Are American Politics Redeemable? Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton and Two Memoirs of Washington, DC

June 24, 2014   •   By Matthew Brandon Wolfson

Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton


Robert M. Gates


FILE UNDER THE CATEGORY of self-fulfilling prophecies the fact that no major work of American literature of the past 30 years has as its subject the country’s most powerful city. Most people in Washington, DC don't read novels: they read policy briefings and Politico. Most people who write about Washington DC don't write novels: they write about health care regulations or other Washingtonians. Most serious writers of fiction and literary nonfiction don't live in Washington, DC, so writing workshops are scarce there. But even if some brave policy wonk, Hill staffer or journalist tried to swim upstream, and even if a writer came to the marbled city bearing benevolent intentions, they’d flail beneath the current of the capital’s iron law. Constructing and conveying certainty — the goal around which Washington organizes its energies — is implacably opposed to what every writer cares about most: the existence of ambiguities.

This has everything to do with the way policy and politics are practiced in early 21st century- America. Since 1945, with the rapid growth of the defense bureaucracy, social security, et cetera, policymaking has become a labyrinthine business with enormous national consequences. And since 1970, with the fracturing of the centrist white middle-class-based political consensus that had reigned for a quarter-century, putting policies into effect means mobilizing the idealisms and resentments of a diverse, divided electorate. Of course the mobilizing messages — clean through lines about right and wrong and other human universals produced straight out of a focus group session in the suburbs of Northern Virginia — can’t acknowledge their own contextual reality, which is that they’re among thousands of battle cries hurtling, with equal certainty and self-righteousness, across the airwaves. To govern the land of opportunity and equality you have to mobilize your coalitions for war.

The mobilizers stream into Washington each new election cycle: young, mostly white advisors, staffers and assistants, grads of Yale, Wesleyan, Georgetown and Brigham Young, armed with nebulous policy expertise and driven by beliefs and ambition. They’re smart, funny, well-intentioned people whose experience with the rest of America is sharply attenuated. They’re levitating excitement — they’ve made it from an upper middle-class suburb in Seattle or Tallahassee to the center of American government! The Capitol gleams white; the White House and Eisenhower building are smaller than they expected but somehow more impressive. The people they work for are brilliant and care about the issues. In the schema of Rahm Emanuel’s West Wing stand-in Josh Lyman, the model for a fair number of millenials come to Washington: “I studied hard in high school and at Harvard and in law school […] I wanted to do this so I studied all the time.” Now they’ve made it. The rest, as staffers in every incoming administration since Reagan’s have believed and unselfconsciously said, is history.

Nor is it just the Josh Lymans who buy into the messaging streams. I spent the summer after college interning for a nonprofit advocacy group for health and education issues, founded by smart Georgetown lawyers whose métier was policy. Office business was writing reports, mobilizing coalitions and communicating with the media, which meant that politics already outweighed policy 2 to 1. Intern input was encouraged, so I’d occasionally erupt in bursts of misdirected creativity: how about a Times op-ed, or a series of Huffington Post essays? Not the point, they said, for the most part nicely, but on my last attempt — it was the Times op-ed suggestion — the man supervising me actually stopped and stared. The image sums up my time in Washington: standing on U Street, shirt and skin curling in the early August humidity, his mouth open wide, the perspiring sidewalk seeming to crack symbolically between us. He wasn’t wrong, and neither was I; I was just trying my hand at the wrong profession. Coalitions of community college grads and aging Democrats never got built through an essay.

This is what it means to make your career in DC. It’s normal to be passionate and capable. It’s possible to have serious policy expertise. It’s plausible to be only tangentially involved in the messaging wars: go to the Council of Economic Advisers, or a health care policy consulting firm. But it’s impossible to escape the political theatrics: they’re in the water, flowing atop the current, the key component of the permanent campaigns to gain and keep enough votes to edge out the other side in a divided country. The only way you can afford the campaigns is to siphon money from Wall Street and Hollywood, so more money seeps into the system, with additional help from John Roberts.

If you’re someone whose life consists of exploring ambiguities in prose, there’s no way to put a positive spin on this reality, so it’s not a surprise that the two most penetrating literary assessments of modern Washington, by Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace, are unrelentingly scathing essayistic assaults. Both writers first saw Washington when it went on the road, in the 1988 and 2000 campaigns respectively, and both of them came away disgusted at its total lack of authenticity. Didion was so disgusted she wrote a series of essays, Political Fictions, about the city, and wonderful essays they are: scraping, meticulous attacks on a perilously insulated and self-sustaining ecosystem of professional spinners poisoning the well for the rest of the country. Every so often a journalistic satire will surface, like Joe Klein’s Primary Colors and Mark Leibovich’s This Town. The portrait they paint, though the writing goes down easier, is roughly the same.

