The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power, Kim Ghattas’s memoir of her time as part of the press corps that traveled with Hillary Clinton during Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, provides a unique and compelling look both at Clinton as a person and at the US diplomatic process.
Ghattas, a BBC correspondent, is half Dutch and half Lebanese, and grew up in Beirut during the ‘80s, when the country felt abandoned by a US government that allowed, or possibly even encouraged, Syria to invade. The book derives much of its strength from Ghattas's slowly coming to terms with the complexity of US diplomatic relations. For as much as many countries – particularly in the Middle East – resent any American intervention, Ghattas finds that just as often others become angry when the US does not intervene.
Her growing sense of how difficult it is for the US to be the superpower responsible for keeping everyone happy develops alongside Clinton’s mission as secretary. The book proves to be very sympathetic to the US diplomatic process, and in particular to Clinton, who here is portrayed as charming, well-intentioned, and – most important to Ghattas – honest.
The dominant feeling some readers may experience in reading this book is a sense of exhaustion. Ghattas documents several of the high-wire-act diplomatic trips Clinton took around the world over her four years in office. The press corps and Clinton and her team flit from place to place on an old government plane, often not even staying in destinations overnight, and working incredibly long days. For security reasons, the press corps often didn’t even know where they were going until they got to the plane.
For one trip, they were given only vague instructions about which colors they were forbidden to wear. That particular trip turns out to be a visit to Burma to meet with newly flexible members of the military junta in charge, but more importantly, with long-imprisoned pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. The meeting of the two women, contemporaries, who have both devoted their lives to service to their countries, is easily the emotional high point of the book. By the time the visit occurs, Ghattas has crafted her portrayal of Clinton so well that it is immediately apparent how much such a meeting would mean to Clinton, both as a tangible result of her pragmatic approach to diplomacy and as an opportunity to meet someone fighting many of the same battles.
Clinton also had a commitment to reaching out beyond the government officials who needed to see her. She insisted on town halls whenever possible, where she was routinely grilled by the people in the countries she visited. As far as Ghattas records, though, she rarely lost her composure.
Ghattas portrays Clinton as genuinely interested in hearing from people, and speaking to them was part of a broader plan to improve opinions of the US abroad. From Ghattas's point of view, she was largely successful, and definitely so on a personal level – Clinton left office with incredibly high approval ratings and remains one of America’s most well-regarded politicians. It is particularly impressive given that Clinton was the nation’s top diplomat during the Wikileaks release of US diplomatic cables that were often insulting to various world leaders.
A brief glimpse at a typical Clinton schedule during her four years as secretary might draw sympathy even from some of her more implacable political enemies:
7:33: The Secretary is speaking with Emirati FM al Nahyan
7:37: The Secretary is speaking with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince al Nahyan
8:17: The Secretary is speaking with German FM Westerwelle
9:01 The Secretary is speaking with French FM Alliot-Marie
And so on and so forth. Every country requires her personal assurance that, well, the US still likes them. It supports Ghattas’s overall point that every country seems to want the right to say whatever it wants to about America, while still requiring constant assurance of American care and concern.
Occasionally Ghattas seems a little too admiring of Clinton, who comes across as perhaps unrealistically patient and nearly faultless. But Ghattas's inclusion of several tough interviews that she herself had with Clinton indicates that admiration was hard-earned.
Ghattas wanted answers about what the US had planned for Lebanon, and while she recognizes the same quest for attention in herself that she’s starting to see in others, she doesn’t let it stop her from asking Clinton why the US makes the decisions that it does, and whether those decisions are ultimately for the better of the world or not. Clinton’s answer manages to balance both pragmatism and a devout patriotism in a way that gives the reader a glimpse of just why she was such an effective diplomat.
Lisa Weidenfeld is a Monitor contributor.