After years of traveling with Hillary Clinton and her entourage, Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s State Department correspondent, has decided to draw on her many interviews, open sources and observations and fashion them into an intimate portrait of one of the world’s most influential women. “The Secretary” chronicles Clinton’s political career from the first hopeful days of the Obama administration to the present, taking us in and out of war zones and crisis summits. Along the way, Ghattas explores wider issues, including her own Lebanese roots and whether American hegemony is still a force to be reckoned with.
Ghattas begins by presenting a new secretary of state eager to prove herself after the media battering she received during the primary race, not to mention Obama’s critique of her foreign policy experience. “We have a lot of damage to repair,” Clinton says at a press conference, and her first trips abroad are charm offensives where she acquaints herself with her foreign counterparts and attempts to restore American credibility. There are some early teething troubles (her bluntness enrages the Israelis; her off-script comments about Chinese human rights irk the White House), but soon she is impressing and aweing with her unique brand of diplomacy.
Throughout her account, Ghattas feeds the reader fascinating bite-sized potted histories of nations and their (often unresolved) conflicts, before regaling us with the ins and outs of Clinton’s negotiations and her results, victories or otherwise. Many countries test Clinton’s supposed “strategic patience”: Israelis are obstructionists, Pakistanis are skeptics, Turks refuse to kowtow. Rights for women and children remain as high on Clinton’s agenda as they did during her time as first lady, and on each visit we see her in town halls engaging with women’s groups — one in Saudi Arabia where they lifted their veils to pose with her for a group photo.
Such nuggets of detail spice Ghattas’ book. Clinton shows up for work at 8 a.m. (unlike Condoleezza Rice who, we hear, was at her desk at 5). Air Force One is plush whereas Clinton’s plane is creaky and forever breaking down, and her coterie, “Hillaryland,” is “occasionally dysfunctional.” Clinton’s human side is revealed, whether insisting on first names, high-fiving the Turkish foreign minister or hugging Aung San Suu Kyi. There are standout chapters on the Arab Spring and Clinton’s “apology tour” after the WikiLeaks scandal. In the end, she emerges as flawed and as polarizing as any politician but also self-deprecating, unflappable and mesmerizing, “a center of gravity” among the many presidents and princes she must schmooze with.
At one point Ghattas rues the hectic nature of her working life but admits it has granted her “priceless access to the inside of the U.S. foreign policy machine.” It is exactly this that she presents for us in this informative and absorbing book.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.