But there’s a problem with all of these portraits, which is that even people living in Washington, DC have got to live. They’re human beings, who make adjustments to new circumstances, rationalize their situations and, occasionally, follow their moral compasses and accomplish things. That reality doesn’t get much acknowledgment from Didion, DFW, et al, who reduce their subjects to garish cogs in the wheel and ignore the policy people laboring out of sight. So we’re left with an uncomfortable choice. We can either dismiss American politics as an inherently corrupt business — call it the overdetermined cynicism route — or we can pick a side and buy into a message stream. Actual information about our politics is imprisoned within the common perception, reinforced by both Washingtonians and writers, of the city as the province of the spinners, its workings closed off to the reading public.                      


Enter an incredibly unlikely hero: the insider memoirist, whose identity is even more surprising than his existence. Robert Gates — served as the 22nd secretary of defense between 2006 and 2011, considered the best at his job in the post World War II era — is generally seen as a straight-shooter who plays his cards close to the vest. Duty, the memoir he released earlier this year, is not written close to the vest, but it epitomizes straight shooting. It’s not stylistically impressive, but it’s as close to a truthful memoir of Washington as we’re going to get. The book is a straightforward recounting of what Gates did, and what he thought about what he did, and what he thought about the people with whom he dealt: it’s a testimony to what it takes, like the politicos say, “to affect change” in the capital. This is an extremely unusual book, and it’s important at the outset to understand why Gates is the one who wrote it.

There’s no other job in Washington, or in America, or in the world, like secretary of defense. As Gates notes, he managed 3 million people, both civilian and military, with a budget of over 700 billion. He’s CEO of the largest corporation on the planet, and like GM and AIG, it’s government-funded. The growth of the defense industry in World War II and the Cold War is what made Washington the most powerful city in America, and its leader has to interact with the four major forces that make the modern capital: the government bureaucracy, the White House, Congress and the media. And Gates is the only defense secretary in history who’s served in two politically opposed administrations, Bush 43’s and Obama’s, so he’s seen the process from the same position when both parties are in charge.

Which brings us to a brief description of our man: a Midwesterner, born three years shy of the baby boomers, an Eagle Scout, married at 23, the only CIA officer to move from entry-level position to director, even-keeled politically, unentangled in Washington lobbying, eats fast food, likes to fly-fish, loves the troops. The shorthand for this would be old school: a little unadventurous, a little unacquainted with the sheer multiplicity of American experiences in our postmodern age, but solid, grounded, a serious practitioner who judges people by the same standard. Some of Gates’s blind spots come through in Duty, mainly that he’s too earnestly shocked at how political the capital actually is. But with this book he’s done Americans the courtesy of giving an honest and, more to the point, a detailed assessment of the difficulties of responsible governing in the 21st century. “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense,” Gates says, and he tells us, in wincing detail, why.

Gates came to Washington with two clear priorities and, as his tenure extended, focused on a third: stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan; providing for troops in combat; and steering resources away from planning for large-scale conflicts between nation-states to planning for the messier conflicts like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the abstract, none of these goals seem wildly ambitious, but this book is about how difficult, and how personally demoralizing, accomplishing even minimalist goals is in today’s capital. Duty is filled with reiterations: fantasies of shouting down bloviating members of Congress, recollections of nights spent crying while reading letters from families of dead soldiers, rehashings of deeply offensive acts of naked partisanship. The themes that come through are helplessness and frustration. The most obvious causes were the Pentagon, Congress and the Obama White House, but looming in the background was the media, and the ways government officials interact in a 24-hour spin cycle.

The Pentagon, to begin with, had problems with all three of Gates’s goals. “All the services regarded the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as unwelcome military aberrations […] [They] wanted to get back to training and equipping our forces for the kinds of conflict in the future [large-scale wars against conventional nation-states] they had always planned for.” Clearly the most emotional fight, for Gates, was over MRAPs, Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, which had the capacity to protect soldiers from the IEDs (improvised explosive devices). To Gates, the need for mass-producing MRAPs was obvious, so he was shocked to run into stiff resistance from civilian and military officials worried about overspending. Gates prevailed, in part by using his authority as secretary and in part because he knew Congress, eager to support the troops publicly, would fund his request. Elsewhere successes came harder — the inertia was more embedded and Gates’s resources fewer. His biggest regret is, in light of the last few months, a prescient one: failing to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which took months to determine soldiers’ eligibility for disabilities and often slotted older veterans for routine treatment before people wounded in the field. Gates says his reform attempts were outlasted by “active opposition, passive resistance, or just plain bureaucratic obduracy.”

