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Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices: Heavy on policy, light on personality

Clinton’s book tells much, shows little.

Douglas Friedman

Hard Choices
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster
656 pages

Hillary Clinton says she called her new memoir Hard Choices because it's a title that best captures her experiences "on the high wire of international diplomacy" and also "what it will take to secure American leadership in the 21st century." And yes, that second part sounds a lot like the beginnings of a campaign mantra, but we'll handle that particular hard choice (one that gets only a couple of paragraphs in Hard Choices) when we come to it. First, take note that, for Clinton, the hardest choice of all seems to have been what to include in the book – a 600-plus-page paperweight that is largely an exhaustive political record and far too occasionally a revealing self-portrait or page turner.

The question of what readers expected from this memoir is complicated by the fact that Clinton is not only a politician, but a public, even pop cultural, figure – someone who we have known, or at least we feel we have known, personally as well as politically. The fact that Clinton herself has very little in common with the tabloid-friendly narratives that surround her doesn't stop readers from wanting dirty details. (Diane Sawyer didn't let zero mentions of Monika Lewinsky in the book stop her from asking about the world's most famous intern during the book tour.) Reading Hard Choices is a bit like arriving at a highly-anticipated dinner party and finding out that your host wants to show three hours of vacation slides – we wanted the woman, we got the wonk. This is particularly surprising since, prior to its release, the buzz surrounding Hard Choices was the it might be the summer's biggest beach read. If this is a beach read, then so is Brothers Karamazov.

What Hard Choices is is a detailed account of how and where Clinton spent her four years as Secretary of State: 112 countries (many more than once), nearly one million air miles and more meetings, briefings and surprisingly banal back-channel phone calls than you can recount in a book – though she certainly tries. For political junkies seeking an insider baseball-ish look at the State Department, Hard Choices is probably too simplistic (to her credit, Clinton lays out her very complicated job in terms any reader can understand). For the rest of us, the book's structure is an early red flag: chapters organized by country, a nearly 200-page section on upheaval in the Middle East. Yes, there are a few hundred words on Chelsea's 2010 wedding (Clinton wore an "MOTB" necklace – Mother Of The Bride; Bill and Chelsea danced to The Way You Look Tonight), but you'll have to wade through 40 pages on modern Asian diplomacy to get there. Humanizing details are hidden throughout the book like chocolate chips in a spinach salad, almost like Clinton wanted to make sure you did your homework before finding out that one of her favourite movies is A League of Their Own, that she once annoyed Yitzhak Rabin by forcing him to smoke out on the White House balcony, that she got a kick out of the "Texts from Hillary" meme and that she kept a teddy bear that plays Don't Worry, Be Happy when you squeeze its paw in her office at the State Department.

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Among the many explorations of international diplomacy, the most riveting chapters correspond with the most riveting periods in recent history. In chapter one, Clinton admits to being devastated by her loss to Obama. The chapter on Benghazi is not going to satisfy anyone looking for a mea culpa. Instead, Clinton strives to put the tragic deaths of four American diplomats into a larger context of dangerous work for a higher purpose. The section on the capture of Bin Laden offers up some details on the president's headspace ("he was calm," she says) and on Clinton herself, who didn't share any information about the mission, or even its existence, with her husband. ("I assume Hillary already told you…" began Obama, calling the former president to share the good news. She had not.)

It's these same tight lips that prove Hard Choices' biggest liability. Early on, Clinton writes about how she and Bill (always "Bill" or "my husband") privately discussed whether or not he would lead a mission to North Korea to rescue two kidnapped American journalists. Later, she reveals that Obama once "took [her] to the woodshed," after a screw-up in Egypt. In both of these instances (and several others) you want to remind the author of that golden rule of writing: Show, don't tell. What is the conversation like when the diplomat going into the most dangerous country in the world is also your husband? What does the leader of the free world sound like when he's reaming you out?

So devoted is Clinton to her global role call, that she often misses the bigger, more interesting, picture. For example – quite a bit of ink is devoted to her Chief of Staff Huma Abedin, including a story about the time that Obama publically praised Abedin as "an American Patriot" after a Republican senator suggested that her Muslim religion could mean she was working for the enemy. What never comes up, though, is that, aside from being Clinton's trusted aide, Abedin was and is the wife of Anthony Weiner. The original Weinergate happened in 2011, while Clinton was Secretary, and yet not a word on how her right hand was at the centre of the year's most public and humiliating political scandal? To paraphrase a wise woman, cheating scandals are human scandals. Or something like that.

As a few book reviewers have already pointed out, the best (read: juiciest) political memoirs generally come from politicos who are heading out to pasture or at least stepping away from public life and thus have nothing to lose by spilling. That Clinton keeps her cards close to her chest can be read as proof positive of a presidential run in her future. Maybe after that, she can finally give us the goods.

Courtney Shea is a Toronto-based writer.

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