How do you write a memoir that you want to be both a bestseller and yet not have any political hostages to fortune? ‘Relatively easily’ would seem to be the answer if you are Hillary Rodham Clinton whose new tome, Hard Choices, pulls the curtain back on her time as America’s top diplomat, even if some of the self-censorship leaves the reader wanting more.
This book does not reprise all her personal story; that task fell to her first volume of autobiography, Living History. Instead, this is more a foreign policy textbook full of facts and analysis of over 100 countries visited and nearly one million miles flown. It opens with the clandestine discussions that led to the former presidential primary candidate serving in the administration of her erstwhile foe. Although the challenges of the primary season are hinted at, they are not discussed in detail, in keeping with much of the memoir that seems to conclude that much is best not said at this time.
Clinton writes passionately about the rebuilding of America’s reputation overseas, the pivot to Asia, her personal pride in opening up Burma and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as her determination to use the bully pulpit of the post to promote women’s rights. There is enough policy detail and colour on how government works as well as anecdotes on everything from life on the road to pantsuits and scrunchies to keep the reader engaged.
However, while Living History did not give us any really new insight into her personal relationship with Bill Clinton, Hard Choices does not reveal much about her political one with Barack Obama. The line about them meeting to talk about her becoming secretary of state as being ‘like two teenagers on an awkward first date’ either does not speak highly of her adolescent years or glosses over the real nature of their relationship as victor and vanquished. Loyalty, not just to the 44th president but to his staff, is one of the hallmarks of the book. There are moments when disagreements are hinted at, but this volume is certainly a long way from the settling of scores or career-rebuttal of recent memoirs such as that by the former defence secretary, Robert Gates.
And that is the basic problem with this book. This is essentially the second volume of an expected trilogy. It is a well-written account of her time as secretary of state and a very impressive application to be president. But it does not have the whodunnit reveal at the end. You just know the story is not over, and the way the book is written makes you think that the author does not believe it is either.
Whether this bothers you will partly depend on your enthusiasm for Clinton to have another tilt at the presidency, and determine whether the gaps in the story are an understandable necessity or a frustrating example of political caution.
So, while there is much to commend in Hard Choices, we will just have to wait for the concluding volume, ‘Madam President’, to give us those candid insights you just wish there were a few of in this volume.