The reasons for Gates’s failure here aren’t hard to discern, and are a kind of template for the rest of his woes. Each branch of the Pentagon was resistant to any reform that changed its budget or subjected it to congressional oversight, and the building had many ways to resist its leader. Information was sometimes withheld and he only found out about it on visits to bases or by reading USA Today. Nor could Gates fire everyone who resisted him, both for PR reasons and because of morale: for instance, the new Army Secretary Pete Geren, who resisted Gates’s changes to the VA, had replaced someone Gates had just sacked. And the officers were more than happy to use the press corps against him. During Gates’s tenure, two top commanders, General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral William Fallon, were relieved of their posts for critiquing sitting presidents in Rolling Stone and Esquire, respectively. Four others, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, found themselves seriously at odds with Bush and Obama for the same reason. You can’t really blame the commanders — if Harry Reid, who’s never faced a bullet in his life, gets to run off his mouth to a supine press corps each day, why shouldn’t they? But opening up the defense bureaucracy to the media presented yet another challenge to effective policymaking, sowing mistrust between the White House and the Pentagon, particularly during Obama’s first term.

The other obstacle to Gates’s VA reforms was Congress, which wouldn’t pass necessary legislation to reform the system because it was responsive to older veterans groups that wanted to keep their benefits. The pattern seems to be that when Gates had Congress on his side he could make reforms to the Pentagon, and when he didn’t, he failed. And Congress, to understate the point considerably, was not a reliable ally. Gates’s indictment is familiar bu, in the context of troops fighting two wars assumes a sharper aspect: with hyper-politicization and media infiltration, members of Congress have become so sensitive to the political reverberations of their districts that they’re unwilling to make reasonable policy decisions out of fear of alienating both their districts and their party leaders. The party leaders will turn any issue into a chance to score political points: Reid’s comments in April 2007, as the Iraq surge was just getting underway, that “this war is lost” and “the surge is not accomplishing anything,” have earned him Gates’s unerring disdain.

An obvious slant running through Gates’s description of Congress is his animus for the Democrats. You could pin this to the fact that Gates identifies as a moderate Republican. But the more obvious reason, which Gates cites several times, is that by the time he arrived in Washington Bush was a lame duck and could afford to buck political maneuvering. The Democrats, with the White House in their sights, could not. Nor could the incoming Obama administration. In fact, Gates’s harshest and most revealing assessment of the way the process works, or doesn’t work, comes when first-term White House politics intruded on the already-toxic mix of Congress, the press and the Pentagon bureaucracy. The issue at hand was Obama’s most important first-term foreign policy decision: whether to try to stabilize Afghanistan with an Iraq-style surge.

Obama’s approach to Afghanistan seems, in Gates’s telling, to be a model of how an executive should make decisions. Gates tell us he had never seen anything like it during his tenure in eight administrations: Obama gave himself time to decide; opened up the process to military and civilian policy experts and staffers in his own administration; made the decision before the political jujitsu of the 2010 midterms; and risked alienating his own base with his ultimate judgment. So it’s telling that even this well-managed a process, which led to a surge that stabilized the country, amounted to a series of brutal leaks, fights and accusations, some of which poisoned relations between the White House and the Pentagon for the rest of Gates’s tenure.

Where the leaks started, who can say? But by mid-2009 administration “doves” like Joe Biden, Rahm Emanuel and most of the political staff were accusing Mike Mullen, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal of forcing Obama’s decision by giving anonymous troop assessments to reporters. All three officers also tended to grandstand in front of reporters, which was a major irritant to the West Wing. The military, for its part, bristled at Obama staffers’ attempts to micromanage military matters about which they had no experience: it was a regular occurrence for mid-level staffers to call four-star generals with questions, which in past administrations Gates thinks would have been a “fire-able offense.” Gates was effectively caught in the middle of the battle. He had the trust of the president; he generally agreed with the officers but hated the leaks; and he was furious at the political arm of the White House for interfering with the military. He managed to use this difficult position to his advantage by fashioning a compromise recommendation: a 30,000 troop surge both the Pentagon and White House could get behind. But Gates’s main takeaway is that the demands of Washington politics prevented a dozen well-intentioned, well-informed people from reaching a reasonable consensus.

