Clinton’s book rollout gives clues to her presidential strategy


Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in Washington earlier this month. (Cliff Owen/AP)
May 30

In foreign policy circles, people like to talk about two kinds of influence: soft power and hard power.

As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gears up to launch her new book — an endeavor being closely watched as a prelude to her expected 2016 presidential campaign — it looks as though she believes those tools can be applied in politics as well.

Friday morning provided a split-screen glimpse of both sides of her rollout strategy.

In New York, the author made an appearance at the annual Book Expo America trade fair, where about 100 booksellers basked in the high wattage of her celebrity, shaking hands and posing for pictures with Clinton. Their shelves will be stocked with her volume “Hard Choices” starting June 10.

In Washington, at a breakfast sponsored by the centrist organization Third Way, her strategists prepped Democratic operatives for the chapter that will deal with her handling of the most politically charged episode in her State Department tenure, involving the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. The idea was to get everyone on the same message.

The Benghazi chapter, which was leaked to Politico, suggests Clinton plans to take a defiant stance against a Republican-led congressional investigation. Politico quoted her as writing: “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans. It’s just plain wrong, and it’s unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me.”

It was a sharp contrast to earlier soft-focus glimpses of the book that have been doled out through select outlets. On Mother’s Day, Vogue published an excerpt in which Clinton reflected on the life of her own mother. She dropped by for Barbara Walters’ last day on “The View,” and got in a plug for the book that she said is “mostly about my four years as secretary of state, but it’s also personal.”

Her publisher has released an “author’s note” in which Clinton warned that her book will not be dishy: “Followers of Washington’s long-running soap opera — who took what side, who opposed whom, who was up and who was down — I didn’t write this book for them.” There is a video on Facebook of her talking about it. People magazine has already tweeted photos from its interview Thursday, which Clinton conducted in her picture-perfect Washington home.

Still to come are an hour-long, prime-time special with ABC’s Diane Sawyer the night before the book hits stores, followed by a launch-day interview on “Good Morning America.” And on June 17, Clinton will venture into potentially hostile territory with Fox News.

“What they’re doing now is extremely smart. They’re dropping veils,” said publishing industry veteran Peter Osnos, who is founder and editor at large of Public Affairs Books. “But let’s face it: Hillary Clinton is a unique figure. There isn’t anybody like her in our stratosphere.”

That the book itself will be a best-seller is preordained. Purportedly signed copies of “Hard Choices” are being sold for nearly $400 on eBay. Tickets to her book-tour speeches also are commanding hundreds of dollars.

But this book — and the hoopla that Clinton is generating around it — have a more strategic purpose.

It is not designed to be a sweeping political manifesto of the type that lesser-known politicians have produced in the run-up to a political bid — among them, Barack Obama’s 2006 “Audacity of Hope” and George W. Bush’s 1999 “A Charge to Keep.”

Nor will it have the intrigue of Clinton’s own earlier bestsellers. When “It Takes A Village” was published in January 1996, her political stock was selling at a low after the debacle over her effort to overhaul the health care system. Its publication coincided with her distinction of becoming the first first lady ever to have to testify before a grand jury.

That book was Clinton’s first step toward rehabilitation and redefinition. It gave readers glimpses of a surprisingly conservative figure who advocated school uniforms before her husband did, worried about the effects of gangsta rap music and violent video games, and confided that “my strong feelings about divorce and its effects on children have caused me to bite my tongue more than a few times.”

In 2003, her memoir “Living History” astonished the publishing world by earning back its reported $8 million Simon and Schuster advance within a week, enjoying what was said to be the highest opening-day sales in nonfiction history.

The actual substance of her latest book, however big its sales, is likely to be consumed by a narrower audience — in part, because statecraft is generally not regarded as riveting reading, and also because it is expected to carry little by way of news.

One of its chief purposes will be to take control of the narrative of her years at the State Department in an effort to get ahead of the critics on the right and the left who say that it produced few substantive achievements.

That critique, over the long run, may be one of the biggest impediments to a White House bid, should she decide to make one. That Clinton would confront it early suggests that she is not banking on inevitability, as she did in 2008, when she began as a seemingly insurmountable front-runner for the Democratic nomination and was tripped up by a dysfunctional campaign.

“The book in terms of its substance, process and timing reflects a Hillary Clinton who has absorbed the lessons of 2008 and informed them in her approach to a possible 2016 run,” Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Bill Clinton White House, said in an e-mail. “And the seamless handling of the rollout tells the political insider community that this is someone who has their act together as it relates to organizational functionality.”

Clinton’s advisers said she plans to hold events in every major U.S. market — and beyond, with two scheduled in Canada.

Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser to Ready for Hillary, a Super PAC urging Clinton to run in 2016, said supporters will be in each place Clinton visits, distributing bumper stickers and other materials and rallying supporters. People who want Clinton to run in 2016 have been eagerly awaiting and devouring the tidbits that are coming out with regard to the book, Sefl said.

“Each little piece is an eagerly anticipated course of a really great meal,” she said. Or maybe, it is simply an appetizer, with the entree to follow in 2016.

Katie.Zezima@washpost.com

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