Carol Felsenthal
On politics

What Went on in Hillary Clinton’s State Department

A new book on HRC shows how Rahm pushed the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee into the State Department—and more Chicago players have bit parts, too.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton congratulates President Barack Obama on the House vote to pass health care reform, prior to a meeting in the Situation Room of the White House, March 22, 2010. Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

I have read too many books on the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns; too many of the almost identical stories about Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley and David Axelrod. Fortunately, we’re now heading into memoir phase in which, during the next several years, we’ll find out from the players themselves what actually transpired and transacted in the Hillary State Department and the Obama White House. Hillary’s memoir is due out later this year. President Obama will write his memoir after exiting the job. Michelle Obama is reportedly already working on hers, as is David Axelrod. (Both Rahm and Bill Daley have said they’re not writing memoirs; at least not now.)

As the Obamas head toward November’s midterms and certifiable lame-duck status—especially if the Republicans keep control of the House and, even more so, if they take control of the Senate—books on the Obama campaigns will carry far less currency. The Obamas are the old news in the rearview mirror, while in the headlights are senior citizens Hillary and Bill Clinton—who are, incidentally, almost old enough to be Barack and Michelle’s parents.

HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen of Bloomberg News (for which he’ll be covering the 2016 campaign) and Amie Parnes, White House correspondent for The Hill (for which I occasionally write), is the first of what will surely be a new long list of Hillary books. HRC, which mostly explains Hillary’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat, is garnering a lot of press and some mixed reviews for being overly worshipful of Hillary.

There’s a debate to be had about Hillary’s record as Secretary of State during a time of dizzying turmoil abroad, and whether regularly reporting how many air miles she logged in service to her country should be considered an accomplishment. I’d like to know exactly what she and her handlers consider her accomplishments; the authors offer some of that but, in my opinion, not in sufficient depth and with too much mixing of the trivial with the important.

Still the book kept me up late several nights this week. It’s fast-paced, packed with characters—perhaps some that only political junkies, Washington insiders, and political science professors would want to read about—but I learned much about Hillary’s character, some new things about Obama’s, and a lot of trenchant analysis on the workings of the State Department and its secretary, subjects with which most readers are far less familiar than they are, say, with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its first family.

For Chicagoans who are looking for dope on our locals who had fearsome clout during Obama’s first term, there’s not much. Typical is the treatment of Chicago born and reared Patti Solis Doyle—sister of alderman Danny Solis—a Hillary confidant whom she sacked as campaign manager midway through the 2008 campaign. We learn that some in “Hillaryland” blamed Solis Doyle for their boss’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the novice Obama: “advisers had warned Hillary before the campaign not to make Doyle the campaign manager.” (The authors don’t elaborate on Solis Doyle’s alleged deficiencies, which included, according to Joshua Green writing in 2008 in The Atlantic, a blind adherence to Hillary’s “inevitability,” which led to overconfidence and lack of rigor, and deficiencies in the data-driven strategies that characterized the Obama campaign. Green writes that Hillary “…made Solis Doyle her campaign manager because of Solis Doyle’s loyalty rather than her skills, despite a trail of available evidence suggesting she was unsuited for the role.”)

Rahm Emanuel plays a bit role. Having exited Congress to become Obama’s Chief of Staff, he joins his boss in attempting to persuade an extremely reluctant Hillary to accept the President-elect’s offer to become Secretary of State. Once offered the post, Hillary tried repeatedly to telephone Barack to decline. Knowing her answer, Obama avoided her calls. Rahm picks up one call. “At one point,” the authors write, “to avoid the rejection, Emanuel told Hillary that Obama was in the bathroom.”

Allen and Parnes describe Hillary as attempting to help the rookie president push his national health care plan through Congress—selfless, given that she had failed spectacularly to advance her own plan in 1994 during her husband’s first term. She back-channeled her advice, the authors write, through Rahm, “particularly on how to deal with members of Congress. She knew them, and the political complexities of their districts and states as well as anyone in the West Wing.” (Hmmm… my guess is that Rahm probably knew more.)

David Axelrod and Hillary/Bill had been close, and Hillary had spoken at the first fund-raiser for CURE, the organization Axelrod and his wife founded to find a cure for epilepsy, a disease from which their daughter suffered. Once Obama bested Hillary for the nomination and the two had reconciled to work together to win the general election, Hillary rode with Axelrod on a bus from the airport to a “Unity” rally. Hillary compared their conversation to a “root canal.” The Axelrod/Clinton relationship is on the mend now—I wouldn’t be surprised to see Axelrod play a role in Hillary’s 2016 run—although the authors describe Axelrod as being “dumbstruck” when he first heard that Obama wanted Hillary as SOS. “How can this work?” he asked. Obama explained, “She was my friend before she was my opponent.”

Bill Daley as Obama’s COS makes a couple of appearances; once when he was part of Obama’s golf foursome at Andrews Air Force Base. The guest of honor, the target of presidential buttering up, was Bill Clinton, who took the opportunity to offer nonstop advice to an increasingly irritated Obama. Four hours later, the game finally over, Obama told an aide that he “liked” Clinton but could only take him “in doses.” Allen and Parnes describe Bill Daley going to see Hillary Clinton at her office in the State Department “to gauge her interest in taking over as treasury secretary” for Tim Geithner. (The authors write that Geithner had put her name on a list of possible successors.) Hillary “politely declined.” Daley vigorously denied that he had ever made such a visit and pitch: “That’s bullshit!” he said in 2013.

The question that came to my mind when I read the above anecdote, which appears about half way through the book, is: what credentials does Hillary have to be treasury secretary? Secretary of State, yes; one could argue that her experience as a First Lady who traveled widely abroad and as a U.S. Senator who had a seat on the Armed Services Committee prepared her for that job. But Secretary of the Treasury?

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