The most obvious — and, it must be said, overearnest — demonstration that Gates’s core problem is the demands that the city makes of relatively decent people is also the book’s most famous passage. It’s an exchange regarding Afghanistan between two people whose government performances Gates deeply admires: Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In strongly supporting a surge in Afghanistan, Hillary told the president that her opposition to the surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. She went on to say, “The Iraq surge worked.” The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.

That this could surprise anyone even tangentially aware of how the capital works is difficult to believe. But in Washington, the exchange was serious news because of its political implications. Look no further than the title of a Washington Post blog posted the afternoon of the day Bob Woodward first reported this exchange, and before anyone had managed to read Duty in its entirety: “How Bob Gates’s memoir could haunt Hillary in 2016.”


Enter our second hero. (Or is she our antihero?) Hillary Rodham Clinton, first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, senator from New York, prospective presidential candidate, secretary of state, and, now, historically, informally anointed Democratic presidential nominee. Her story is actually legend: she’s the extraordinary woman to Gates’s resolute everyman, a walking reflection of the extremes of the American experience these past 50 years. Born 1947, four years after Gates, in the vanguard of the boomers, she started her life in the conservative, middle- to upper-middle class suburbs of Chicago. Hardworking, ambitious, a Methodist, she found her way to Wellesley just in time to realize that her cohort might not be as responsive as she’d assumed to traditional bourgeois values. So she leapt for the rising countercultural tide with the same Protestant zeal: “We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living,” she said in the 1969 commencement address.

But freed from Wellesley’s hermetic confines, Hillary sussed out what Tom Wolfe and the Eagles already knew: the anthem of her generation wasn’t a serious search for immediacy; it was loosening the load and taking it easy. A year before “Take It Easy” hit the Top Ten, Hillary met William Jefferson Blythe Clinton in the Yale Law Library. Here was a man who’d had the anthem ingrained in him by heart, through an absent father and a loving mother and a scattered lower-middle-class postwar adolescence. Allying with Bill came with tremendous costs: 13 years in the Arkansas boonies with a whole new coterie of down-in-the-holler roustabouts he’d collected favors from since high school; jokes about her hairstyle and suits; and, of course, Bill’s other women. But Hillary knew her man: together they made it out of Arkansas, through the Democratic primary, and then to the helm of 1990s Washington, DC.

Bill Clinton’s administration embodied the new Washington status quo, the informal creed of most members of the postwar political meritocracy who weren’t conservative ideologues bent on upending the welfare state or old-school Democrats committed to preserving it. Governing was about making it there, keeping your financial backers happy, keeping your coalition intact, and making the necessary compromises to live to fight another day. Despite his talent for policy, Clinton’s chronic short-termism duly helped produce a series of debacles — an aborted health care reform package, a Republican upsurge, Lewinsky-gate — all inflated by a newly sensationalized and salacious political media that was energized by the demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the rare fodder provided by the Clintons. Hillary hated all of it — especially the press — to the point of aggressive and counterproductive paranoia. In the meantime, though, her brand was building: a 1995 women’s empowerment speech in China, a polling rebound after Lewinsky-gate, the senate, a major dip in 2008, and an equally momentous recovery.

Hillary’s trajectory is a reminder that there’s a kind of insight onto Washington only she can offer. Like Gates, she has the Protestant work ethic, but she also wants the political rewards, almost too badly to be a likable public figure. Protestantism and political theater: it’s a tough divide to bridge, which is why Americans have flip-flopped wildly over the past 20 years as to whether she’s a resilient straight-shooter or a hardened sellout. Reckoning with Hillary means reckoning with the question at the core of the schizophrenic apprehension we’ve come to feel toward our capital. Can the right people still use the system to succeed, or will they, by virtue of using the system, become the wrong people? Correspondingly, her memoir is interesting for the opposite reason that Gates’s is. It’s the literary achievement of an unprecedented modern Washington insider, someone both serious enough to be secretary of state and politically adroit enough to maybe be president. This is what someone writes who has the chance to master, through skill and savvy, the madness that is our capital. The question hanging over it is whether she can.

