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How ‘Hard Choices’ may help Clinton define herself ahead of possible presidential run

June 10, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, senator and first lady, has just released her second memoir, “Hard Choices,” launching a national tour of media interviews and bookstore appearances. Is her book a sign of a second presidential campaign to come? Gwen Ifill talks to former Clinton advisor Ann Lewis, Amy Chozick of The New York Times and Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

GWEN IFILL: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed back out on the trail today, not for a political campaign, but to support her new memoir.

With a hopscotch schedule of media appearances, political observers are scanning the book, and her interviews, for 2016 tea leaves.

The book tour formally began this morning, with the author arriving at a Barnes & Noble in New York to applause and an army of cameras. But the buildup started weeks ago.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Former Secretary of State: It’s really about the hard choices everybody has to make in life.

GWEN IFILL: After days of leaks and secretly purchased advance copies, Hillary Clinton’s second memoir, “Hard Choices,” is now officially on the bookshelves.

In New York today, book buyers lined up to meet the former first lady, senator and secretary of state. The carefully-orchestrated rollout only stokes speculation that she is launching a 2016 presidential practice run. She’s on the cover of “People” magazine. She’s made high-profile appearances at a number of recent forums.

And she’s sitting down for a slew of television interviews, starting last night with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer.

DIANE SAWYER: When are you going to decide whether you are running for president?


HILLARY CLINTON: You know, I’m going to decide when it feels right for me to decide, because…

DIANE SAWYER: Still by the end of this year?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, certainly not before then.

I just kind of want to get through this year, travel around the country, sign books, help in the midterm elections in the fall, and then take a deep breath, and kind of go through my pluses and minuses about what I will and will not be thinking about as I make the decision.

GWEN IFILL: In that same interview, Clinton said she made millions in paid speeches because she and former President Bill Clinton were dead broke when they left the White House in 2001.

After Republicans said this proves Clinton is now out of touch with average Americans, she returned to ABC this morning to defend herself.

HILLARY CLINTON: I fully appreciate how hard life is for so many Americans today. It’s an issue that I have worked on and cared about my entire adult life.

Bill and I were obviously blessed. We worked hard for everything we got in our lives, and we have continued to work hard and we have been blessed in the last 14 years. But I want to use the talents and resources I have to make sure other people get the same chances.

GWEN IFILL: Early reviews have been decidedly mixed.

The New York Times called it a “subtle, finely calibrated work.” The Washington Post described it as “a careful book,” and Slate said Clinton goes on at great length, but not great depth. Part travelogue and party policy treatise, “Hard Choices” clocks in at 600 pages, focusing largely on Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

It includes photos from Clinton’s time campaigning for President Obama, working with Vice President Biden, who is also considering a 2016 run himself, as well as her meetings with world leaders from Africa to Asia.

For more on the rollout of Mrs. Clinton’s memoir and what it might tell us about her future in politics, we are joined by Ann Lewis, a longtime adviser to both Hillary and President Bill Clinton, Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration, and Amy Chozick, national political reporter for The New York Times who is covering Mrs. Clinton.

Amy Chozick, words that come to mind are orchestrated, calibrated, structured, this rollout. How organized is it?

AMY CHOZICK, The New York Times: Absolutely.

I think it was incredibly well-thought-out, right up until the Mother’s Day excerpt about Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, that was kind of our introduction to the book, and also showed a very softer side of her, I would say, and it just continued from then, the “People” magazine cover, right up to today, the event at Barnes & Noble in New York.

GWEN IFILL: What was that like? Was it crazy?

AMY CHOZICK: It was insane. There were 1,000 people outside. A lot of people had slept out front ready for Hillary. The outside group had a giant bus that looked like a campaign bus signing people up.

I talked to a woman who pulled her 11-year-old daughter out of school to attend. So it definitely had the sort of feel and enthusiasm of a campaign. That said, of course, this was the middle of downtown Manhattan, so not exactly a proxy for a nationwide presidential campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Ann Lewis, you have been involved in Ready for Hillary since it kicked off. Ready for what, exactly?

