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Rich writes: "The Clinton camp was sufficiently stung by the perception of failure to try to spin the numbers."

Hillary Clinton. (photo: Getty Images)
Hillary Clinton. (photo: Getty Images)

Good Hillary, Bad Hillary

By Frank Rich, New York Magazine

13 August 14


hirty years ago, Michael Kinsley, then with The New Republic, sought to prove his theory that few of Washington’s elites actually read the highfalutin best sellers that they dutifully buy and profess to admire. At a local bookstore, he slipped a note with his phone number deep into the pages of hot new books by the likes of the foreign-policy hand Strobe Talbott and the political pundit Ben Wattenberg, promising a $5 reward to anyone who read that far. Kinsley reported that no one called.

In the digital age, we have the technology to address this same question on a national scale. This summer, a University of Wisconsin mathematician, Jordan Ellenberg, created a small stir by inventing what he called the “Hawking Index” in honor of Stephen Hawking’s much-praised, if not necessarily much-read, A Brief History of Time. Using Amazon’s posted lists of the top five “popular highlights” in books notated by Kindle ­readers—and the page numbers those highlights fall on—Ellenberg crafted a quasi-scientific formula to compute how thoroughly best sellers were being consumed. At the high end by far was Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which scored an anomalous 98.5 percent on the Hawking Index. Among nonfiction books, Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys was a leader, at 21.7 percent. At the bottom, breaking Hawking’s previous low (6.6 percent), was the most-written-about best seller of the year, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, at 2.4 percent. It didn’t take long for a wiseass at the Washington Post to note that another best seller fell still lower than Piketty on the Hawking scale, at 2.04 percent: Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices.

It has been an unexpectedly hard summer for Hard Choices—and, by implication, for its author. The book had a dream rollout worthy of J. K. Rowling: a prime-time ABC special with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America with Robin Roberts, a CNN town hall with Christiane Amanpour, Jane Pauley on CBS, The Daily Show, online Q&As at Facebook and Twitter, even a respectful interview with Greta Van Susteren and Bret Baier at Fox News. But the book tour was stalked by controversies—Clinton’s tone-deaf complaint about being “dead broke” after leaving the White House in 2001, her fumbled answers to questions about her astronomical speaking fees. And much of the press was unkind to Hard Choices itself. You know a Clinton book is in trouble when one of its few partisans is a Fox News personality—Van Susteren, who called it “a fun read.” John Dickerson of Slate spoke for many of those hardy few who actually read the book from cover to cover when he described it as “the low-salt, low-fat, low-calorie offering with vanilla pudding as the dessert.” The only news in Hard Choices was not to be found in its 656-page ocean of prose but in the subtext. Despite Clinton’s disingenuous claim in the epilogue about 2016 (“I haven’t decided yet”), no one in her right mind would write a fat book this dull, this unrevealing, and this innocuous unless she were running for president.

The ultimate indignity arrived soon after publication: Following a brief reign as a No. 1 best seller, Hard Choices was toppled by Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. the Obamas, by Edward Klein, whose loathing of the Clintons is exceeded only by his loathing of the Obamas. Klein had no big book tour, no broadcast-network interviews, and almost no reviews. Yet once Blood Feud had usurped Hard Choices, Clinton never returned to the top of the Times list.

In terms of cumulative sales, the best-seller-list pecking order is a red herring. Hillary will easily outsell Klein in the final accounting; so large were her sales in that first week before word-of-mouth took its toll that it is statistically unimaginable that he could catch up. Nonetheless, the showing of Hard Choices is disappointing by Clinton standards—far below the benchmark set by her 2003 memoir, Living History. Extrapolating charitably from the sales figures tracked thus far by Nielsen BookScan, half of the 1 million copies in the “sold out” hardcover first printing may be returned by booksellers for a refund. By the time of publication, it was reported that signed copies of Hard Choices were selling for close to $400 on eBay. By last week, they were going begging by the score at $79.95.

The Clinton camp was sufficiently stung by the perception of failure to try to spin the numbers. Finally, spokesmen for all three Clintons were moved to release a joint statement attacking Klein and a couple of other anti-Clinton authors whose new titles have less successfully competed with Hard Choices this summer. Their books, the statement said, “should be reserved for the fiction bin, if not the trash … Legitimate media outlets who know with every fiber of their being that this is complete crap should know not to get down in the gutter with them and spread their lies.”

