“Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become.” ~ Hillary Clinton
Dear Madam President is both a reflection on Palmieri’s role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a call to arms for women in leadership. The book is specifically for the woman who will be the first woman president, but her words really speak to women in any leadership role. Heck, they speak to any woman.
The book is an easy read, divided into nine chapter or exhortations. Through them Palmieri describes situations that happened during the Clinton campaign or during a visit with Elizabeth Edwards and then illuminates the lessons to be learned from them. She talks directly to the future woman president of the United States—Madam President. (She originally notes that Madam seems to define a woman by her attachment to a man but ends up using the title because frankly there is no neutral title for a woman that doesn’t denote her relationship with a man. Sigh.)
She acknowledges the failures that Hillary’s advisors (which includes herself) made in the campaign and their wrong assumptions. They advised her to run like a man, to run as a presidential candidate, not the potential first woman president. This was a mistake. Hillary should have embraced being the first woman president and forged her own model of leadership.
Palmieri recognizes that currently the only model for a person in power to follow is male. And that this needs to change.
As she explained this point and raised the fact that women have imitated male models in the workforce, I thought back to the 1980s, when middle class white women entered the workforce in large numbers. The clothing (remember the huge shoulder pads and mannish look to business attire?), the attitude, the mannerism all screamed women trying to be men.
Women had to prove that they belonged by proving that they were tough enough. They were just like the men, whose ranks they were fighting to enter. They had to embrace the male work style.
In hindsight this was a huge disservice to women, men, and the work world. We are still paying the price and trying to escape this male model.
Palmieri calls for a new way, a new model of leadership. What would it be like to lead like a woman?
She also recognizes in hindsight the refusal or inability of Hillary’s advisors to acknowledge the deep misogyny in the US. People disliked Hillary. They were OK with voting for a woman, they insisted, but not that woman. They didn’t trust her.
But suddenly they were OK with Hillary when she conceded the race. Palmieri surmised (rightly, I think) that people were not comfortable with Hillary—with a woman—being in a position of power. But as soon as she conceded, suddenly she stepped back into a traditional role played by women. Then she was OK.
The problem was clearly that the anti-Hillary folks didn’t trust Hillary because she was an “intelligent, capable, ambitious woman in a position of power.” (page 50) As such, she “represented an existential threat to the proper order of things.” (pages 54-55)
Palmieri mentions that Hillary’s advisors also didn’t understand the level of frustration in the population at large and how it was playing out in the populous movements in the campaigns. But the Clintons did. Palmieri mentions a book that the Clintons read and discussed, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—a book from the 1950s. It sounds eerily relevant to today (and a must read).
Palmieri’s lessons and advice to the future Madam President (and women in general) are good. Some lines jumped off of the page and felt like Palmieri was speaking directly to me. She described my own experiences, insecurities, and problems being a woman in a world that doesn’t value women.
Which things that she writes might speak directly to you?
The Secretary is a window into past US political and foreign policy history through the lens of a journalist. This journalist, Kim Ghattas, had a unique vantage point: she was part of the press corps that followed Secretary of State Clinton during her tenure (2009-2012).
Ghattas’s own background informed her view of what she saw during the Clinton years at State. Ghattas was born and raised in Lebanon during the war-torn 1980s and 1990s. She brought to her role the experience of being on the other end of US intervention (or lack of intervention). In The Secretary, Ghattas shares with the reader her progression from a Lebanese resident who wondered why America didn’t just fix things in Lebanon to a US resident who saw the limits of American power.
Ghattas’s perspective of foreign countries toward the US is fascinating and reveals deep contradictions. Other countries see America as a superpower in decline, but also as a country that can do anything. They assume that the US can fix anything, even the problems in their own country. But they bewail the US getting involved in their countries and dictating how their countries should be run. They assume the US has a grand master plan and bemoan the neglect or attention that the US gives them.
It literally does not compute to others that the US does not have a grand master plan, cannot fix their countries’ problems, and doesn’t actually have all countries and all problems on their radar. America, it is believed—even in the face of contradictory evidence or explanation—can fix the problems in Iraq or bring peace to the Middle East.
In fact, the US is often reacting to events on a day-to-day basis, though Clinton and the Obama administration attempted to change this a bit by focusing on developing relationships. Clinton logged over a million miles during her tenure, zipping around the globe to fix and deepen relationships—everywhere. This strategy seems so basic that it also seems bizarre that few follow it.
Ghattas also describes Clinton’s approach to developing relationships. Again, another no brainer: start by connecting with people before sitting down to conduct business. In The Secretary, Clinton clearly has the social skills to connect with people on a deep level, putting them at ease (or not if the situation calls for it) and developing a rapport that she could call on in times of crisis. It is much easier to secure desired outcomes if you already have a personal relationship.