ANN LEWIS, Former Clinton Adviser: Whatever Hillary Clinton decides to do.

I think Ready for Hillary, which now has about two million members or more, growing every day, said, here’s this wonderful public servant. And anybody who reads the book is going to see how much Hillary Clinton cares and policy, about doing the right thing, how proud she is of our country.

We want her to go as far as she would like to go. And we want her to know that, if she wants to go further, we will be there.

GWEN IFILL: Is it just me, or does this seem to be much more carefully rolled out, structured, not — if not in collaboration with Ready for Hillary, but certainly much more — done with more of an eye of the political future than the last book rollout in 2008?

ANN LEWIS: Well, the last book, after all, was in a very different climate.

And if you go back and look — and, by the way, a different media landscape. Look at all the ways we’re talking now about the book that didn’t exist for the last time. There was no Twitter at the time, right, that says Hillary’s book.

So you got — there’s a very high-tech, very sophisticated kind of conversations that are going on throughout I guess the blogosphere, and then you have also got the low-tech like the bus. Doesn’t get much more low-tech than that.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Lehane, you have a candidate here, presumably, or potentially a candidate, with 100 percent name recognition.

How do you handle — if this is indeed a political rollout as well as a literary one, how do you handle that differently from any other candidate?

CHRIS LEHANE, Democratic Strategist: Yes, great question. I’m not sure whether the book will or will not be the political equivalent of “War and Peace,” but it’s certainly been handled about as well as you could, at a “War and Peace” level.

And by that, I mean, what I think is really smart, and I think probably informed a little bit by Hillary Clinton’s experience in the 2008 presidential campaign, if this is really an effort to control the narrative, define herself on her own terms.

And even the timing of this, right — typically, presidential aspirant books, if that is indeed what this may or may not be, typically those happen a year out. This is happening several years out, goes to the fact — I think Ann was alluding to this — that we live in a perpetual campaign world.

And it’s really imperative to control, own, drive your narrative, your profile, your character definition. And even down to the title of this book and the content, she’s doing that, and I think it’s a smart strategy and the execution has been extremely effective.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Chozick, but the execution also includes getting in front of interviewers and answering questions in ways that might kind of take you off topic.

Like, she was asked last night about Monica Lewinsky. She’s been asked Benghazi and she made the comment to Diane Sawyer that she and Bill Clinton needed to earn that money in order to pay for their houses and their mortgages, which Republicans jumped on. So there’s also a potential for some slip-ups here.

AMY CHOZICK: Yes, absolutely.

And I was actually — I actually welcomed the slip-ups, because I thought that signaled that if she’s a candidate in 2016, maybe she won’t be so scripted and everything that she says is polled, to figure out how Americans feel about it before she utters every line.

I kind of found the gaffe sort of refreshing in a way, at least as a political reporter.

GWEN IFILL: So, Ann Lewis, you have been through a lot of this with the Clintons. And I wonder if part of this isn’t also trying to define yourself before everybody races in and defines you on just the kinds of issues that we were just talking — that have now been described as her gaffes.

ANN LEWIS: Yes, good point.

Let me say, I think the first part of it is Hillary Clinton talking about the last four years. As secretary of state, she was really America’s ambassador to the war. She wants people to know why that is so important. We need to be leaders. Here’s what’s at stake. Here are all these countries and comments.

And she wants to do it in her own voice. This is something she cares about very deeply. And people who read the book are going to get that sense from her, both the policy, the substance, but also the personality she brings to it. She can do that better for herself than anybody else can talking about her.

GWEN IFILL: Chris Lehane, you talked about the title of the book, “Hard Choices.”

One of the things she said today, yesterday — there have been so many interviews, it’s hard to keep track, but she said hard choices are what presidents do. That’s the closest she’s come, it seems to me, in saying that “Hard Choices” is about considering the presidency.

