What can ‘HRC’ tell us about Hillary Clinton’s past and future?

The cover of "HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton."
(Crown Publishing)

Welcome to 2014, which is practically 2016, which in presidential politics means just one thing, with three controversial names: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Or, as her staff and many in the media refer to her: HRC.

“HRC” is the title of a new book by political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes chronicling Clinton’s term as secretary of State. The authors are clearly aiming to get out ahead (33 months ahead!) of the next presidential election, in which Clinton’s candidacy has been all-but-guaranteed by supporters, detractors, the media and just about everyone but Hillary herself.

Allen and Parnes know the value of telling the story of Clinton’s State Department stewardship during the period that included the Arab Spring uprisings, the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, and the murder of American diplomats in Benghazi. This will be her record on foreign policy, and it will be wholly different from the one she ran on in 2008.


Hillary has spent decades as one of the most polarizing figures in the country, but Allen and Parnes’ take on her is neither monstrous nor hagiographic. Instead, their Hillary is warm and funny, flawed and strong. Sure, they include some bwa-ha-ha-ing Lady Macbeth moments, including her instruction to superdelegates to “make a decision that might be the contrary of what the voters have decided” and a whole chapter called “Hillary’s Hit List.”

But mostly, their Hillary is dogged, tough and loyal to a fault. They, like many of their sources, seem to have (temporarily at least) adjusted the lens; through it, Hillary now looks downright wholesome in her nose-to-the-grindstone competence.

Anyone hoping for a scandal-sniffing exposé or a policy deep dive will be disappointed, but for readers who want a primer on how Clinton handled the big events of her tenure, it will likely satisfy. It will also entertain, since Allen and Parnes have leavened the tale by making it — in the style of “Game Change” — a character-driven psychodrama, chockablock with sweaty descriptions of its players.

Bill Clinton’s “body man” Doug Band is a “tall, balding … former University of Florida frat boy [whose] fierce loyalty to the former president … competed with his instinct for accumulating wealth and status,” while Huma Abedin, his counterpart in Hillaryland, combines “black-haired brown-eyed South Asian beauty with political smarts and an uncommonly subtle grace.” Meanwhile, Obama staffer Jim Messina is “a strawberry blonde Montanan whose soft voice takes the edge off his often-profane vocabulary.”

It reads like the back cover of a steamy beach paperback: “What will happen, when fate and foreign policy throw them together in … Foggy Bottom?”

It’s no easy feat to wring page-turning narrative juice from four years of state craft, but Allen and Parnes have relied on 200 sources (most of them anonymous, which makes it tricky for a reader to know who’s grinding which ax in any given paragraph) to get them the gossipy goods. And they’re there, including a scene from Hillary’s Senate send-off party, at which she and Majority Leader Harry Reid — an Obama supporter who resisted calls to give Hillary a boost on her return to the Senate — weep fakely at each other.

And there’s great fun to be had when Hillary, eager to revive a good relationship with Gen. David Petraeus after tangling over Iraq in 2007, hitches a plane ride with the general out of Saudi Arabia in 2010: “As Hillary settled into Petraeus’s bed,” write Allen and Parnes with unapologetic glee, “he stretched out on the floor outside the door to the compartment. She had won him back.”

They also, refreshingly, present her as salty, bawdy and quite funny — as a woman who, amid dithering about the timing of the delicate, dangerous mission to kill Bin Laden, profanely dismisses the White House Correspondents’ dinner and whose favorite entry from the Texts From Hillary blog that worshipfully parodied her hard-driving competence was one that involved the young actor Ryan Gosling. (Daughter Chelsea cannot believe that her mother knows who Gosling is.)

“HRC” recounts the gentle mercy Clinton shows wunderkind Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau after a photograph of Favreau groping a cardboard cutout of Hillary is leaked just after she joins his boss’ administration. Before the “distraught Favreau” can even begin to gather his thoughts about “the most elegant way to say ‘I’m sorry I cupped your cardboard breast,’” Allen and Parnes report, Hillary has let him off the hook with a voice mail message that teases, “I haven’t seen the picture yet … but I hear my hair looks great.”

Most of “HRC’s” tension is drawn from the lingering ill will between younger Obama and Clinton staffers, who nurse post-primary grudges against each other. The continued rivalries are a reminder of just how painful the 2008 contest between the first serious female and African American contenders for the presidency was: what passions and histories came to bear and the lasting marks it made on those who threw themselves into the campaigns.

But in “HRC,” the competitors themselves enjoy a far more uplifting arc, as they learn to work together and to triangulate around the other big dog in their relationship — Obama’s Democratic predecessor and the man to whom Hillary had always been lashed, for better and for worse, Bill Clinton.

Hillary and Obama’s is a small romance, the story of extraordinary politicians who each face challenges ultimately unknowable to Bill or any other former president and whose dynamic transforms from a respectful but wary “all work, and no play” connection to real devotion. By the end of “HRC,” when an exhausted Hillary suffers a bad concussion, Obama, asking an aide about how Hillary is feeling, explains his concern: “I love her, love her … I love my friend.”

For those who care about the fraught, intertwined relationship between these individuals, or about the fraught, intertwined history of the social movements that finally pushed them into a presidential administration together, it’s a deeply moving moment, a happy anecdote to cling to, briefly, before Hillary moves, inexorably it seems, toward Iowa and a whole new set of chapters.

Traister is the author of “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women.”

State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
Crown: 448 pp., $26