The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power is a fascinating and deeply personal book that could only have been written by someone with the life experiences of author Kim Ghattas. Part biography, part memoir, and part history lesson, it's the story of both a former First Lady turned Secretary of State and a foreign journalist trying to reconcile her past experiences with what she's learning about the "large sticky web of diplomacy."
Growing up in Beirut during the tense and bloody years of the Lebanese civil war, Ghattas believed the United States had unlimited power and influence over what happened around the world and could step in to end her homeland's troubles at any time. Fast forward to 2008 and Ghattas, now a respected journalist for the BBC, has been assigned the job of covering the new US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, both at the State Department and on her exhaustive diplomatic trips around the globe. While her mother calls often from Beirut, worried about her daughter living in a dangerous city like Washington, DC, Ghattas comes to appreciate the relative calm and stability of her life here.
Her feelings about her new job are complex, especially when shortly into her tenure she travels back to Lebanon with Clinton for a diplomatic visit. She has seen enough to be skeptical of the United States' interest in the region. Ghattas describes the feeling of "going home": "...I felt like an Iraqi would have, sitting on top of an American tank advancing into Baghdad in April 2003, though I wasn't sure whether the tanks were liberating or occupying."
Ghattas had a great deal of access to Clinton, not only in terms of being present during her travels and official functions, but also through one-on-one interviews with Clinton herself and others traveling with her or involved in the issues mentioned. The book doesn't offer a lot of new insights into Clinton's interior life, but rather an inside look at how she approached the role of Secretary of State and the issues that arose at that time.
Whatever your own views of Clinton might be, you can't walk away from this book anything but amazed by her commitment, her intelligence, and her sheer force of will. Again and again, Ghattas describes Clinton studying briefing binders through an overseas flight, only to arrive and be taken to endless rounds of diplomatic meetings and town hall-style question and answer sessions, often going without food or sleep, and still be smiling, sharp, and interested in each person she met along the way.
Ghattas captured the less-than-glamorous reality of these trips, when even with meticulous planning there were shortages of food, and foreign diplomats with their own agendas. In one of my favorite stories from the book, Clinton and President Obama are frustrated by the lack of progress at a climate change summit in Copenhagen and learn that the Chinese are holding secret meetings to negotiate separately with other attendants. How does a superpower respond? In this case, Clinton and Obama decided to simply walk past the Chinese security aides guarding the conference room doors, smiling and shaking hands the whole time, and sit themselves down at the table. This is the type of story you just don't hear about in the mainstream news.
I was expecting a fairly straightforward biography of Clinton, but what Ghattas has created is something totally unique and memorable. The Secretary has changed the way I read international news stories in the morning paper, trying to imagine the ripple effects of every step the US government takes, the decades (and often centuries) of history to be considered, and the all-too-human people behind the decisions.
Kim Ghattas is a State Department correspondent for the BBC, traveling with the US Secretary of State. Raised in Lebanon, she previously reported for the UK's Financial Times and the BBC from Beirut. This is her first book. Visit her website.
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