But the disappointing trajectory of Hard Choices and the concurrent rise of Blood Feud say more about Hillary Clinton, her own book, and the vulnerabilities of her potential presidential run than they do about the media or the commercial durability of Clinton bashers. Aside from money, which she does not need, and publicity, which she also does not need, what is the motivation to write and strenuously promote a memoir that obscures more than it tells and that is not so much a personal statement about the hard choices she has faced as a string of uncontroversial position papers salted with upbeat anecdotes? It’s safe to assume that the readers who bought Hard Choices, a sizable group when compared with the audience for most books, admire and in many cases revere Hillary Clinton. They hunger to get to know her better. What is to be gained—whether now or in 2016—by selling them a book whose main value is as a sleep aid?

As it happens, Klein’s book is complete crap, but it is relatively amusing crap (Hawking Index: 19.7 percent) next to Hillary’s slog through seemingly every engagement on her official secretary of State calendar. According to the Times, “Some publishing industry insiders” believe that Blood Feud, despite being a “barely sourced account full of implausible passages,” was selling not just to the usual Clinton haters but to liberals and “readers who are simply looking for irresistible entertainment.” If you’ve read Hard Choices, you can’t blame them for seeking comic relief—and possibly seeking a different Hillary.

“Before we are Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, or any of the other labels that divide us as often as define us, we are Americans, all with a personal stake in our country,” the Hillary of Hard Choices writes, typically, early on. You fear you’ve wandered by accident into a “for kids” edition aimed at lower-school readers, but no such luck. The entire book is crafted to avoid startling children and adults of all ages. Hardly do we encounter its uncontroversial thesis—“Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become”—than we get a disclaimer: “Of course, quite a few important choices, characters, countries, and events are not included here.” And so it goes. Hillary can’t begin a paragraph with the sentence “I am not alone in feeling so personally invested in Israel’s security and success” without starting the subsequent paragraph with “I was also an early voice calling publicly for Palestinian statehood.” In chapters like “Iran: Sanctions and Secrets” and “Climate Change: We’re All in This Together,” she tells us what we already know, larded with an excess of superficial and sometimes self-­aggrandizing detail as well as bullet points from various official proposals and hefty excerpts from speeches and town-hall meetings. There’s lots of name-checking (“I always enjoy seeing Ehud”) and lots of firsts. “No previous U.S. Secretary of State had ever visited the organization’s headquarters” (ASEAN, if you’re asking) … “No Secretary of State had ever visited this city before” (Chennai, India) … “I would be the first Secretary of State to visit in more than half a century” (Burma). Quantity always trumps quality.

Some of us don’t expect (or want) to hear about the Clintons’ private lives. But if Hillary insists on taking us to Chelsea’s wedding anyway, she might include a little personal revelation to go along with the generic Hallmark sentiments. Instead the occasion is repurposed for political branding: “This, I thought, is why Bill and I had worked so hard for so many years to help build a better world—so Chelsea could grow up safe and happy and one day have a family of her own, and so every other child would have the same chance.”

The only touching passages in Hard Choices can be found in Hillary’s generous and humorous portrait of the one-of-a-kind diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who died tragically while trying to stave off incoming fire from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the antagonists in the Obama White House (unnamed, of course) who tried “to force him out of the job.” Next to Holbrooke, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama emerge as ciphers in Hard Choices. Hillary’s trusted aide Huma Abedin is more vividly present, but the public spousal scandal that proved a major distraction to both her and the nation during her service at State goes unmentioned. Also “not included here” are the hard choices—a.k.a. bad choices—that hobbled Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign. To her credit, she does finally call her 2002 Senate vote to authorize the Iraq invasion “a mistake,” though the blame is deflected from her own faulty judgment and political cowardice to the Bush administration’s phony case for war. The candor of this overdue admission, however, is negated by an account of her 2011 speech in Geneva championing LGBT human rights in which she schooled foreign leaders that “leadership, by definition, means being out in front of your people when it is called for.” Given that the Clinton administration’s “leadership” record included being out front in supporting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act, you might expect at least a mini mea culpa, or some circumspect grace note of irony, but Hillary just leaves out that embarrassing history entirely. No wonder she bristled when Terry Gross challenged the timing of her tardy evolution on gay marriage in a book-tour interview for NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

