Ah, public service, among the noblest of callings, pursued by selfless individuals who have laid aside greed, ego or other personal gain, devoting themselves to democracy and the common good — and when necessary, ruthlessly crushing political double-crossers, defectors, enemies and traitors.
If the time-for-some-traffic-problems Chris Christie bridge fiasco weren’t reminder enough that American politics can be magnificently entertaining — no, no, I mean deplorably shocking — for its periodic spasms of vengeance and retribution, consider a scene that occurs near the beginning of “HRC.” Deeply reported and ably written by journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, the book is a step-by-step recounting of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, but it’s also a revealing window into the le Carré-like layers of intrigue that develop when a celebrity politician who is married to another celebrity politician loses to yet another celebrity politician, and goes on to serve the politician who defeated her.
The scene takes place not long after Clinton’s devastating loss in the 2008 presidential primaries to Barack Obama. In a quiet office in her shuttered campaign headquarters in Arlington, a pair of Clinton loyalists are finishing a detailed Excel spreadsheet listing names and behavioral specifics of friends and betrayers. The gradations of loyalty and disloyalty are ranked at one point on a scale of one to seven, one being assigned to lawmakers who stuck with Hillary through thick and thin, seven going to those showing unforgivable treachery — often Democratic members of Congress who were expected to endorse her but broke for Obama; or, worse, allies for whom the Clintons had raised money or done other favors — like writing letters to get their kids into some fancy school — only to be jilted in the rush to the junior senator from Illinois.
The late Ted Kennedy does not fare well in their accounting, and neither do John Lewis or Chris Dodd or John Kerry. Virginia’s Jim Moran better be glad he has decided to retire from Congress altogether. 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. But her greater sin was being the first female senator to endorse Obama. “Hate is too weak a word to describe” how Hillaryites still feel about her. One aide’s observation that the Clintons are “into loyalty” wins the award for epic understatement.
Loyalty: such a rich and complex word. It emerges as a theme through the book. Loyalty is the reason Hillary Clinton accepted the position at State: When the president asked her to take the job, she told him “no” so many times that Obama began dodging her calls to stave off a final turn-down, but then she changed her mind after reflecting that, had she won the election, she would want him to answer her own call if she needed him. Yet loyalty — to a staff of cultish insiders who did not always serve her well — is one reason she lost in the primaries in the first place. Loyalty is something she and Bill continue to expect from supporters and colleagues.
In print as in life, there are places where Bill Clinton, through the sheer largeness of his personality and his “insatiable” love of the campaign arena, eclipses the story of his wife. During her hiatus from electoral politics, Bill becomes the brand’s — I mean, the family’s — political networker and enforcer, playing an audacious double game. During the mid-terms and again in the 2012 election, Bill campaigns for candidates who had backed Hillary, and increasingly campaigns for Obama himself — defending the president’s efforts to fix the economy— yet continues to punish those who bolted from Hillary in 2008, declining to help them, sometimes helping their primary opponents.
Though these efforts may seem contradictory — supporting Obama while punishing Obama supporters — both were in service of Hillary’s political viability. It was in her interest that Obama win re-election, but also that people understand what formidable foes she and her husband could be — and what valuable allies.
In this way, the book tells a number of stories. It is the story of Hillary Clinton’s foray into global diplomacy as well as management of a vast bureaucracy; and of her resurrection from the setback and mistakes of 2008. The authors describe her State Department leadership as strong but not dazzling: a “workmanlike enhancement of diplomacy and development” with “deliverables” that were real but not high-profile — no “marquee peace deal,” for example. But she elevated the stature of State, which lost influence to the CIA and Pentagon during the years when two wars dominated the foreign policy landscape. She worked to win over her employees, fighting for budget increases and going to bat for Foggy Bottom bike commuters. As a member of the Cabinet, she brought star power and a venerable understanding of Washington’s “levers of power.” She defended the president’s health plan against doubting Cabinet colleagues, a moment the authors describe as “pivotal, if underappreciated.”
Part of the rapprochement between Clinton and Obama is the result of self-interest and the ability, of professional politicians, to work together when they have to; but it’s also because people tend to go through what one D.C insider calls the “stages of Hillary.” First, the person explains, you dread working with her, then you begin to grudgingly respect her, and one day you find you like her — won over by her fortitude, her sense of humor, and her ability to overlook episodes like the one where Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau stood beside a cardboard cutout of her and cupped a breast. That Hillary laughed off this punkish disrespect suggests that hit list or no hit list, she is capable of magnanimity.
Her diplomatic achievements were of course marred by the tragedy of Benghazi, where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered. The book concludes, plausibly, that Hillary was not personally to blame for inadequate security at the diplomatic compound, but the fact that Stevens was there in the first place was the result of her philosophy of “expeditionary diplomacy,” which holds that the United States should have a presence even in dangerous places.
Hillary’s personality does not emerge vividly in the book, possibly because she does not appear to have given the authors much access. But the assessment of her tenure feels fair, and after finishing “HRC” I understood, in a way I had not before, how and why the Clinton union has evolved into a juggernaut with such formidable “power to reward and punish.”
Mundy is a program director at the New America Foundation, and the author of “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.”
State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton
By Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
Crown. 440 pp. $26.