Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hillary by the Book

Bret Stephens

 Hillary Clinton will likely be the next president of the United States, and why not? We live in an age of choreographed reality, and hers is among the most choreographed of lives. Also, an age of the triumph of symbol over substance and narrative over fact; an age that demonstrates the power of the contention that truth matters only to the extent people want it to matter. Mrs. Clinton's career is testimony to these things as well.

Which brings me to the subject of her book.

I obtained an advance copy of "Hard Choices," her latest doorstop of a memoir, and started reading it before its publication Tuesday. There she is, bitterly regretting her vote to authorize the war in Iraq. There she is again, standing by her actions during the Benghazi debacle, insisting on the relevance of the "Innocence of Muslims" video.
Elsewhere we find her equivocating over her opposition to the Iraq surge (which, as we learned from Robert Gates's memoir "Duty," she privately admitted was purely political), or allowing that the Obama administration's decision to stand silent over the stolen 2009 Iranian revolution was something she "came to regret."
Addressing the Marketing Nation Summit in San Francisco, April 8. ASSOCIATED PRESS
And so on. But to go point-by-point through the prose would be to miss the book's true purpose. Like Victorian children who were supposed to be seen but not heard, this is a book that is supposed to be bought but not read, discussed but not examined, excerpted but not critiqued.

In fact, it's not really a book at all. It is an artifact containing printed words, an event conveying political seriousness. Perhaps it could have been written at half its length (635 pages) with twice the interest. But that would have made it easier to read from start to finish, defeating its own purpose of being big and therefore, presumably, weighty. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, wrote (or painted) René Magritte. Just so with "Hard Choices": Ceci n'est pas un livre.
How then, are we supposed to understand the memoir?
Surely it isn't about the money. Her publishers at Simon & Schuster are reported to have paid a $14 million advance for "Hard Choices," a nice raise from the $8 million she got for her first memoir, "Living History." After taxes and ghostwriting expenses (in the acknowledgments, Mrs. Clinton credits her "book team" for "making sense of my scribbles") the fee isn't so eye-popping.
Surely it isn't about the story, either. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, told the riveting tale of how the Cold War began—and how the U.S. organized itself to fight it—in "Present at the Creation." George Shultz told the inside story of how the Reagan administration won the Cold War in "Turmoil and Triumph." Probably the best of the diplomatic genre, at least from a literary point of view, are the first two volumes of Henry Kissinger's memoirs, "White House Years" and "Years of Upheaval."
These books are important not (or not merely) as personal testimonies or historical documents. They describe the complex process by which a diplomat pursues great aims under the concrete pressure of events using the cumbersome mechanisms of government. They are arguments for policy and manuals for statesmanship.
Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, doesn't really have a story to tell: Her book is an assemblage of anecdotes, organized geographically, held together by no overarching theme, or underlying analysis, or ultimate accomplishment. In April she was asked to name her proudest achievements as secretary. She fumbled for an answer, as well she might. There are none.
Nor, finally, is it about the argument. What is Mrs. Clinton's version of Acheson's containment, or Mr. Kissinger's triangular diplomacy, or Mr. Shultz's muscular idealism? Perhaps it's what she used to call "smart power," a phrase that is more of an intellectual conceit than a foreign-policy concept. Calling your diplomacy smart doesn't make it smart. Saying isn't showing. And showing off isn't doing.
Which brings me back to the real purpose of the book.
However one feels about Mrs. Clinton, she was the least consequential secretary of state since William Rogers warmed the seat in the early years of the Nixon administration. This is mainly the fault of the president for whom Mrs. Clinton worked, and of the White House hacks who had the larger hand in setting the tone and shape of foreign policy. Most everyone knows this, and most everyone doesn't want to admit it. So in place of a record we have a book.
Then again, Mrs. Clinton has, prospectively, the most consequential future of any secretary since James Buchanan (the last of her predecessors to become president). How does she secure her ambition?
There is a Platonic dialogue, the "Phaedrus," which observes that the surest way to forget is to write it down. Preferably in minute detail, at extravagant length. If there's a book you can consult, no need to remember it for yourself. "You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding," warns Socrates, "and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom."
Mrs. Clinton has produced a book that asks us to forget her tenure as secretary of state. It's going to be a blockbuster.
Write to bstephens@wsj.com

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