to call hrc but hasn’t had time.”

There are more serious revelations too, though not many. Most controversial is her regular contact with Sidney Blumenthal, who was exiled from the White House for being untrustworthy but still in touch frequently, and she with him, offering intelligence and guidance on speeches. Cherie Blair does not come out shining from the 19 emails in which she lobbies Clinton to meet a Qatari royal. The Benghazi attacks do not figure. And 25 emails have been rendered “classified” so the really important, actually in-the-public-interest stuff will likely never appear.

As for the banal to-and-fro of the rest, it will do Clinton no lasting harm, and may even do her good. Hillary is normal! How many of us, if we had to trawl through three years’ worth of emails, would not find a pile of stupid questions, unreasonable demands and unnecessary exclamation marks, not to mention evidence of our insecurity, authoritarian leanings, vanity or fatigue at various times?

The pitfalls of living by BlackBerry are many, which is presumably why on 1 December 2009, Clinton emailed a colleague to ask if she could borrow Send by David Shipley. The book’s subtitle is “Why People Email So Badly and How to Do it Better”. On the evidence of these blandly efficient, inoffensive, unrevealing and occasionally amusing emails, I’d say she read it cover to cover.