I have 20 minutes in a hotel room with one of the most famous and best-prepared minds on Earth. What can you ask the former first lady, senator and secretary of state that will elicit something that approximates earnestness? There’s no question the Yale Law School grad hasn’t answered, no testimony she hasn’t given, no political storm she hasn’t weathered, no journalist-induced whiplash she hasn’t suffered. Health care, Whitewater, impeachment. Does them in her sleep.
She has survived the Etna-like persistence of multiple bimbo eruptions, forgiven her husband for them, and even excused President Barack Obama for running a sexist campaign against her during the 2008 Democratic nomination battle. (Forget the Oval Office: It’s her presidential pardons that really count.) She can laugh at herself, cry with heart, but also curate and viciously prosecute an enemies list of people who transgressed her in 2008. There is no dictator or Democrat-manqué she hasn’t gone nose to nose with. She isn’t a wily survivor over three decades for nothing.
Now she may be back for the big prize. Or behind the curtains, waiting to collect it. Whether or not she runs, she has kicked off the 2016 election with her memoir, Hard Choices. She’s on the first campaign – a warm-up for another possible warm-up in the midterm elections this fall – and I have 20 minutes to figure out if she’s a priestess on the high altar of authenticity or a prepackaged, reissued presidential candidate-in-waiting. My clock is ticking.
Sitting in a suite at New York’s Peninsula Hotel, Mrs. Clinton is warm, impressive, speaking in hushed, familiar tones and catching herself as she becomes too grandiose. One on one, she is lively, approachable – intense eye contact, gesticulation, appreciative smiling. Sometimes this doesn’t make it all the way to the television screen or to the quotes on a page, but it’s there in person. Still, I just want to take away something personal I didn’t know before, something all the days of prepping couldn’t teach me. A souvenir, a telling detail.
In my 20th minute, I go for broke and ask a question suggested by our travel editor.
“I have a profound question,” I say with slight archness.
“Oh,” she says, raising the irony meter a notch. Either she read my mind or detected my abject sheepishness.
“I’d love to know your packing technique,” I say.
She pauses momentarily, then jumps in. “I probably overpack, because I’m always concerned that the climate is going to change despite the predictions,” she says, her tone shifting into the yadda-yadda of vague Seinfeldian irony. “It’s either going to be too hot or too cold, so I’ll always throw in a coat even though supposedly we’re going into summer. You know, a scarf in case I need it.”
Mrs. Clinton tells me something that ended up on the cutting-room floor of her 632-page memoir. “I landed in Kabul one time – I had meetings the next day – and somehow my clothes did not get off the plane. The plane had to go to Bagram. It couldn’t stay overnight in Kabul. And so I had no clothes. For a woman who is unfortunately as photographed as I am, it’s a minor crisis. It doesn’t rise to the level of War and Peace, but it’s a problem,” she says.
To my surprise and elation, the subject has struck an authentic chord. “Packing has always been one of my most difficult tasks,” she says, her words punctuated with knowing nods. “I do try to plan for a lot of contingencies because I don’t have time to go shopping. I can’t tell the press or the president of a country, ‘Wait until I figure out what I’m going to wear.’ I just want to have enough choices that I can get through the week.”
Of course, this kind of knowledge becomes dangerous, a convenient analogy you could stretch across five decades of public service. Mrs. Clinton’s book is, frankly, overpacked, the baggage of an earlier era of politics, the overfreighted briefing document before a presumed election run. Even though no one questions her gravitas, the idea of a heavy, traditional campaign book in an era of authentic politics is strategically questionable. Plus, the cover of Hard Choices is the identical twin to that of the memoir she wrote more than a decade ago, Living History.
But there are tactical strengths, too. Hard Choices creates sharp points of daylight between her and her president in the event that she runs for his job and is called upon to defend the Obama administration’s lack of muscularity abroad. While she will interminably be on the hook for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, wasn’t she correct in urging that Washington lightly arm the Syrian rebels? Of course. Didn’t she voice doubt over swapping Taliban prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl? Definitely. Isn’t Russian President Vladimir Putin one of the scarier men on the planet? No doubt. And wasn’t she way ahead of the curve on building new relationships in the East, a move called the Asia Pivot?
There is also a gripping, cinematic recounting of a crisis with China in which the State Department rescues the blind dissident, Chen Guangcheng, who is wandering around Beijing with a broken foot. Despite her image as a realpoliticking, modern-day Metternich who takes advice from Henry Kissinger, she stood up for the bedrock American value of free speech.
The faithful are flocking to the tome. Three days on the shelves and it’s already number three on Amazon.com, behind The Fault in our Stars and 10-Day Green Smoothie Cleanse.
But the question is, will it draw in tech-addled millennials and the new Americans who probably think Kenneth Starr was the drummer for the Beatles? A political tome is often successful when readers who wouldn’t normally think about this kind of book buy it. By extension, politics works the same way. Author Obama, meet politician Obama.
The essence of the Hillary Clinton narrative is that she has always been the most prepared. But no matter how one packs, sometimes the plane takes off in another direction without warning. It happened in 2008, when a relatively inexperienced senator from her home state of Illinois took on wind and overtook the presumed victor with the help of social media. A diffuse, decentralized network of activism is emerging in the U.S., one that reaches voters and potential voters directly, one that’s not reliant on the old, encumbered sort of central-command politics. As the biz folks would say, it’s nimble.
This week could very well mark that sea change. As Mrs. Clinton was fending off accusations of carrying personal debt, Tea Party candidate and economics professor Dave Brat pulled a stunning upset, defeating House majority leader Eric Cantor in Virginia for the mid-term Republican nomination. Mr. Brat’s support came from Big Radio, not Big Money. Pundits say the defeat is blowback for Mr. Cantor’s softening on immigration, or they attribute it to him losing touch with his district. He wasn’t even there on election day. Is this unforeseen victory an isolated event, or has a Black Swan descended on D.C.?
While Mrs. Clinton says she isn’t well acquainted with Mr. Cantor’s district, she attributes his defeat to the relatively low voter turn-out of mid-term nominations and elections. “The most motivated people in these elections are often the people who have intense feelings and are therefore going to be expressing their disappointment, their anger, their rejection of whoever is in office. It’s an anti-incumbency approach.”
Hoping to get a sense of how agile Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 might be, I ask her if the old political machines are broken. Look at the Tea Party, I say, which is decentralized to the point of numbing confusion. And, of course, the successes of her former Democratic Party rival.
“[President Obama’s] campaign was so successful at using modern technological means of communicating and enlisting people both in ’08 and particularly in 2012 to support him and come out to vote. That would not have been possible 10, 15, 20 years ago,” she said. “Not that I think what we were doing was antiquated, but that forces are at work in technology and globalization that are going to change the way we must do politics.”
So if, say, Mrs. Clinton were to run in to 2016, would we see a more decentralized, grassroots campaign? “Take me out the equation. The answer is absolutely,” she said. “There is a lot of evidence that people are organizing themselves differently, even at work.”
Her clock is ticking, too. The pace of technology is speeding up, a phenomenon of which she’s keenly aware. “I read stories about architects of the Obama campaign in 2012 going around saying, ‘We’re too old.’ The new stuff is coming from people who are, like, 20 right now. It’s moving that fast.”
The question is, how will she react? Will it be the campaign equivalent of a 632-page book? If you want to be nimble, you have to pack and pray. That may be the hardest choice of all.
Which reminds me: How did the story of the lost bag of Bagram end? How did the architect of America’s Asia Pivot pivot when she was clothes-less in Kabul?
“What I did was borrow a scarf from one of the young women travelling with me and change some jewellery around.”
Now, that’s more like it.