While Hillary Clinton’s political future is clouded in secrecy (“Will she run?”), her personal life has been dissected, examined, and interpreted to alarming degrees. Her second memoir, Hard Choices takes a different approach than her blockbuster autobiography Living History – instead of writing about her personal life, she uses her book to share her opinions on foreign policy. Though her tenure as secretary of state was fascinating and exciting, her book is less so. Like many of her speeches and public appearances, the book is overly cautious and plays it safe, resulting in a book that maintains a somewhat tedious tone. The writing is often dry and Clinton’s famous love of details means that the book is weighed down with minutia, that while well-documented and expertly-detailed, is a bit of a struggle to get through.
As a personal story, Hard Choices doesn’t really work – but as a political manifesto, it will do. Clinton’s work as secretary of state was marked by her focus on women’s issues as well as her penchant for town hall meetings. Her detractors see her time as wasted, pointing out that her time with the State Department failed to bring about any real significant diplomatic successes. Reading Hard Choices rectifies some of those complaints, because it’s clear that diplomacy is a confused and convoluted job. Because of Clinton’s longevity in politics, she’s able to do some pretty impressive name-dropping. As first lady and a New York senator, she traveled the world, meeting world leaders – some of whom make appearances in Hard Choices.
Many will read Hard Choices to learn about any drama and resentment between Clinton and President Obama – much like lots of folks read Living History to get salacious details about President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. As expected, Clinton’s very guarded about how much she shares about her relationship with the president that beat her in a bitter and seemingly endless primary. She’s addicted to the public line that despite any hard feelings from the campaigns, love of country prevailed and both Obama and Clinton are great friends and colleagues. She creates a well-constructed image of two political powerhouses who are trying to overcome a laundry list of obstacles, including two inherited wars, a global financial collapse, and unrest in the Middle East. Her insistence on playing the good loyal solider makes from some anodyne reading (in another example of the often-bloodless writing, Clinton writes about Sarah Palin in distressingly meek and blandly-diplomatic words).
Because Clinton’s nothing if not overly calculated, it’s difficult to warm up to Hard Choices. There are moments of strategic humblebragging and outright bragging. Still, if anyone has earned the right to blow her own horn, it’s Clinton. Despite some of the mind-glazing details, one thing the book does successfully impart is just how hard and interesting Clinton’s job was. At times it feels as if she was simultaneously spinning plates as well as trying to plug up leaky dikes with her finger.
When Clinton does share some of her personal thoughts and impressions, that’s when Hard Choices becomes the interesting tome that it promises to be. For example, the much-ballyhooed moment when she snapped at a student in Kaliba for awkwardly phrasing his question as “What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton,” making it sound as if the student was more interested in her husband’s views than her own. Because of Clinton’s specific place as a woman in politics, the episode takes on poignancy, and she recognizes that her response, while understandable, was an overreaction.
In fact, whenever Clinton addressed sexism and women’s issues, the book reflects some of the interest and passion she displayed on her many travels. And though she’s obviously qualified to write about foreign affairs, Clinton should’ve focused on global feminism, instead. An expert on international women’s rights, as well as a globe-trotting advocate, it’s clear that if she zeroed in on the many issues she came across when addressing gender inequality in the world, the book would be a much more engrossing read. Her groundbreaking work on LGBT rights is also covered and it shows that when interested and committed, Clinton’s a passionate voice.
At 66, Clinton has lived an interesting life and she’s been a polarizing figure for over twenty years. It’s unfortunate that she for much of her career, she didn’t trust herself enough – seemingly worried that she would come off as shrewish, she has constructed a glazed facade that betrays little of her actual feelings. Her career has also been marked by triangulation as well as inability to give an opinion or back policy without it being mired in political opportunism. And Hard Choices feels a bit like Clinton at her safest. She takes swipes at all the predictable targets (Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Il, George Bush) and trots out bromides about American essentialism, and all of it ends up sounding like a very long campaign speech that includes chapters. As proven by It Takes a Village and Living History, Clinton is a very good writer – hopefully, she’ll trust her instincts when writing her next book.