Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Women

For the past six weeks, in between my reading for Library Journal and my own light fiction choices, I have been struggling with two lengthy books about politics over the past decade and a half. I am listening to Condi Rice read her book, "No Higher Honor" about her four years as National Security Advisor, followed by her four year stint as Secretary of State, for George "W" Bush. Coincidentally I am reading Hillary Clinton's "Hard Choices" on my nook.

Condoleezza Rice cropped.jpg

"Whew!" you might say. "What a slog!" Au contraire, my friends. These books are absolutely fascinating accounts of what it's like to actually be the second most powerful women in the world. That's not to say that each book isn't, at times, incredibly frustrating as I tried to read between the lines to decipher what the women were not saying when they were just saying.

I almost gave up on Condi because early in her reading she sounded too much like an automaton, simply spouting the Bush party line. She seemed afraid to let her own personality come through. On the contrary, Hillary, who is renowned for her great sense of humor, wrote in a more folksy, down to earth manner that propelled her book forward at warp speed.

But now I'll confess that I shouldn't have rushed to judgment. When Condi left her position as Bush's NSA and moved into the state department her entire personality opened up. In a very poignant scene she describes a surprise 50th birthday party that the president planned for her just after she accepted the position at state. Always the fashion maven, she arrived in "everyday" clothes to a crowd of five hundred well-heeled guests. She was whisked away to a changing room where a red gown awaited, created just for her by her favorite designer. Descending the stairs, she mulled on how far "the little black girl from Birmingham" had come and said a silent prayer for her long-deceased parents. 

As Condi became more confident and forthright in both her writing and reading, she admitted that she and Don Rumsfeld were pretty much at each other's throats for the entire eight years. Though she never takes responsibility for the infamous mushroom cloud speech that pushed us along the path to war, she does offer many regrets about America's complete lack of preparedness for the war and, particularly, for the dearth of planning for the aftermath.

Another insight that intrigued me was that it was Condi, not Dick Cheney, who had George's ear and Condi who definitely had more influence. In fact, she and Cheney sparred often and vocally about the war in Iraq and particularly about the war in Lebanon, with the rabid hawk, Cheney, actually working behind the scenes with UN Ambassador John Bolton, to scotch a peace agreement that Condi and her people had been negotiating tirelessly for.

Hillary's book, on the other hand, started hot but less than half way through, cooled down to a policy driven screed. As she writes, she becomes more circumspect, though I suppose that's to be expected since, unlike Condi, Hillary may still have political aspirations. In fact, I wasn't really sure that Hillary wanted to run for office again until I read this book. She's always very respectful of President Obama, but you can feel the distance between them, whereas Condi and George were personally very close friends.

What's remarkable about both memoirs is how interchangeable they are. Republican or Democrat, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Between them, they recount twelve years of work on a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. In fact, though Bill Clinton first broached the subject of a two state solution, it was the Bush administration, with a push from Condi, that made it a United States policy goal, one that will likely never come to fruition.

Readers may be forgiven for feeling anger and frustration with the Israelis, who receive billions of dollars in aid from the United States every year, yet continue to thwart our attempts at a settlement with impunity. Benjamin Netanyahu, especially, has very publicly thumbed his nose at the president and his representatives. If you read these women's accounts, you have to wonder how they can keep their sanity and the deep convictions that they can effect change.

And now I'll tell you how naïve I still am. After reading both books, I truly feel, much to my friend Don's chagrin, that these incredibly strong, brilliant, patient, persuasive women, actually want all that's good for our country and for the people of the world. Though there are many bad players in government, many who show their faces in these pages, and so many who would put their own potential fortunes and fame above those of their constituents, the ones who are doing it right face a daunting task.

So, as much and as often as I complain about the way our country acts around the world, I see that the fix is complicated. People like Condi Rice, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell (who was treated very shabbily by the Bush administration), and now John Kerry, are doing the very best that they can under almost impossible conditions. Diplomacy is not for sissies.

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