‘Hard Choices’: How Hillary Clinton Took Control of Her Narrative


It is, as The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy put it, “Hillary Week” across America, as the former Secretary of State, senator for New York, first lady, future grandma, and pantsuit poster child criss-crosses the country promoting her new tome, Hard Choices.

Her second autobiography, after 2003’s Living History, Clinton’s new tome covers a very specific time in her life: the four years she spent as Secretary of State. It is, in some ways, a trip around the world with Clinton, following her to Russia, Pakistan, China, and beyond — following every hard choice she had to make.

It is, of course, a resumé. It is a resumé and a report on what happened during those four years, and it feels, naturally, like the first shot fired in the Hillary 2016 campaign. Sadly, we are still waiting for the memoir that she could write: the rollicking, gossipy tome of our times as seen through the eyes of one incredible person. But it’s doubtful that will ever come out in Clinton’s lifetime, or if she’d even have the energy to write some kind of “publish 100 years after my death” Mark Twain thing. It’s not going to happen.

Hard Choices is the (second) memoir we get. She discusses her relationship with Barack Obama, and how their eventual unified front created a Lincoln-like “team of rivals.” She gives interesting, humanizing detail to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound — Clinton mentions having to keep a poker face at a wedding — leading to the terrorist’s death, and notes that some details were “contrary to some news reports and what you see in the movies.” She writes passionately about Benghazi, saying, repeatedly, “I take responsibility” and concluding, “I will not be part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.” She publishes a full paragraph regarding one of her answers in her testimony before Congress, words that were taken out of context to make her sound cold.

The book — which, according to Clinton, did get White House approval — is remarkably focused on Clinton’s experiences with international diplomacy, and it makes for reading that is somewhat perfunctory. It’s Clinton’s side of things, and she’s very careful to discuss everything with a veneer of honesty that doesn’t necessarily reveal the truth. She will admit to fights and disagreements with the likes of Leon Panetta. Which is fine, and expected, really — no surprise there. Towards the end of the book, she veers towards topics like climate change, human rights, privacy and the Internet, and natural disasters. Her point of view on all these subjects feels like talking points for a future debate.

Perhaps she got the Monica Lewinsky stuff out in Living History. (“I did, and I’m past it,” she’s said.) But it’s interesting to note how careful Hard Choices is with certain button-pushing figures. There are two perfunctory mentions of Sarah Palin, in which Clinton discusses how the Obama team wanted Clinton to slam her and she refused to do it. Huma Abedin is mentioned throughout, but there’s nothing on Anthony Weiner. Pop culture figures like Amy Poehler and Dan Savage appear in asides. The “Texts From Hillary” meme — embraced by the Ready for Hillary campaign’s mugs, for one — gets a brief mention, with the original, meme-inspiring photo in a small circle on the back cover.

In Rebecca Traister’s passionate, depressing book about the 2008 election, Big Girls Don’t Cry, the author goes deep into Clinton’s campaign, showing how Clinton’s “inevitability” pitch, blocking her feminist bona fides, backfired. The misstep allowed Palin to forge an identity as a “mamma grizzly” and run with it, beguiling the nation for a short period of time. The 2008 Clinton campaign only started to get real momentum in the press, to turn into a fight, when she revealed weaknesses, when she seemed human.

This time around, Clinton is prepared. Naturally, she is coy about whether she’s running or not, telling the likes of Diane Sawyer on ABC and Cynthia McFadden on NBC that she’s not declaring anything, but that she is looking forward to becoming a grandmother in the fall. Granted, it would be early to officially start campaigning, and you can only go downhill from being the presumed frontrunner, but Clinton is obviously having it all, promoting her book and beginning the arduous push to the presidency in 2016.

Chelsea’s pregnancy — and Clinton’s expression of enthusiasm over becoming a grandmother — is key. Chelsea is a frequent character in Hard Choices, and she’s in the background, reminding Clinton of why she does the hard work that she does. Whether it’s politically, by giving a speech in which she reminds the crowd about Hillary’s feminist statements, broadening them by tying them to the struggle for LGBT rights, or through lifestyle (see: her glamorous, heart-warming marriage), Chelsea’s competence and success are stellar advertisements for Clinton. There have been rumors that Chelsea will be running for office in the future; I don’t doubt it, and I suspect that she will be a strong advocate for her mother in the future campaign. Because we all know that Clinton is running.

While this “Hillary Week” may be the first shot in a campaign, perhaps it’s another thing as well: a remarkably controlled narrative that, this time, understands how to position Clinton as a presidential candidate. She makes tough decisions. She’s (ugh, why does this matter so much for women?) relatable. She’s a remarkable woman. In some ways, it’s like the quiet before the storm, before the 2016 presidential campaign descends into a cloud of toxicity. Enjoy it while you can.