Book review: Kim Ghattas' account on Hillary Clinton lacks personal details about the former secretary of state

Kim Ghattas¿s new book on Hillary Clinton reveals a clutch of little-known personal details about the former secretary of state and contains some interesting insider stories, but lacks depth and analysis, writes Fran Hawthorne

The Secretary
Kim Ghattas 
Times Books
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The Secretary
Kim Ghattas
Times Books

It seems that as soon as Americans elect one president, the chattering classes begin speculating on the next. Thus, the question of the moment in US politics is: will Hillary Rodham Clinton run?

The possibility that the former secretary of state and former first lady might indeed stand for president in 2016 should make an in-depth biography required reading for anyone interested in world affairs. Unfortunately, The Secretary, by the Lebanese-born journalist Kim Ghattas, is not that biography.

The book certainly offers lots of little-known details that Ghattas picked up during her four years as the BBC's radio and television correspondent at the US State Department. She reveals, for instance, the colour of the toenail-polish that Clinton wore when visiting the historic Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in Myanmar (dark red). The insider tales of life and logistics on the press plane will enthral any politics aficionado.

What's missing, however, are the details of Clinton's mind - her real goals, her doubts, her analysis of global developments, or her opinions of world leaders. Nor does the investigation of her personality go any deeper than her toenails.

The book's thesis is that Clinton has been a successful secretary of state because of her humanising approach - what might even be labelled a woman's touch. This could involve town-hall meetings with ordinary people, an emphasis on civil society in her public speeches, or unusual candour in talks with world leaders. In large part due to this outreach, Ghattas says, "working with the United States had again become desirable" to the rest of the world.

As the author writes, Clinton "gave the people she was talking to her full attention and listened closely to their stories, head tilted, eyes focused … She made them feel like she had travelled all the way from Washington just for them."

This operating style had its most obvious success in Myanmar, where Clinton quickly bonded with Aung San Suu Kyi, the legendary opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. As well, the American diplomat was greeted with near-adoration when she spoke to women's groups from Seoul to Saudi Arabia "as though she was sitting in a café with friends having a cup of coffee".

But Clinton's warmth didn't work only with women. She eagerly engaged in a freewheeling question-and-answer session with the educated elite of Yemen. When a shoe slipped off as she was walking up the steps of the Elysée Palace, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy caught her hand to stop her from tripping, her thank-you note was almost flirtatious. "I may not be Cinderella," she wrote, "but you'll always be my Prince Charming."

Sometimes, indeed, the secretary could be too human and not enough of a cautious diplomat. Ghattas points out that when Clinton, in an interview, discussed the complexity of supporting the rebel groups in Syria in the summer of 2012, "this was not the message that the administration wanted to put out".

Into this story of a US political icon, Ghattas brings her own perspective as a Lebanese Christian and the views of her longtime local friends. Sometimes they admire the US, sometimes they resent it, but always they assume that Washington DC is a puppet-master controlling the world.

During a visit to Beirut in the summer of 2011, as the revolutions in Syria and Libya heated up, a Lebanese fashion designer and friend asks Ghattas what the Americans "have planned" for Lebanon and Syria. Ghattas replies that there is no plan. Her friend, horrified, declares, "If the Americans have no plan, then who the hell is in charge of everything?"

Those personal viewpoints are indeed fascinating. However, they reveal nothing about the viewpoint of the title character of The Secretary.

For any insight into Hillary Clinton herself, the reader gets only platitudes that have already been covered in the media, including the ones that contribute to this book's thesis. Clinton tries to communicate with real people. She believes that it is important to encourage the small steps Myanmar has taken towards civic freedoms, even if it hasn't yet achieved full-fledged democracy. She has often been frustrated by Russian and Chinese obstinacy in confronting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. She intentionally deferred to President Barack Obama rather than challenge him.

But what does Clinton really think of Obama? After all, the US president didn't listen last summer when she, then-defence secretary Leon Panetta, then-CIA director David Petraeus and top military leaders urged him to arm some of the rebels in Syria. How did she feel about being ignored? When Clinton dined with her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, a few weeks after Obama was first elected in 2008, how did these two powerful women get along? What advice did Rice offer? Did the Arab Spring scare Clinton? Does she believe that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible in the near future?

Of course the answers to these questions wouldn't be easy to get. That is precisely why an in-depth biography is needed.

Ghattas claims that she interviewed Clinton more than 15 times during her years as a BBC correspondent. She obviously spoke with at least a dozen other well-connected sources, such as State Department aides and foreign envoys who met with Clinton. Couldn't she have pushed any of them a little harder?

Sure, the author did garner some unusual information in the course of flying nearly 1.5 million kilometres around the world with Clinton, to 112 countries (including two visits to Abu Dhabi), jumping from the WikiLeaks revelations to the Arab Spring to the US "tilt" towards Asia. The inside titbits are among the highlights of the book. For instance, the secretary of state may have the most modern and secure communications equipment, but her official airplane's carefully stocked galley can barely cope with last-minute changes in the itinerary. When a stop in Egypt was abruptly added to one trip, thus extending the flying time by three "travel legs", there was nothing left for lunch except "a thin cheese sandwich and about five tablespoons of canned tomato soup" per person. The book's biggest scoops are a few personal details about Clinton, including the fact that she has freckles and always wears sunglasses outside, even in cloudy weather.

Yet those titbits, again, say little about the secretary's inner personality. What is her relationship today with her husband, former president Bill Clinton? What would she like to do if she doesn't become president in 2016?

If this book were entitled The Street or The Secretary's Airplane, that would be more accurate. But a book deserving the title The Secretary has yet to be written.

Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.