CHRIS LEHANE: Yes, well, as we were talking about, right, that sometimes you’re not supposed to judge a book by its title, but I think in these types of books, there’s an awful lot to the title, because ultimately what you’re trying to do is to give folks a sense of who you are as a person.

And particularly if you end up being a presidential candidate — and she obviously has been one before and has a lot of experience — that sort of breaks into two categories. One is your character, your personality, and the other is your vision for the country, and I think the title “Hard Choices” sort of does a good job of encapsulating both.

By the way, it would fit very nicely on a bumper sticker. And I think, again, it is a smart way to package all of this, and at the end of the day, she is talking about the fact that when you are a president or you are secretary of state or you are in the U.S. Senate, that you do have to make hard choices.

That is part of being a leader. And again I think this goes to both elements, the character, personality, who she is, but also that vision for the country. And, you know, based on what I have seen from the book, she is talking retrospectively about her four years, but extrapolating from that in terms of what she cares about and how potentially she would look at issues prospectively. So I think it does a very good job of both.

GWEN IFILL: Chris, I want to ask you this, and Amy as well.

You have both talked to enough people inside Hillary-land to know, to answer this. Is there anybody who doesn’t think that she’s running?

First, Chris, then Amy.


CHRIS LEHANE: Well, I think that, every single signal and sign out there would certainly suggest that she’s doing everything possible to make sure that she’s in a position to run.

Obviously, I defer to her. It’s her choice, and I think we all recognize it and respect that. But this book — I mean, this book, to me, is a prism by which you can evaluate the process and the approaches that she’s taking. And it’s certainly indicative of someone who’s doing everything possible to put themselves in the strongest position to be able to say, yes, indeed, I am a candidate for president in 2016.

GWEN IFILL: Amy, as you do your interviews and you talk to people, and you devote so much time to tracking her footprints, anybody say, no, she’s not going to do it?

AMY CHOZICK: A source yesterday told me that it now looks like 99 percent sure — that this person was sure that she was running.

Another source told me that, the duller the book, the more chance that she’s running. So read into that what you will. But I do think that there is thinking that the book was cautious, so that she could leave her options open.

Of course, there are friends of hers, Cheryl Mills being a key one, who have said that they don’t want her to run, that they worry about the scrutiny of the campaign, and they just want her to kind of enjoy her life.

GWEN IFILL: Does it freeze the field for other Democrats who might be considering it, Amy?

AMY CHOZICK: She — it was interesting, because Clinton addressed this in one of the interviews, and she said that she wasn’t worried that it was freezing out the field.

But I definitely do think that the party is anxious for her to make up her mind, and so that they can get behind someone else if for any reason it is not her.

GWEN IFILL: Ann Lewis, what’s the hardest choice Hillary Clinton has to make between now and, say, the end of the year?

ANN LEWIS: Well, I think by the end of the year — and she has referred to this — she will probably have to decide whether, in fact, she’s going forward.

Can I stop for a moment and disagree? I almost never disagree with Amy. And she’s been a great observer on this. But I think people who read this — and a lot of people are going to read this book — will not think it’s dull. You know, it is — could more interesting…

AMY CHOZICK: I don’t think it’s dull. I’m just saying this person said that.

ANN LEWIS: Oh, good. All right.


ANN LEWIS: I just want to get that on the record.

GWEN IFILL: She’s leaving open the possibility it may not be exciting.

ANN LEWIS: Oh, I think it is going to be thrilling.

But going beyond that, the hardest choice — and Hillary Clinton has said this — she is right now in, for her, a very unusual place. That is, she can take her time when she gets up in the morning. She can go out and walk. She can spend that time with her husband.

She really, at the same time, has this opportunity to step forward, to be a leader again for the United States. She has to decide that. And, again, nobody should underestimate. That is a very tough choice.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and a lot of people are weighing pro and con to see what she does with that choice.

Ann Lewis, Amy Chozick, Chris Lehane, thank you all very much.

CHRIS LEHANE: Thank you.

AMY CHOZICK: Thanks for having me.