Illustration by Doug Chayka for The Washington Post; left Clinton photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images; right Clinton photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images

LIVING HISTORY

By Hillary Rodham Clinton. Scribner. 567 pp. $18

HARD CHOICES

by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Scribner. 535 pp. $18

While Donald Trump claims to be our voice, Hillary Clinton forever struggles to find hers.

Her speech Thursday at the Democratic National Convention will afford her yet another chance to argue her case, to explain why she’s the best person for the presidency. For Clinton, whom we’ve known so well and so long, that’s a challenge. Familiarity affords obvious strengths, but so far in this campaign, it often has posed a hindrance, with the proportion of Americans viewing Clinton unfavorably creeping up as the race has worn on. The candidate who discovered her own voice in a small New Hampshire port town eight years ago now faces an electorate that has trouble trusting what she says. “I have work to do on this point,” she admitted recently.

That has been the work of a lifetime for Clinton, not only as a first lady, senator, presidential candidate and secretary of state, but as an author as well. If “It Takes a Village” (1996) was a statement of Clinton’s values, then her two memoirs, “Living History” (2003) and “Hard Choices” (2014), are her portrayal of those values in action. The memoirs show how Clinton perceives her life and record, and how she wants us to see them, too.

All memoir is, to some extent, propaganda, and the memoirs of striving politicians may be the most agitprop of all. Even so, the Hillary Clinton who emerges from these 1,000-plus pages of autobiography is revealing in ways that she never will be in political ads, party platforms, or four-day Philadelphia infomercials. In her writing, she is torn over her generational and gender symbolism, incapable of separating the personal from the political, and loath to concede anything beyond tactical errors. She is trapped in what she calls “derivative” subordinate roles under more politically powerful men, yet finds ways to thrive in them. She is ever aware of the daggers surrounding her, but still careless in exposing herself to the blades. She recognizes the risks inherent in the most potent relationship of her life, yet is unwilling to relinquish it. And she is a talented writer and expansive thinker whose writing and thinking grow more cautious as the prize of the presidency draws nearer.

“Living History” spans Clinton’s life from childhood through her election as the junior senator from New York in 2000. “Hard Choices” chronicles her experiences as President Obama’s secretary of state. “Hard Choices” is about her ability, “Living History” is about her humanity.

Clinton may be tempted to stress the former, to premise her election on expertise and predictability, especially when her Republican rival sells only fear and division. Yet in reading her memoirs, that is the less-compelling version of the candidate. “Living History” is riskier, more vulnerable, more real, especially read now, in an era when most campaigns have grown less so. Competence and experience have always been Clinton’s calling card, but they’ve not sufficed. For the remainder of this campaign, her task, her hardest choice, will be to reveal the humanity behind the capability, the person inside the politician.

***

“While Bill talked about social change, I embodied it.”

That’s how Clinton describes her impact on her husband’s 1992 presidential campaign, when Bill’s suggestion that Americans would get “two for one” and Hillary’s response to questions about her legal career — “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” — became forever embedded in Clinton lore, eliciting admiration, skepticism and sexism in equal measure. “I had been turned into a symbol for women of my generation,” she concludes, reliving the controversies over her professional background and policy ambitions vs. the traditional duties of a political spouse. “In this era of changing gender roles, I was America’s Exhibit A.”

Then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton holds up “Living History” at a 2003 book signing in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Bill Pugliano)

Yet if the generational symbolism felt imposed during the race, it was a burden she was happy to shoulder on other occasions. Her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley College, the one that made her a national figure long before anyone heard of a certain William Jefferson Clinton, was, she explains, a reflection of the aspirations of Clinton and her classmates, “women and Americans whose lives would exemplify the changes and choices facing our generation.” At the 1992 Democratic National Convention, she writes, the young Clinton and Gore families waving at Madison Square Garden represented “a new generation’s turn to lead.” And when working with Bill on a major health-care speech early in his presidency, she reminded him that reform was “our generation’s chance to answer a call on behalf of future generations.”

