WASHINGTON – During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton ran a blunt television ad asking whether Barack Obama could handle a foreign policy crisis. In it, a phone rang and a variety of children were shown in their beds. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?” asked the narrator. After the parade of adorables, the ad showed Clinton on the phone. It was a contrivance since she’d never answered a red phone either. But now she has, and over more than 600 pages of “Hard Choices,” her memoir of her time as secretary of state, Clinton details what it’s like to steer U.S. diplomacy in a dangerous and changing world.
It turns out the secretary of state’s emergency phone is actually yellow and that the world of campaign ads is more exciting than the incremental painful work of diplomacy. (Unless you find excitement in the strengthening of multilateral responses to Chinese encroachment on international boundaries in the South China Sea.) This book, which is not scheduled to launch until June 10, but which clever elves from “CBS This Morning” found in a bookstore, is a risk-free telling of Clinton’s world travels. Parents who read it will startle no sleeping children reacting to its admissions, and nothing in it would seem to imperil Clinton’s future presidential chances – though Vladimir Putin, whom she calls “thin skinned,” might be grumpy if they ever have a bilateral meeting together. What comes across, though, is that whatever Clinton leaves out – and there’s plenty in her omissions for critics – she put in thousands of hours grinding her way across the globe doing the painstaking work of diplomacy.
This is not a book from someone who has nothing to lose. When former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote his recent book, “Duty,” it was full of tough assessments and candor. Clinton’s book has no gossip, which is no surprise, but it also only hints at the inside feel of the way national security policy is made. Gates’ book had lots of spice, which is always part of even a well-functioning foreign policy team. Clinton’s account is the low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert. She goes on at great length, but not great depth.
Even Condoleezza Rice, one of the most loyal Bush aides on the planet, was more candid in her memoir about the inside workings of power relationships than Clinton. Describing her effort as national security adviser to get the egos in Bush’s foreign policy team to focus on postwar planning in Iraq, she said that President Bush started a meeting by announcing, “This is something Condi has wanted to talk about.” She wrote, “I could immediately see that the generals no longer thought it to be a serious question.” After the meeting, her deputy Stephen Hadley said that he “would have resigned after that comment by the President,” and later, when the lack of postwar planning became plain to everyone, she wondered “if Steve had been right.”
Clinton’s book has none of this. She describes a “shouting match” with Leon Panetta over a drone strike but doesn’t tell us why voices were raised. She snaps once when a question is mistranslated and she thinks a student in Kinshasa is asking what her husband thinks. “My husband is not the Secretary of State. I am. So you ask my opinion and I will tell you my opinion.” The young man was asking about Obama’s opinion, not Bill Clinton’s.
It’s hard to imagine the author of this book snapping about much of anything. The tone is easy, confident and placid. It starts after the 2008 election, with Clinton feeling as if she let her supporters down but anxious to repair relations with Obama. She portrays her relationship with her opponent as brusque but cordial, like the opposing football coaches greeting each other after a game. Then, when Obama has beaten her, she describes the two of them like teen-agers on a first date.
Though she admits to some early tensions between “Hillaryland” and “Obamaworld,” the book only glances at the tensions between the State Department and the National Security Council. Clinton occasionally ascribes political thinking to the White House, and talks about the political urge among Obama’s aides to hunker down and go into damage control, but those asides are mild and infrequent.
When Clinton holds a different view than her president, as she did on big issues like arming the Syrian military and pressuring former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, there is no rancor. The entire message of the book is that foreign policy is hard and complicated, so when Obama goes another route, Clinton explains that it was a reasonable path to take having weighed all the complexities.
If two wrongs don’t make a right, this book seems to operate under the theory that 381 rights might overcome a wrong. Clinton repeats her regret about voting for the Iraq war but upgrades her language. “I was wrong,” she says. But on so many other issues, however, Clinton always seems to be right.
As a campaign document, “Hard Choices” presents the picture of a methodical, hardworking public servant. For voters who worry about a complex world, Clinton will be the candidate most equipped to show voters that they will not be taking a risk by putting the world in her hands. But if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president, the election will be decided by what voters feel about the economy. Clinton closes the book talking about the unresolved economic challenges facing the country – student debt, a weak job market and a struggling middle class. They were the ones that she wanted to get back to after her 2008 primary loss, she writes in the book’s opening pages, before Obama convinced her to be his secretary of state. Now she has a chance to return to those issues as a presidential candidate, if she wants to. “Will I run for President in 2016?” she asks. “The answer is, I haven’t decided yet.” But 600 pages of safe, methodical writing suggests the answer is yes, and if she doesn’t run, maybe she’ll write an epilogue and tell us what she really thinks.
Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”