This so-called biography of Hillary Clinton is a 400-page, insight-free election pitch
The dark side of Hillary Clinton’s struggle for power is inadvertently revealed on many levels by the dreary new biography, HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, by political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, which purports to tell the story of Mrs Clinton’s post-First Lady years (translation: gravitas).
She is a woman who should be a natural to become the first female president of the United States. Due to the consolidation of a corporate oligarchy in the US in the past few years with whose policies she is comfortably aligned, she is now being aggressively positioned for just that role. But the continual tragedy of Mrs Clinton’s rise and rise is that one feels always one should be excited about her – but never really is. In HRC‘s choices and execution, the book reveals, in spite of itself, why Mrs Clinton continually generates bad press in the media, alienates her natural constituencies, and depresses, rather than inspires, with her leadership.
I must disclose that I know Mrs Clinton in passing, since when I was a mother of a young child in Washington, DC, my then husband, David Shipley, served as a speechwriter, first for President Clinton and then for the First Lady. I am also acquainted with a number of the figures in HRC‘s “Hillaryland”. I watched closely the process of speechwriting and talking-points development for the Clintons at that time, as well as observing their teams’ interactions with the press. I note this not only for disclosure purposes but also to foreground what I will address below about the book’s texture.
This is not actually a book. A typical passage reads, regarding Hillary’s “rebranding” campaign: “All at once she had enhanced the state department, America’s relationship with some foreign countries, and her own brand at home. The mission required a survivor’s strength, a gatherer’s cultivation of political capital, a hawk’s vigilance [‘hawk’; checkmark, Pentagon], and the ambition of a woman who believes she should be president… Usually the people she dealt with… walked away with newfound respect for her… she proved herself the ultimate politician, a strategic power player whose hard work, command of politics and policy, and deft calculation produced more admiration than animosity.” Masses of unnamed sources at the Pentagon and the state department rave thoughout the book, even comparing her entrance to an office building to that of a rock star – “Members of the state department’s travelling press corps raved about her speech”; “Hillary’s command of the levers of power… proved invaluable”; “She was the rare cabinet secretary with her own substantial national political following.” And on and on and on. But not one unmediated peep from a detractor. In 428 pages.
Do journalists write like this? Can they? Does any real editor of what is not being sold as an official biography edit prose like this, without slashing red lines through it and scrawling gigantic, ironic question marks in margins, the unsubtle subtext being: “Author: have you lost your mind?”
This is the turgid, enumerative, cheerleading voice of political talking points and White House press aides. The authors had remarkable access to Mrs Clinton’s inner circle. This access is very rare for any senior official in the US, in a post-Bush era of restricted press conferences and thundering reprisals of denial of access to any reporter who does not toe the press office’s line for that official. The dust jacket touts, indeed, the authors’ access to 200 insiders around HRC in what are correctly described as concentric circles of trust.
But this access does not lead to a smidgeon of insight. Indeed, you cannot really call HRC a book. It is a 400-plus-page advertorial for Mrs Clinton’s presidential campaign, masquerading as an unauthorised biography, and being published and marketed by Random House as unauthorised. But on page after numbing page, the text is weighed down by ceaseless, deadening résumé-building, drawing, disturbingly to my ear, on years of at least very strong echoes from actual HRC speeches, actual HRC communications department talking points, the actual HRC press office-issued “line” about Mrs Clinton, addressing, as talking points do, key constituencies or funders (Israel, Aipac, etc), New York state voters, or Terry McAuliffe, convenor of key Democratic donors. Or hitting focus group-tested “message” points that will be needed in the campaign: Mrs Clinton’s ungirly hawkishness; her closeness to the Pentagon and popularity with generals and spies (“David Petraeus… is among those who think she’s more than up for the task [of being president]); her international experience – better than a governor’s! And, in one of the scariest passages for a mere voting citizen to read, her huge willingness to swing the doors of governance open to the unaccountable, unelected private sector, following the model of the Clinton Global Initiative. There are also no struggles, no griefs, no real mistakes – not Benghazi! – that are not blamed on excessive zeal or patriotism (or on underlings).
Here is my concern: writing a political speech for a president or presidential candidate (or controversial First Lady) is an extremely specific and unusual stylistic and editorial task. It involves many, many drafts, structured around a set DNA of signed-off talking points (signed off by the state department, or the chief of staff, or the right senior official up the chain of command). As many as a dozen smart people pore over every sentence and clause, to make sure that nothing – nothing – can be taken out of context and used as an attack aid.