Clinton is predisposed to see herself in such history-making terms. In “Hard Choices,” she recalls considering the legacies of her most notable predecessors as secretary of state — Thomas Jefferson, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson — and envisioning how she would remake the role. “I believe, with all of my heart, that this is a new era for America,” she told her cheering new colleagues on her first day on the job.

Even when Clinton’s memoirs revel in life, family and friendship, she invariably circles back to politics. After Chelsea was born and Hillary took four months off from her Little Rock law firm, she and Bill “emerged from our experience committed to ensuring that all parents have the option to stay home with their newborn children.” When, early in Bill’s presidency, her father is dying and Hillary huddles with her family in his hospital room, “succumbing to the hypnotic whir and click of the respirator,” she makes time to talk with doctors, nurses and administrators about health-care reform, and the conversations reinforced “the importance of improving our system.” While Clinton was attending the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway, she recalls, Prime Minister Gro Brundtland asked her about the proposed health-care bill, which instantly made her “a friend for life.”

Yes, chronic eye-rolling is an occupational hazard of reading Clinton’s memoirs. Still, the deeper you go, the more you realize that she isn’t just another politician mining life experiences for cheap talking points. This is really what it’s like to walk around inside her head. Life and politics and policy are never separate — and nowhere is this clearer than in her relationship with the 42nd president.

[This is the closest thing we’ll ever have to a Hillary Clinton political manifesto]

“Living History” shows Bill and Hillary checking each other out at the Yale Law Library, details their work on the 1972 McGovern campaign and chronicles Bill’s numerous proposals before she agrees to marry him. “When we first met as students, I loved watching him turn the pages of a book,” Clinton writes, capturing the almost sensual intellectualism with which she regards him. But her doubts about him were prescient. “I thought of him as a force of nature,” she explains, “and wondered whether I’d be up to the task of living through his seasons.”

Winter arrived in the second term, and “Living History” describes Hillary’s reaction to the Monica Lewinsky revelations. “I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him,” she writes. She details the distance, anger and loneliness as the scandal played out, but more instructive is her explanation for how and why they reconciled. “As his wife, I wanted to wring Bill’s neck,” Clinton explains. “But he was not only my husband, he was also my President, and I thought that, in spite of everything, Bill led America and the world in a way that I continued to support.”

All those who speculate that the Clintons share a marriage of political convenience — that they’ve reached an “arrangement,” as Steve Kroft suggested in a “60 Minutes” interview — miss the point. In her telling, there is no trade-off between the personal and the political; they are entirely fused. Later, when Hillary considers a run for a U.S. Senate seat out of New York, political strategizing brings the couple together. “One benefit of my decision-making process was that Bill and I were talking again about matters other than the future of our relationship. Over time, we both began to relax.”

Clinton, of course, regarded the investigations of the administration as fundamentally unfair, part of the infamous “vast right-wing conspiracy” that she complained about in 1998. “I viewed the independent counsel’s assault on the Presidency as an ever escalating political war,” she writes, and in that war, she fought alongside Bill, never against him. The chapter titles of “Living History” list the battles: Vince Foster. Whitewater. Independent Counsel. Impeachment.
Looking back on the era, when even minor controversies exploded into lengthy investigations and endless press leaks, it astonishes that Hillary Clinton, years later, would risk using a private email server to communicate official State Department business — and then would take so long to admit her mistake. Yet, this reluctance to admit error looms over the Clinton memoirs. “There are always choices we regret, consequences we do not foresee, and alternate paths we wish we had taken,” she writes in “Hard Choices,” but her regrets are often situational, or poorly disguised attacks on political enemies.

