We don’t learn much new about the inner workings of US foreign policy in this book-length reporting by BBC State Department correspondent Kim Ghattas, and for all her access to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s thinking, we don’t learn much that’s new about Clinton either. In “The Secretary,’’ Ghattas makes a strong case that US power around the world is increasingly limited, and that we can no longer make huge changes acting alone. But this is hardly revelatory.
Ghattas travels around the world with Clinton on the State Department’s plane, along with more than a dozen other journalists. While her account is based on the many press conferences and public events she covers on behalf of the BBC, as well as the occasional chatty visits by Clinton to the back of the plane, that access leads to nought as Ghattas’s insights can largely be gleaned from the daily newspaper. Again, little new is offered other than the trivial.
When Clinton visits Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to take the pulse of governmental reform in that military-dominated nation, she meets with Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent years under government-monitored house arrest. Here Ghattas’s focus shifts from Suu Kyi’s years of suffering and whether the ex-military government can be trusted, to something far less urgent, that is, how absolutely fabulous the secretary of state is: “Clinton stepped out of her limousine in a chic black pantsuit, her sunglasses on as usual, her blond windswept hair now past her shoulders.”
Ghattas’s description of the end of Clinton’s historic meeting with Suu Kyi has all the news value of cotton candy: “Suu Kyi clasped hands with Clinton. . . . Hillary leaned forward tentatively to hug the activist. She was embraced warmly. The two women then exploded in laughter before walking away together, like two long-lost sisters.”
While it’s clear that Ghattas admires Clinton, it’s less clear that this helps the book. We hear plenty about how Clinton connects with people on a personal level, how she’s a savvy networker. Ghattas offers a lot of clichés about how Clinton is evolving personally and “redefining the job at the same time as she was redefining herself. Every day, every meeting, and every public event was an opportunity to test and learn.” This might work in a biography, but in a book that purports to be, according to its subtitle, about “the heart of American power,” it falls short.
Ghattas introduces us to Clinton’s inner circle too, describing how they maniacally manage the details so Hillary can be Hillary: She “trusted those around her and relied on them to help her glide through her heavy schedule,” writes Ghattas, “and her easygoing social nature allowed her to manage herself on the rare occasions when the system failed her for a few minutes.”
Ghattas describes Huma Abedin, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff: “Huma had an almost mythical reputation for her unflappable calm and endless energy, her cool manners and impeccably styled jet-black hair, and, perhaps most of all, for her wardrobe full of designer clothes, including those from her personal friend Oscar de la Renta.” Spending few words on Abedin’s background, experience, or education, Ghattas calls her “the coolest thing on the secretary’s plane.”
What any of this tells us about US foreign policy is another question, one supposes, unless the world is simply a larger version of high school.
Ghattas does get more reflective on occasion, discussing her own journey from war-torn Beirut to the upper echelons of journalism. This book is part memoir, but it doesn’t always cohere. By book’s end, Ghattas sees that our power is limited, that we cannot snap our fingers and solve the world’s problems. If you didn’t know this already, this book might be worth your time. If you did, you’ve probably been reading the news and don’t need Ghattas to remind you of the limits on US power, or the limitless cool of Hillary and Huma.