Let’s get one thing out of the way: Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for president in 2016. Despite her waffling — ”I haven’t decided yet” — this is a campaign memoir if I’ve ever seen one. That’s not how it’s billed, of course; technically Hard Choices is about Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, since she’s already covered the rest of her life in 2003’s Living History.
The Republican right will parse every sentence of Hard Choices looking for lies and duplicity, and even Clinton’s biggest fans won’t be happy with some of her blame-dodging explanations. (About her ”yes” vote on the Iraq War, she says, ”I came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt.”) Yet in many ways this is a better, more substantial book than Living History. It isn’t set up chronologically, but by regions of the world. Clinton spent four years hopscotching the globe, and the book’s structure aligns with the number of trips it can take to resolve — or attempt to resolve — a diplomatic crisis. So you can read the sections on Asia and come away with a much clearer understanding of, say, the territorial scuffling over the South China Sea and its importance to the U.S. Clinton seizes wonkish topics and shows how diplomacy actually works — the phone calls, the endless meetings in dreary conference rooms, the bargaining and back-channel negotiations. (When news leaked out of Saudi Arabia that an 8-year-old girl had been forced to marry a 50-year-old, Clinton called a Saudi diplomat and said, simply, ”Fix this on your own and I won’t say a word.”) But her candor only goes so far, and you get the sense that she’s saving the dishiest details for her next book: the one she’ll write when she’s through with politics.
Which brings us back to the book-as-campaign-launch. Snippets about Clinton’s upbringing, her relationship with her mother, the time she met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chelsea’s wedding — they’re all here, wedged into the flow of political dramas, to provide strategic human warmth. And some passages can feel cluttered by campaign-speak: ”As Secretary of State I had the chance to make the world a little safer and life a little better for children in America and across the globe.” Ugh. Just skip that stuff and enjoy Hard Choices for what it is at its best — a rich and lively narrative of Clinton’s foreign policy successes, and failures. B+