In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, a junior senator from Illinois, a young nobody with minimal experience and a name no one had heard of, crushed Hillary Clinton, the known quantity, the experienced candidate, the better half of the nation’s most famous political power couple.
That resounding defeat was supposed to have finished her career.
But it didn’t. Clinton became one of the president’s most high-ranking cabinet officials; a steel-willed stateswoman; an admired, influential, and authoritative figure. And she just might be our president in 2016.
It is, arguably, one of the greatest political comebacks in recent history and it’s recounted in “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton,” the hot new political book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.
“HRC,” which Crown Press released Tuesday, draws on more than two hundred interviews Allen, formerly of Politico, and Parnes, of The Hill, conduct with Clinton’s colleagues, backers, and enemies. The result, according to reviews, is a thoroughly reported and well-written chronicle of Clinton’s comeback and her tenure at the State Department, albeit one that discloses few real revelations or raw personality.
The book opens with a classic scene of Washington vengeance, in Clinton’s empty campaign headquarters after her demoralizing primary loss to Obama in 2008. A pair of campaign staffers compile an Excel spreadsheet of Clinton’s supporters and betrayers, assigning them gradations of loyalty and disloyalty on a scale of one – for ultimate loyalty – to seven – for unforgivable treachery.
Then-Senator John Kerry and late Senator Ted Kennedy earn sevens. “Claire McCaskill — well, let’s just say that there is a special seat by hell’s fire reserved for the Missouri senator, who broke down in penitential weeping after she commented, on national television, that she would not want her daughter near Bill Clinton,” the Washington Post writes in its review of “HRC.” “But her greater sin was being the first female senator to endorse Obama.”
That scene underscores a major theme of “HRC,” the book and the woman: loyalty. Perhaps ironically, given President Clinton’s personal indiscretions, political loyalty is paramount in Hillaryland, the book’s authors contend.
As the UK’s Independent said in its review, “That one aide is quoted as saying 'the Clintons are into loyalty' is a bit like acknowledging that Bill enjoyed side-dishes.”
Loyalty is also the reason Clinton finally, after scores of refusals, relented to accept her position at State, according to the authors. In a blushingly flattering scene they describe a selfless Clinton as “so reluctant to take the job that Mr. Obama had to beg to get her to accept,” reports the Wall Street Journal.
“Hillary’s deference won out,” the authors write. “The new President asked her to serve her country and she couldn’t turn him down.”
Besides her painful primary loss and painstaking comeback, the book narrates Clinton’s time at the State Department, a tenure that wasn’t particularly glamorous or extraordinary but that was conducted in an industrious manner to restore both the position of the State Department in the administration and the position of the US in the world.
Allen and Parnes describe Clinton’s steady, steely performance at State as a “workmanlike enhancement of diplomacy and development” with real, if understated “deliverables.” There was, for example, no “marquee peace deal.”
Though it deals little with Hillary Clinton’s reaction to and decision to remain with President Clinton after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, the book hits shelves at the same time as the diary of Diane Blair, a political science professor and late friend of Hilary Clinton’s, is made public. In the papers, the late Blair presents insight into Mrs. Clinton’s thoughts at the time the scandal occurred, based on conversations the Clinton confidante had with the first lady.
And in that regard, the papers have something “HRC” does not, some reviews have suggested: the emergence of Clinton’s own personality and character, still largely unknown to the public despite her celebrity.
That, as well as a dearth of new revelations, may be due to a lack of access. “HRC” is comprised largely of previously reported old news, reviews have suggested.
“There is some new reporting,” writes the Journal, “but it's buried in mixed metaphors and cliché-ridden praise of Mrs. Clinton's brilliance.”
The review continues: “Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes appear to have fallen in love with their subject. ‘Hillary knows one gear: overdrive,’ they write, adding that she is ‘like a veteran hitter who remains even-keeled under pressure, her steadiness is born of her experience.’ She is ‘a woman who got up every time the world knocked her down’ and is ‘unwavering in her support of the 21st century statecraft concept.’ This is the kind of stuff that would make Mrs. Clinton's image mavens blush.”
Still, “HRC” presents intelligent analysis, and a highly readable account with some gems, like this description, from an unnamed insider, of working with Clinton, dubbed ascending the “stages of Hillary:”
“You know, you first dread the prospect of working with her, then you sort of begrudgingly begin to respect her, then you outright respect her and her incredible work ethic. You know, she’s inexhaustible, she’s tough-minded, and then you come to actually start to like her, and you just can’t believe it, but you actually like this person, and she’s charming and she’s funny and she’s interesting and she’s inquisitive and she’s engaging.”
“This,” writes the NYT, “also happens to be a pretty good description of the arc of 'HRC.'”
Fortunately, those eager for more insight don’t have long to wait: the former first lady is publishing her own account of her time at the State Department later this year.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.