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book review

‘Hard Choices’ by Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looked surprised as she was handed a baby during a stop on her book tour at George Washington University.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton looked surprised as she was handed a baby during a stop on her book tour at George Washington University.

Of scores of failed presidential contenders this can — and, sadly, has — been said: If only every American voter could actually meet the candidate, then surely that person would be elected. Of one likely 2016 presidential hopeful this can be said: If every American book buyer could get in line to get an autographed copy of her memoir, then Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Hard Choices’’ would be a big success.

That is, at least in terms of her bank account, which already has been enriched by a reported $14 million advance, minus, of course, the amount she paid loyalists to help her write the book and ensure it lacks any zip. It may even sell a lot of copies, but only because a good number of people may be willing to spend $35 for the privilege of joining the queue at Costco for a brisk hello and an India-ink autograph on the title page

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“Hard Choices’’ is destined to be a book that is purchased but not read, a volume given but not opened. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine very many of the more than 318 million Americans alive sitting down and reading the whole thing, unless, like me, they were paid to do so, and even I admit to skimming the chapter on Latin America — proof of the old chestnut, sometimes attributed to James Reston, that Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it.

Now in fairness to Clinton — she deserves this caveat — she could hardly win with “Hard Choices.” Political memoirs tend to be a disappointing genre, and since 1776 only one American, Ulysses Grant, has produced a passable one, though Richard Nixon’s “Six Crises,’’ published seven years before he entered the White House, yields a few insights and a few cringes, and Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,’’ written more than a dozen years before he became president, will reward readers decades from now. But Lyndon Johnson’s life of Johnson, titled “The Vantage Point,’’ for example, bears no resemblance whatsoever to Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,’’ perhaps the greatest biography ever written.

The diplomatic memoir is an even bigger hurdle, for diplomats by definition are, well, diplomatic. (Hardly anyone actually really read Dean Acheson’s 1969 memoir but every hack with a keyboard, including this typist, has quoted, and misapplied, its title: “Present at the Creation.”)

So much of Clinton’s memoir is either lumbering (“The rise of China is one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time’’), leaden (“The end of Burma’s story is yet to be written, and there are many challenges ahead’’), or lifeless (“I left El Salvador and flew to Honduras for the annual meeting of the Organization of American States’’). Truly it strains the patience, and then the eyes, of the reader.

And really, who writes a sentence that begins like this?: “In Jerusalem I had the pleasure of seeing my old friend President Shimon Peres . . . ’’

Even so, this book — overhyped, and with an embargo to which nobody paid any mind but nonetheless was designed to build suspense for a book that has no suspense — will be used. That is not the same thing as saying that it will be useful.

It will have utility to the legion of Hillary haters who will examine with an electron microscope her waterproof 33-page treatment of the tragic incident at Benghazi and will dole out to the talk show mavens of misrepresentation morsels of her (admirable and imaginative) work of folding women’s rights and world health into the everyday work of diplomacy — indisputable proof, they will say, of her hopeless America-hating, minority-loving, left-wing orientation. Her allies, particularly in the Democratic Party, will seize on her loyalty to the president, though that is a rapidly diminishing asset.

But there is no detectable criticism — not a paragraph, not a sentence, or a word — of anyone who can do her harm, except perhaps Vladimir Putin, and who knows whether either one of them will be president in 2017. This is a book written with the sure knowledge that it will be dissected, not read. And for a woman who is known, variously, for being inspiring and irritating, she has produced a work that is relentlessly innocuous.

There are, however, moments of honesty if not quite deep introspection here.

She says she erred in supporting George W. Bush in Iraq in 2003, though that hardly qualifies as a daring leap, especially as Iraq disintegrates in the very month of the publication of this book. She says she would not defect to Canada if Sarah Palin became president, another risk-free remark and no doubt a relief to immigration officials in Ottawa. Her best line comes at the expense of Putin, after he came up with the howler that she had prompted street demonstrations against him. She told the Russian president: “I can just see people in Moscow waking up and saying Hillary Clinton wants us to go demonstrate.’’ Nice one, that.

There are, to be sure, a few endearing passages in this volume, mostly at the very beginning (her account of meeting with Obama after losing the 2008 nomination fight) and at the very end (when she says that “Bill and I took another of our long walks,’’ her affecting, tantalizing transition to a bland three-paragraph meditation on the hard choice facing her as the presidential campaign nears.) These are grace notes that do not seem forced.

In this book Clinton demonstrates that she has mastered the work of the diplomat if not exactly the memoirist. She approaches her hard choice — now only months away — as a woman of achievement, a potential candidate perhaps more qualified in conventional terms for the White House than any president since the Civil War with the possible exceptions of William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush — all Republicans, as it turns out. Her opponents already are arming themselves for the titanic struggle ahead. Sadly for her, they might be saying that a hidden danger of a Hillary Clinton presidency is the prospect that she might write her memoirs afterward.

More coverage of Hillary Clinton’s book:

Joan Vennochi: Hillary Clinton’s campaign-disguised-as-book-tour gets bad reviews

Evan Horowitz: How books help a presidential candidate

Nicholas Burns: Ready for Hillary Clinton?

Clinton draws a crowd, young and old

Local names hard to find in Clinton’s book

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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