A finely wrought new book by Kim Ghattas, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power, reads like notes from aboveground, covering the hottest rock star to hit the earth on her endless world tour.
Backstage, on plane rides, taking questions from the people in far-flung places, in chummy tete-a-tete diplomacy with world leaders in Paris; it's all there to get a grip on what Hillary Clinton was up to as Secretary of State for the first term of Barack Obama's presidency. Earning accolades, but for what, exactly?
In these pages, we see it wasn't any one thing or moment or handshake. Charming the Saudi king, strolling in Egypt's Tahrir Square and lunching with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma was fine and well. Championing human rights of women and children in our public talks with other countries was her signature stamp on the office, which goes back to Thomas Jefferson. A scene of her speaking to a women's university in Seoul marks how much she has captured women's aspirations all around the world.
Don't knock it, it's called soft—or smart power. As the first practitioner of this more subtle superpower stance, that's really what the secretary was all about. Picking up the pieces of the George W. Bush presidency, which alienated even some allies, was the first order of business. She had a long dinner with former Secretary Condoleezza Rice before taking office, which may have pointed the way forward.
Thereupon she dedicated herself to a style I'd call "engagee," coming to call in person, finding ways to connect with the public directly, speaking warmly and energetically to her hosts and the media. (Obama himself tried this technique in Israel, and it worked wonders.) In Pakistan, she declared that she didn't believe nobody in the country knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding. She also took a number of tough questions from students there. In one of her many insights into Clinton, Ghattas said she had learned the art of saying sorry: "I've learned from my mistakes." She did this on behalf of the United States, on past policy mistakes in Afghanistan.
This book fleshes out and vindicates the view that Clinton turned out to be a brilliant diplomat, always abroad while Obama struggled with minding the store at home. Still, it was shrewd of the president to pick his chief political rival to stay on the same side of the street. The author says the good Girl Scout in Clinton, the one who loves new challenges, led her to accept Obama's offer.
Indeed, as secretary, she cheerfully called her job "a movable adventure." To keep track of everything, Ghattas notes, she kept a legendary checklist.
Along the way, Clinton came to the view—voiced to the author in an interview—that, "We now understand that America, as powerful and strong as we are, cannot remake societies." It comes across as an epiphany, that such change has to come from within.
Ghattas, a journalist, does not overlook the skill and craft of the secretary's performance art, noting she brought to bear her unique personal knowledge of the players on the world stage, political skills and deft lawyerly readings of briefing books. Apparently, she never met a stranger or a world leader she didn't like, unless it's the Yemeni president. As for her sunglasses, longer hair and wearing more daring ensembles than the familiar pantsuits, she reports these simply as means to a fuller portrait.
Ghattas, the BBC News State Department radio and television correspondent who traveled 300,000 miles with Clinton, grew up in war torn Beirut, Lebanon. This autobiographical angle figures into the narrative slightly, but the book's focus and achievement is a crisp, many-colored portrait in motion of the woman who would be president—who may yet be. It leaves behind her political baggage on this tour, a refreshing change from the usual review of her life chapters as first lady, senator and presidential candidate.
When the secretary's plane stops in Beirut, Ghattas puts a question to Clinton at a televised news conference. The preface to the answer was vintage Clinton: "Well, Kim, first let me say that it's a great delight to have you with me on this trip. As some of you know, Kim is Lebanese and has been so excited about coming back to a country she loves." This flattered and unsettled the author, who felt a bit "used" to make a connection to the Lebanese people. The Syrian invasion of Lebanon—and the failure of U.S. foreign policy to help—still troubled her.
Be that it may, it was just one more way the upbeat Clinton found a way to be at home in the world. Of all her calls, the one that resonated most was the home visit to Suu Kyi—also her jail. They both wore white and looked like "two long-lost sisters," Ghattas wrote. "In the midday sun, on the back porch of a colonial home, the power of America and the power of Hillary had blended into one."