On the failure of the Clintons’ health-care initiative, she suggests that they tried to move “too quickly” — so zealous in helping the American people! — and concludes that she and Bill failed to promote reform “with enough clarity and simplicity to rouse public support or to motivate Congress to act in the face of well-financed, well-organized opponents.” Essentially, a PR screw-up. Clinton also regrets how she and Bill succumbed to pressure from opponents, as well as White House political operatives, to request the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater. “With the wisdom of hindsight, I wish I had fought harder and not let myself be persuaded to take the path of least resistance,” she writes. Similarly, not settling the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton early on was “the second biggest tactical mistake made in handling the barrage of investigations and lawsuits.”

HiIlary Rodham at a 2014 signing event for “Hard Choices” at a New York bookstore. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

In “Hard Choices,” Clinton calls her 2002 Senate vote authorizing military action in Iraq a “mistake” but then explains why she long resisted calling it so. “It wasn’t because of political expediency,” she insists. “After all, primary voters and the press were clamoring for me to say that word. When I voted to authorize force in 2002, I said that it was ‘probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make.’ I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong.”

Such mea culpas are a rarity in “Hard Choices,” which reads like 500 pages worth of résumé bullet points, an affirmation of expertise. Seemingly every trip, however inconsequential, is dutifully detailed, and Clinton offers generic, cliched descriptions of her destinations. We learn that China is a country “full of contradictions,” that the Obama administration came to office “during a perilous time in the Middle East” and that “coaxing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table was not going to be easy.” Also, Benjamin Netanyahu is a “complicated figure,” while Vladi­mir Putin is “thin-skinned and autocratic.” And Clinton quotes Haitian President René Préval begging a State Department aide for help after the country’s massive 2010 earthquake: “I need Hillary. I need her. And no one else.”

[How Clinton and Obama tried to run the world — while trying to manage each other]

Clinton has a weakness for foreign policy buzzwords (she relies on “smart power”; Syria poses a “wicked problem”) and local proverbs (“When it rains, collect water,” they say in Burma, apparently). She stresses her foresight and foreign policy savvy, suggesting that she saw the Arab Spring coming and anticipated its disheartening consequences. In a visit with activists in Egypt shortly after the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak, “I came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened.”

Journalistic accounts have emphasized how tightly the Obama White House controls foreign policy, leaving the State Department far from the action at times. Clinton is careful to avoid such complaints, going out of her way to emphasize how closely she and President Obama worked, invariably characterizing theirs as a partnership, not a rivalry, let alone a boss-subordinate relationship. This is Clinton’s time on the world stage, after all, and it grates to be a supporting actor. “I was at the White House more than seven hundred times during my four years,” she writes, protesting a bit too much. “After losing the election, I never expected to spend so much time there.”

***

Now, once again, Clinton seeks to take up permanent residence there. Unlike in her 2008 campaign, when she largely resisted playing up the historic appeal of a female candidate for the presidency — that unforgettable “18 million cracks” line only appeared in her speech conceding the Democratic primary race to Obama — Clinton has returned to form, embracing the symbolism that has followed her since Wellesley. No matter how taxing her first White House sojourn, and even though she says the best part of her time as secretary of state was that “partisan politics was almost entirely absent from our work” (cough, Benghazi, cough), Clinton is headed once more unto the breach.

Why? Unquenched political ambition is the easy, obvious answer, a chance to deploy all that experience and ability on her own, at last. But a line recurs in these two memoirs, a Methodist lesson from Clinton’s Midwestern, mid-century upbringing: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”

Clinton has tweeted these words and posted them on Facebook recently, and I won’t be surprised if she invokes them again in her convention speech claiming the Democratic nomination. If you support Clinton, the sentiment is inspiring; if not, the notion of Clinton doing all she can by all means possible may terrify. But the final clause — “as long as you ever can” — is telling. It embodies the Clinton of her memoirs: familiar, enduring, scarred, but eager and available, if we’d only choose her. Even her Secret Service code name, “Evergreen,” is apt, the perfect label for a candidate whose principal qualification for the presidency is her eternal readiness for it.

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