In a campaign, too, opposition researchers are deployed over the biography of a candidate. Their job is to find and highlight anything that could possibly be seen as negative in the life of the subject, so it can be recontextualised – or what DC hands call “spun”.
The trouble with HRC is frank statistical improbability: it is causally impossible for a real journalist or real nonfiction writer independently writing an unauthorised biography to turn in a 400-page manuscript without a single sentence or clause being able to be taken out of context and used to cast a negative light on the subject. Not a single harsh quote from the many prominent Hillary detractors? Not a single unspun mistake, not a single raw regret, not a single frank criticism? Instead the reader gets torrents of unnamed sources recasting, as speechwriters and opposition researchers are highly trained to do, her every potential false move, that could be a liability on the campaign trail, from Monicagate to the Benghazi attack in Libya, in bulletproof language. I don’t know how the text got to be in this condition; I do think it raises real questions.
Hillary Clinton is, indeed, remarkable. Like many people, I was sceptical about her early media persona, but charmed upon meeting her when, at a party she hosted for her staffers, she held our then two-year-old daughter even after the child had begun to smear chocolatey fingers on Mrs Clinton’s chic red suit. Mrs Clinton is indeed hardworking; does indeed master minutiae of policy, as HRC showcases again and again; is indeed witty and warm, and does indeed surround herself with talented women – many of them, I would add, such as lawyer Cheryl Mills and aide Huma Abedin, women of colour who, promoted very young, would be unlikely to be assessed on their vast merits in most other offices. I watched her as First Lady craft smart, visionary policies again and again, and drag crucial issues, such as women and girls’ empowerment in global development, from the margins to the centre. She deserves credit for these qualities.
But the deadening, propaganda-like quality of HRC showcases why she never gets credit. Again and again, I also watched Mrs Clinton get her connection to her audience and the press wrong – because there is something in her character, reflected in the tone of this Prozac of biographies, that cannot admit to a shortcoming of any kind. This skews her judgment and creates a kind of megalomania. This trait often uses gender as its medium of projection.
The first time I saw her, in the first campaign for Clinton’s presidency, before we had any connection to them, she addressed a roomful of the highest-powered women in Manhattan, as she solicited their funds and support. I recall the inaudible gasp of offendedness as she declared that, by electing her husband, we would all get “two for one”.
The women in the room all outranked Hillary: they were CEOs, think-tank presidents, university presidents. A lawyer from Arkansas with provincial hair and clothing, they felt, whom no one had heard of, was promising to help be co-president as if that would fulfil our feminist dreams for ourselves? Every woman in that room felt that her own résumé made her better prepared than this random southern attorney to be or to advise the president, and at that time she would have been correct.
It was an odd assumption, and one carried through in HRC – that Hillary believes she is somehow an archetype “for” us, that we would see her success manifesting our own. “Hey, you are not running for office,” was my reaction to the idea that someone unelected and unaccountable was promising to help govern our nation, and HRC abounds with other examples. Resistance to her running healthcare – as someone not elected to office, or was it sexism? Her loss in 2012? Sexism.
This weird substitution of gender equity for meritocracy has been continually offensive to voters, and often leads her to be trapped in an early-1990s feminism that is smug and unrelatable. HRC‘s first photo is a big posed portrait composed proudly only of “The women of Hillaryland in 2008”; who wants a one-gender world of any kind?
Likewise, her declaration, self-aggrandising and self-pitying, after her presidential campaign folded, that her run had put “eighteen million cracks” into “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”. Again: that upper-echelon, Smith-girl metaphor that would do nothing but annoy a female factory worker, a female service worker. A loss of the White House is just more sexism? Maybe – just maybe – not enough voters thought she should be president.
In contrast, Obama in his campaign and in his books, used and uses race always as a vector to open up dialogue about “us” – and to pivot to what unites us as a whole, and the challenges that we face. That is an entirely different use of race/ gender in leadership and prose style, and why, I would argue, he won and she lost.
Mrs Clinton is likely to be the US’s next president, for exactly those banking-centric, military-centric, surveillance-centric, neocolonialist positions showcased in HRC. Because of Citizens United, these interest groups now have more clout in the upcoming election than do mere voters, and whole sections of this book seemed aimed, over the heads of mere voters or mere readers, at them.
The book should be read as a cautionary tale about US democracy, as her popularity with those interest groups, and their hold over US elections, should raise questions too.
Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography (Virago) is out now in paperback
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/3776896f/sc/7/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A140Cfeb0C240Chrc0Ehillary0Eclinton0Eallen0Eparnes0Ereview/story01.htm