If Clinton could be flummoxed by NPR, it only followed that her camp would hyperventilate about Ed Klein. Blood Feud is patently ridiculous, but despite the Clinton statement chastising “legitimate media” for spreading its “lies,” the “legitimate media” is doing no such thing. Neither has the “illegitimate media” (the pro forma Drudge headlines aside) or conservative media. It’s not just that the Times, the Washington Post, and Slate either ignored or ridiculed Blood Feud. The Weekly Standard and National Review didn’t bother to review it either; the Murdoch imprint that originally bought the book dropped it. (The boutique right-wing house Regnery stepped in.) On his radio show, no less a Hillary hater than Rush Limbaugh said he found “some of the quotes” in Klein’s book “odd in the sense I don’t know people who speak this way.” He also questioned the credibility of the book’s two pivotal confrontations between the Clintons and the Obamas: a couples dinner in the Obama White House’s private residence that could be an outtake from Meet the Fockers, and a fateful golf game where Obama supposedly assented to a deal to support Hillary in 2016 in exchange for Bill’s supporting him in 2012.

Limbaugh was just the latest to join the many on the right who have bailed on Klein. When Klein’s first Clinton hit job, The Truth About Hillary, was published in 2005, John Podhoretz famously wrote: “Thirty pages into it, I wanted to take a shower. Sixty pages into it, I wanted to be decontaminated.” In that book, Klein had claimed that Chelsea Clinton had been conceived in an incident of marital rape and that Hillary was a (nonpracticing) lesbian, or in any case had lesbian friends, or closeted lesbian friends, or whatever, as an undergraduate at Wellesley College. Bill O’Reilly refused to book Klein on his Fox News show then, a snub he repeated for the new book. Even a host on the rigidly party-line Fox News morning show Fox & Friends was skeptical about Blood Feud, joking that the only possible source for one of the book’s Bill-Hillary exchanges would have had to be Chelsea.

That Blood Feud has sold so well can’t be attributed to the salaciousness of its breathless “revelations.” No rape this time, and none of Klein’s weirdly self-­revealing sapphic fantasies. We must settle instead for the news that Hillary may have had some “work” done, and that she may have some routine health concerns that require monitoring, a condition she shares with basically every other 66-year-old in America. There’s a moment where Hillary jabs Obama with her finger to argue a point and Obama later tells Michelle that “it hurt.” But Klein himself doesn’t lay a finger on Hillary. Indeed, he absolves her of the biggest crime the right holds against her—an alleged Benghazi cover-up. In contrast to Hillary’s lengthy and defensive rehash of that incident in Hard Choices, Klein just blames the supposed subterfuge on Obama. The president, it turns out, had concocted a cover story and ordered his secretary of State to disseminate it. When Hillary recounts her plight to Bill, he replies, “Those bullshit talking points manufactured in the White House sausage factory aren’t going to hold up … Eventually, the lie is going to be exposed, and you’ll take the fall for it. Then, believe me, Obama will dump you.” Say what you will about Limbaugh, he knows bogus dialogue when he hears it.

Blood Feud is padded with recyclings from Klein’s previous anti-Obama book, The Amateur, and citations from ­mainstream-media Obama reporting by writers like Jodi Kantor and Ryan Lizza. What makes the book enjoyable is the self-­parodistic overkill of Klein’s writing (a Rahm Emanuel anecdote ends with him hitting “his forehead with the heel of his hand” and saying, “Oy vey!”); the sheer absurdity of his conspiracy theories; and, against all odds, the unexpected, perhaps even unintentional, emergence of a likable Hillary.

Unlike The Truth About Hillary, which mustered the fig leaf of footnotes, Klein doesn’t bother with that pretense this time around and instead cloaks all in “what journalists call ‘deep background.’ ” And so, delightfully, anything goes. We learn that Valerie Jarrett runs the White House with an iron fist and is plotting an Illinois Senate bid by Michelle Obama against the stroke-impaired Republican incumbent, Mark Kirk. Bill commissions a “secret poll” in 2012 showing that Hillary is more popular than Barack Obama and urges her to lead an intraparty insurrection against the sitting president. The Obamas hate the Clintons so much that the president wants to renege on his promise to back Hillary in 2016 and support Joe Biden or possibly John Kerry or an unspecified Obama “mini-me” instead. (Lately, Klein has been identifying the mini-me in New York Post “exclusives” as Elizabeth Warren; she’s not even mentioned in his book.) Klein’s blood-feud thesis, culminating in a chapter titled “ ‘There Will Be Blood,’ ” is so nonsensical that he is compelled to write: “At this point, some readers might raise an objection: How was it possible for Bill Clinton to campaign all-out for Barack Obama [in 2012] while wishing to see him lose? How does that make sense? It only makes sense if we stop to remember that politicians are different from you and me.” Got it!