Hard Choices is not a particularly good book either stylistically or structurally. If Hillary had wanted impressive prose she would’ve hired a ghostwriter capable of something other than a placid tone, coffee-table book humor, and reams of descriptive clichés. If she had wanted to write a structurally sound book she would’ve cut it by 100 pages, taken out the unnecessary personal asides, and shown more selectiveness about what hard choices she wanted to cover. Instead, the memoir is a comprehensive look at her challenges as secretary of state, from Haiti to Burma to the Middle East to Africa to Europe. Hard Choices is nothing more or less than a testimonial: calmly written evidence of the fact that, judged by experience, Hillary Clinton is the most qualified possible presidential candidate currently on offer in the United States.

Having read it, I don’t doubt that she is. This is someone who, beyond 16 years as first lady and senator, has spent four years practicing long-term strategic planning, building personal relationships, and negotiating on the fly with remarkable prudence and persistent confidence. She’s haggled with the Russian foreign minister over the precise language of a UN accord to ensure that Bashar al-Assad’s government is delegitimized; she’s advocated quietly for Algeria to grant General Electric a wind turbine contract in order to bring free-market competition to a nation that’s vulnerable to radical Islam; and she’s negotiated with China in the middle of a major summit on behalf of a dissident seeking asylum in the US. These and two dozen other narratives go too deep to be clichés of the hard-running engine-that-could diplomat jetting to Cairo in the morning and Paris at night. They’re detailed accounts of serious decisions taken quickly or over time, of constant recalibration and intense focus.

Nor do I doubt that her tenure was a relative success: she persuasively makes the case that diplomacy in a multipolar and globalized world is a grown-ups’ game, a hard slog where progress gets measured over decades and major setbacks are the norm. Without ever mentioning her detractors, she reduces questions about whether she was a “transformative” diplomat to childish media hype. She put in the hours trying to implement a thoughtful and responsive foreign policy, she got it right far more than she got it wrong, and to demand anything else is to buy into the political messaging streams. Granted, Hillary’s image is burnished by the administration she succeeded: looming behind all her work is the legacy of George W. Bush’s steady progression of unforced unilateral errors. But her view of the United States’s place in the world, measured by both her words and actions, is everything you’d want: tough, pragmatic, driven by a belief in economic and then political growth and in the global middle class as the key to a prosperous future.

She’s emphatically not a closet idealist. She took a tough stand regarding the democratic revolutions that occurred during her tenure: in her view, order was necessary before democracy could be achieved. Both in Afghanistan and during the Arab Spring, she was skeptical of leaving countries to fend for themselves without working forms of government: she was clearly more certain than Obama of the need for a surge (hers was the highest recommendation, of 40,000 troops) and less willing to throw Hosni Mubarak overboard in Egypt for fear of what would happen next. Nonetheless, she draws consistent lines. She wanted to arm both the Libyan rebels and the Syrian rebels in the face of massacres by the states, managing to persuade the president the first time but not the second. In the latter case, she wanted to gain some measure of control over the Syrian Civil War by responsibly training carefully selected moderates; he was worried about a replay of Afghanistan and the mujahideen.

Here and elsewhere, Clinton’s handling of her relationship with Barack Obama is masterful. She glosses over political meddling by the White House by putting it down to senior aides: what matters, she says, is her relationship with the president, statesman to stateswoman. This is not entirely persuasive, since Obama created the atmosphere in which this kind of invasive mentality flourished, but for the most part it’s easy to believe that she admires Obama’s calmness, his legally trained mind, and his commitment to hearing all sides of a case. The distinctions between them come through mostly in her self-portrait, an implicit contrast to what’s become the widespread perception of the president. He’s confident and thin-skinned, smart and condescending, uncorrupted and inexperienced. Whereas Hillary is confident, smart, and honest but also seasoned.

For one thing, she knows how to aggressively play the long game. The difference she subtly draws between her and the president on Syria is that he’s been singed by history into short-term thinking and she’s able to pragmatically engage with the situation on the ground. For another, she is shrewdly nonjudgmental, a recurring and always impressive trait. She listens to a tragic personal story of questionable veracity that Vladimir Putin tells her and stores it in the back of her mind, on the possibility that it tells her something about the man. (Obama memorably dismissed the president of Russia by saying publicly: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”) She sees the Obama insiders who interfered at state as well meaning but “young.” The only person she comes close to dismissing is the short-lived populist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi: tellingly, her complaint is that he’s in over his head.

In starkest contrast to Obama’s image, she’s the adroit, diplomatic details person, willing to throw herself into any situation. The clearest example she gives is a possible war between Israel and Palestine in 2012 over Gaza that’s got Obama concerned about laying American prestige on the line. Hillary thinks she needs to go directly to the region. She recalls their discussion in the one section of the book where the contrast between them becomes explicit and almost cartoonish.