Although Clinton and the Obama administration worked to become more involved and to deepen relationships, at the same time, they were trying to empower other countries. It was less about telling others what to do than letting them figure things out on their own. Rather than solving their problems, the US wanted them to solve their own problems. “It was time for other countries, other regions, to take ownership of their problems. For decades, the first reaction of people around the world had been to ask what America was planning. Now America wanted first to know what the rest of the world had in mind, and second, what they were willing to contribute to that plan.” (page 255)
And there were clearly growing pains. Countries weren’t used to thinking like that. America should fix their problems. Now, it seems, with the Trump administration in retreat, that other countries are trying to figure out how to act on their own to solve problems in the international community.
Some things surprised me in the book. I did not realize how badly the Bush administration downplayed State and foreign service. Clinton’s goal was to rehabilitate the US reputation in the world. (In an odd way, this brought me comfort, knowing that the next administration would—and presumably could—rehabilitate America’s standing in the world following the Trump administration.) Clinton and Obama wanted to make sure that the US was a player on the world stage. It was not abdicating its role in the world to others.
Ghattas talks about when people call for the US to retreat from the world, they aren’t thinking through the consequences of the US doing that. Doing so leaves a power vacuum that others would be happy to fill. What are the possible consequences?
I would expand on this observation. When the Trump administration and followers call for the US to retreat from the world stage, they are not thinking through the consequences. Just because you go home does not mean that problems go away. Decisions are still being made. Actions are being taken. But you are no longer at the table having a say in it. If you retreat, you have less control over things that will affect you: militarily, foreign policy-wise, trade-wise. (The same can be said about the UK retreating from the EU. It will leave them less powerful because they will no longer have a voice over things that affect them.)
I was surprised by observations about events that I did not realize or know about. Clinton was skewered by how events unfolded in Libya, that diplomats were left unprotected. In passing, Ghattas mentions that originally US embassy diplomats were not allowed to leave Tripoli by order of Gaddafi—a reminder that not all is how it seems.
Concerning our ongoing problematic relationship with Pakistan and its cooperation (or lack of it) in the Afghanistan war, Ghattas brings up a point that puts it all in perspective. She explains our history with Pakistan and their reliance over the decades on the aid that we provide them. The aid stopped before and the US attention drifted away from Pakistan. The US simply wasn’t interested in Pakistan and/or Pakistan wasn’t strategic to US interests. If you are Pakistan and you want to maintain a relationship with the US (= continued aid and continued US interest), what do you do?
An aside from Ghattas suggests that you do not fix things in your country that would bring an end to the Afghanistan war. If the war ends, then the US leaves the area and walks away from a relationship with you. Why then would Pakistan want to stamp out the militants in its territory that fight against the US in Afghanistan? That could mean an end to the war and an end to a relationship with (and aid from) the US.
I was dismayed by the US retreat that I was not aware of—and how the US sought to reconnect. World expos used to be a big event. I know of historic ones: the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 or the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. But I hadn’t connected the historical with the current ones; world’s fairs are still being held.
Ghattas’s description of the one in Shanghai in 2010 broke my heart. In the 1990s, the US decided that world’s fairs were a waste of time and money. The US retreated from the world stage. Actually, the fairs are a chance to showcase the US, our history, and our values. The US decided to stop using taxpayer money and instead would finance our appearance at these expos with company money. We asked companies to represent the US in world fairs. Rather than an opportunity to display our values and to broadcast the view of the US that we wanted others to see, we let businesses advertise for themselves. The US = capitalism, capitalism = the US. We are missing a huge opportunity to project how we want others to view us.
The book offers a good view into how Clinton operates and her incredible knowledge and skills. She came to the role with a lot of experience and knowledge, some relationships with foreign leaders already forged as a First Lady and Senator. While her husband’s appetite for knowledge is well documented, Hillary’s is just as voracious. She routinely devoured detailed documents about countries and situations that the State Department compiled for her. And wanted more. She wanted the details and to understand the big picture so she could easily understand and move between situations as they arose with a deep understanding of history and cultures. She relied on experts and looked to others to supplement and enrich her knowledge. We clearly lost a great deal with her forced retirement from politics.
The Secretary contains lots of tidbits about other cultures, countries, and histories, interspersed with descriptions of State travels to different sites. The pace at which Clinton traveled sounds bone-wearily exhausting to her staff and the press that accompanied her. Ghattas brings us along to important visits and events, from the Arab Spring to the world expo in China to a historic visit to Myanmar. The Secretary is a worthy read for understanding US foreign policy, world events, and the limitations and power of the US. We see how the US operated on the world stage in the first Obama administration through the eyes of a non-US native. The results are fascinating.