The cumulative bottom line of this narrative is that next to Barack Obama, who is portrayed as an incompetent mobster, and Bill Clinton, who is always turning red with anger when he’s not cruising waitresses in close proximity to his presidential library in Little Rock, Hillary is by far the most appealing character, a foulmouthed, independent-minded executive you’d like to have that proverbial beer with. You can’t fault a reader for wanting to spend time with Klein’s two-fisted Hillary rather than the often robotic self-­censoring bureaucrat of Hard Choices. Both these Hillarys are in essence fictional creations crafted for the marketplace—one embellished with camp to sell books, the other embalmed with civic virtue to win votes—so in the end, it all comes down to which kind of fiction you prefer. The real Hillary, whomever she may be, is scantly visible in either book. But with all due respect to Greta Van Susteren, it’s Klein’s who turns out to be “fun.”

One of the several shopworn themes of Hard Choices is that when you make a mistake, you learn from it. No doubt the 2016 Clinton-campaign-in-waiting is learning, as many have reported, that its candidate is rusty after her years above the political fray as secretary of State and that she and her enforcers still don’t know how to deal with a press corps they despise. Hillaryland reacted to the mishaps of the book tour, the disappointing sales, and the nuisance of a gnat like Klein with an overkill that recalls its ham-fisted efforts to cope with the Obama insurgency in 2008.

Now as then, the case for a Hillary victory is overwhelming: a more-or-less unified Democratic Party; the lack of a gangbusters opponent in either party; a fractious and self-immolating GOP that seems determined to drive away women, minorities, and young people; and an ability to raise tons of money. But as we all know, Hillary was inevitable in 2008 too. Anything can happen in the next two years.

The continued failure of Benghazi (or, for that matter, any foreign-policy issue on Hillary’s watch) to gain traction with the public has lately spawned an alternative line of attack by potential Republican opponents: Hillary is a “20th-­century candidate.” As a recent fund-raising appeal from Marco Rubio’s PAC had it, “Clinton’s ideas are from the days of the Macarena, Prodigy Internet, and the Y2K scare.” That’s a big step forward from the 19th-century ideas championed by the GOP’s anti-government and xenophobic base, but the orchestrated rollout of Hard Choices nonetheless reeked of old-school Establishment political culture: the inevitable hype about how the D.C. “superlawyer” Robert Barnett secured a multimillion-dollar advance, the prepublication press embargo to build suspense, the leaks of selected passages to friendly media, the breathless accounts of which television name would be awarded the “get” of the first interview with the author, the fiercely stage-managed book signings. It was all reminiscent of the stately, too-big-to-fail corporate culture of Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign.

A bigger issue raised by Hard Choices is a more fundamental one—the assumption by Hillary and her handlers that the Hillary Clinton portrayed in its pages is the one voters want: a cautious, unspontaneous caretaker of all things good and true who will never run a yellow light or frighten the horses. Not a Hillary who knocks back a drink stronger than Chardonnay, not a Hillary who will fire back at the partisan congressional committee running a Benghazi witch hunt with a rightly intemperate “What difference at this point does it make?”

The blandness of the Hillary presented in Hard Choices was a political, not a literary, choice. It is what created the vacuum that a nimble opportunist like Klein could fill—and that conceivably an opposing candidate might fill, much as Obama did. It’s a book that made no effort to entice, let alone win over, voters who weren’t Hillary fans in the first place. On the other hand, Blood Feud just might attract some new adherents. One of my favorite moments in Klein’s fantasia occurs when Bill Clinton tells his wife that he wants her to get plastic surgery because “dowdy and old doesn’t win the White House these days.” To which, in the author’s inimitable style, Hillary responds, “Fuck you. Get your own face-lift.” I am sure that the Clinton camp is correct and this deplorable, trashy scene never happened. But tell me: Wouldn’t you be more enthusiastic about voting for Hillary Clinton if it had? your social media marketing partner
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