First thing that morning, I went upstairs to the President’s suite in the elegant old Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was still in the shower, so I waited for a few minutes. As he drank his morning coffee, we talked over what to do. He remained wary.

But she throws herself into persuading the water-drenched coffee drinker, and, lo, by the afternoon:

The President wasn’t 100 percent there yet, but he agreed that I should start getting ready to go. Huma and our traveling team began scrambling to work out the logistics of diverting from Cambodia to Israel, not exactly your typical route.

Finally he agrees:

His parting advice was familiar encouragement. Just as when we negotiated the fate of the blind human rights dissident Chen Guangcheng, the President’s message was clear: “Don’t screw up!” I wasn’t planning to.

Here we have the disengaged chief executive who’s not been hardened by history coming up against a patient, loyal secretary of state who has. It’s an exaggerated tableau, made to prick Obama where he’s weakest and to emphasize Hillary’s strengths to impatient Democrats and disillusioned moderates. But it’s also believable because it dovetails with what we’ve known about her since 1969. She’s playing politics here, but on her own terms: expertise, persistence and a responsible vision is what matters and that, she’s saying, is what I’ve got. She’s taking a gamble that, at this point, we care about the message of competence more than anything else.

But then Hillary stumbles, twice, in small but telling ways that remind us that she hasn’t mastered the politics of the unexpected, can’t ride her expertise and excellence when she’s confronted by unpleasant opposition. On her two black marks as senator and secretary, Iraq and Benghazi, she’s evasive and defensive. Her discussions of her vote for the Iraq war in 2002 and against the surge in 2007 are obvious attempts to cast herself as the wronged senator and then the cautious diplomat who’d learned her lesson. She presents David Petraeus as a savvy soldier and the Bush Administration as unrelentingly bellicose, which by 2007 simplifies matters a great deal. Nor does she mention the existence of political factors in 2007 with the upcoming Democratic primary: even without Gates’s revelation, this is not believable.

On Benghazi, she tries to transplant the book’s image of a hard-charging, duty-oriented public servant into a situation that shouldn’t be about her at all. Sometimes her attention to detail works. She is meticulous about describing the days leading up to and following the attack. She also describes the last minutes of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his aides clearly, unsentimentally and respectfully. But, applied to herself, this focus on detail is jarring. The day after the deaths:

I braced myself for the day that lay ahead. I knew how essential it would be to lead with strength a reeling Department while remaining focused on ongoing threats. But first I needed to call the families of those we’d lost […] These would not be easy calls to make, but they were a solemn responsibility.

Having appeared with the president in the Rose Garden, she learns that he wants to visit the State Department personally:

After the President spoke I raced back to the Department. Though he suggested I ride over with him, I wanted to make sure everything was in place for this impromptu visit. Usually a Presidential visit takes weeks to orchestrate. This one would be on the fly.

With four dead Americans, who cares about tough phone calls or visitor protocol?

When Hillary does address critiques, it’s in the same minute yet hyper-defensive terms. Explaining why she sent Susan Rice in her stead to present incomplete information on live television, she notes that

I don’t see appearing on Sunday-morning television as any more of a responsibility than appearing on late -night TV. Only in Washington is the definition of talking to Americans confined to 9 A.M. on Sunday mornings. The days and hours in between simply don’t count. I don’t buy that.

Her conclusion about Benghazi is correct, but, again, awkwardly strident:

Politics only muddied the context and obscured many of the facts. One of the best parts of being Secretary of State was experiencing four years in a place where partisan politics was almost entirely absent from our work. Those who exploit this tragedy over and over as a political tool minimize the sacrifice of those who served our country. 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.

All of this tells us what we already know. When Hillary enters the political joust, she loses her cool; she gets, like in 2008, heavy-handed. By most objective measures — experience, intellect, the ability to bridge moderation and idealism — Hard Choices persuades that she’s the most capable presidential nominee available. But it also makes clear that she’s still the hardworking Methodist who came to Wellesley, still best at the facts, still awkward and overdetermined at distilling her appeal into a messaging point. How much have we bought into spin over statesmanship? Can the most qualified candidates, the ones who accept the uncertainties of the governing process, win at politics? Those are the implicit questions this memoir raises. In a year and a half, we’ll find out some answers. Then, if Hillary wins the nomination and the presidency, we’ll get to see how she strikes the balance between spinning the country and responsibly governing it.


Matthew Wolfson is a writer living in New York.