Friday 28 October 2016

Leafing through the life of a presidential hopeful - Hillary Clinton

* Politics: Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, And The Twilight Struggle Over American Power, Mark Landler WH Allen, €26.50
* Hillary Rising: The Politics, Persona And Policies Of A New American Dynasty, James D Boys, Biteback Publishing, €23.70
* Hillary: A Biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Karen Blumenthal, Bloomsbury, €16.99

Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30

The former First Lady faces a final frantic push to become the first female US President.
The former First Lady faces a final frantic push to become the first female US President.
Alter Egos by Mark Landler
Hillary Rising by James D Boys.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History.

As the race for the White House heats up, Frieda Klotz reviews three recent books with different angles on Hillary Clinton.

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Hillary Clinton is one of the most polarising figures in American politics, and has long been a magnet for biographers and critics. Clinton herself has written two memoirs, Living History and Hard Choices, but hundreds of books have been written about her, often with pointed titles: Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary or False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some books, such as Hillary Clinton: The Top 20 Reasons She Should Not Be Elected President, simply tell readers how to vote. If you agree that all publicity is good publicity, there is something flattering about this level of hostility.

In three recently published accounts, the authors propose to present a more balanced portrait of the woman who aspires to be America's next president. James D Boys is a professor of international political studies at Richmond American University in London. Karen Blumenthal spent two decades at the Wall Street Journal before turning to young adult non-fiction. Mark Landler works for The New York Times, covering diplomacy, foreign affairs, and the White House.

Of the three, Landler's account stands out. He has, of course, an advantage over most Clinton biographers in that he had access and he was there on the ground, interviewing Clinton and her staff during her tenure as Secretary of State.

Although he includes sections on Origins - looking at Obama's upbringing in Jakarta and Honolulu, and Clinton's babyboom childhood in the suburban Midwest - the book has a clear focus. Its ultimate aim is to assess what he calls Obama and Clinton's "competing visions of America's role in the world": Obama's vision "restrained, inward looking, radical in its acknowledgement of limits; hers, hard-edged, pragmatic, unabashedly old-fashioned."

Alter Egos takes readers through the central foreign policy questions of Obama's first term and unpacks the delicate diplomatic moves and frenzied background activity that underpinned events: the climate change summit at Copenhagen; the violence in Libya in which the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, died; and the diplomatic successes which paved the way for better relations with Iran and Cuba.

Landler notes that Obama and Clinton each brought their own baggage to their political roles. He was newly victorious in the historic 2008 election, and "brought an overweening self-confidence to the Oval Office." She, with her eye on a future presidential run, "never stopped behaving like a candidate."

Landler is an accomplished reporter who realises that the political is personal. As a result, while Alter Egos deftly assesses foreign policy decisions it also gives insight into the people who were making them. There is a strong sense that Clinton, Obama and their troops of advisors and aides are real, living people, just more bitingly ambitious than most.

The book opens with a rather stilted interview from 2010 in which Landler asked Hillary about her relationship with Obama. "To say she chose her words carefully doesn't do justice to the delicacy of the exercise," Landler relates. "She was like a bomb-squad technician, deciding which colour wire to snip as the timer ticked down to zero."

This sort of subtle humour infuses much of Landler's account, and he has an eye for revealing anecdotes. In tracing Hillary's hawkish approach to war, he describes a moment during Bill Clinton's presidency when two generals were trying to persuade the president to take action against Saddam Hussein, who was refusing to let weapons inspectors into Iraq. It was late and Bill Clinton went to bed to rest, and the two men continued discussing their concerns while the First Lady sat nearby, leafing through a magazine.

Suddenly she spoke up, Landler writes. "Don't let him off this time," Hillary said. "You got to make sure you get him. Don't let him sneak out of this one."

In contrast to the vivid and informative Alter Egos, James D Boys' biography of Clinton is rather lifeless - readable but lacking complexity or depth.

In Hillary Rising, Boys adopts a traditional approach, beginning with Hillary's childhood in a middle class Republican household in Chicago and laying out "the route that Hillary Clinton has taken from her childhood to the gates of the White House."

Despite the wealth of source material available, Boys fails to include much of Hillary's own voice in the narrative, and is prone to making unsupported statements. He suggests that Hillary's father's harsh manners "manifested themselves in his daughter," while her mother's puritanical approach to dress was years later "still apparent in her daughter's appearance, causing negative connotations for her husband and his election hopes." This simplistic psychologising, instead of enriching our knowledge of Hillary's character, only serves to reinforce the stereotypes already attached to her.

Like Boys's book, Blumenthal's biography is structured chronologically. Written for teenagers and full of colour and detail, it is perfectly calibrated for an adolescent reader; but it's so fluent that it will be of interest to adults too. When she mentions that the Arkansas Gazette called Hillary "pushy, cold, and domineering," Blumenthal notes that such adjectives "are often used to describe assertive and successful women."

She has also dug up a set of contemporary photos that will appeal to readers of any age.

These three books offer different angles on Hillary and "Hillaryland"-the term aides used to describe her circle of advisors when Bill was president, and which has stuck ever since. All assumed that she would win the nomination.

Hillary has now reached the necessary delegate count, yet the wild trajectory of US politics makes any further predictions dangerous.

In a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, Clinton held a double-digit lead over Trump, but Gallup poll placed her below Trump in American's perception of her honesty and trustworthiness.

Looking towards the future, Blumenthal simply ends her biography by asking, "could this woman be America's next commander in chief?" Despite Clinton's experience, qualifications and drive, a question remains the most honest answer.

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