The actor David Niven was once badgered by the American columnist William F. Buckley to introduce him to Marc Chagall, a neighbour of Niven’s in Switzerland. Buckley, a keen amateur painter, wanted to know what Chagall thought of his work. With grave misgivings, Niven agreed to set up a meeting. Chagall in silence gazed at Buckley’s pictures for some time until Buckley could restrain himself no longer. ‘Well, what do you think?’ he asked — whereupon Chagall clapped his hand to his brow and groaned, ‘Poor paint!’
I felt something similar on reading this book about Hillary Clinton’s time as US Secretary of State. It’s not that it’s slapdash, or short on detail — quite the reverse; it’s just that its two authors hurl themselves at the English language like two treefellers with a very big axe.
Right from the off, it’s plain that Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes are hellbent on breaking the record for shoehorning as much extraneous detail into one sentence as possible. With what now seems hopeless naivete, I thought their description of Hillary Clinton’s former senior adviser, Capricia Marshall, would take some beating:
A brunette with a chic short haircut and highlights, the half-Croatian and half-Mexican Marshall, who favored rigorous P90X workouts, went way back with the Clintons.
That, though, was before I came to the pen-portrait of Jared Cohen, who used to be on Clinton’s police planning staff:
Thin, with curly black hair and blue eyes that come alive when he talks about a new idea, Cohen is a native of Weston, Connecticut, a wealthy New York suburb where the median income reaches nearly $200,000 a year.
Yet somewhere in here — albeit buried several fathoms deep — is a fascinating story: how did Hillary Clinton go from being Barack Obama’s embittered rival to his most trusted colleague? Before becoming Secretary of State, Clinton had never run a government department before. She didn’t even know that much about foreign affairs, although we learn that ‘she understood that engaging in diplomacy in hostile parts of the world was a calculated risk’ — which is something, I guess.
She turned down Obama’s offer of the job at least three times. Then when she did relent, her tenure got off to a less-than-promising start. Keen to put relations with the Russians on a new footing, Clinton presented her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a specially struck button bearing the American and Russian words for ‘Reset’. Far from being pleased, Lavrov seemed strangely puzzled by his present — until someone realised that the translator had inadvertently put in the word for ‘Overcharge’ instead.
At first relations between Hillary and Obama were frosty — it didn’t help that the President and Bill Clinton circled each other like two roosters whenever they met. But it wasn’t long before Hillary’s ravenous appetite for work and the hawkish gleam in her eye won Obama’s respect. Indeed, he was so impressed that he gave her a specially monogrammed iPad case with her initials on one side and ‘Secretary of State’ on the other.
Normally, I’m a sucker for these sorts of details, but here you have to winkle them out from under a ton of verbiage and unfiltered information. Allen and Parnes have chucked everything into the mix, including some of the blandest unattributed quotes ever assembled — ‘“She has a full range of emotions,” says one former senior government official.’
Yet amid all this, there’s hardly any analysis of Hillary’s strengths and weaknesses as Secretary of State. Every so often they allow themselves a whisper of criticism — most notably over her failure to foresee the storming of the US Embassy in Benghazi in which special envoy Chris Stevens was murdered. For the most part, though, they adopt a reverently supine crouch.
There isn’t even much analysis of Hillary herself. However full her range of emotions might be, she’s plainly not that big on charm — ‘Call me HRC,’ she once told chat-show hostess Ellen de Degeneres. On the other hand, it’s hard to remain entirely resistant to anyone who, on being reminded of her evening’s social engagement, snarled, ‘Fuck the White House correspondents’ dinner.’
That, of course, was the evening in May 2011 when bin Laden was killed. It’s here that the most revealing detail of all about Hillary emerges — or at least about the state of her marriage. After the news came through, Obama thought that, as a courtesy, he’d better phone Bill Clinton. ‘I’m sure Hillary has told you what’s happened,’ Obama began. There was a surprised silence from the other end of the phone. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Clinton. Hillary, it transpired, hadn’t even bothered to fill him in.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16.00, Tel: 08430 600033
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 22 February 2014Tags: American politics, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Book review - biography, Hillary Clinton, Osama bin Laden