If you're in the middle of reading HRC, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes's new biography of Hillary Clinton's time as secretary of state, I do not suggest that you watch House of Cards in your downtime. It's not that the Netflix series about a sociopathic politician will force you to think ill of politicians. The problem is that the politicians in House of Cards are so competent, so in control of their lives and plans, that they'll make every politician in HRC look like an amateur in comparison.
It's not that HRC is an especially negative or partisan account (although Allen does work for the rightward-leaning Politico). It is a reminder that much of what the secretary of state (and, by inference, the president) does is reactive. Clinton approached the State Department with a proactive agenda—she wanted to demonstrate "smart power," Pentagon official Joseph Nye's foreign policy approach that blends "traditional 'hard power' such as military force and economic sanctions with the 'soft power' of inducing foreign nations to change their behavior by offering carrots such as political or economic assistance." Instead, she inherited a Middle East that was about to launch into radical upheaval and an America that was standing on shaky financial ground at the same time that China was surging into primacy as an economic power.
And so Clinton did what she always does: She got down to work. In fact, HRC is a portrait of a woman running herself ragged. It's packed with accounts from staff who, anonymously and on the record, report that Clinton both macro- and micromanaged the State Department. They describe a leader who would lose her temper at small mistakes, but who would also display remarkable compassion for staffers who were going through tough times.
This is not a biography that will be relevant past 2016; the whole book is pivoted toward a potential Clinton presidential run. Which means that conservatives will eagerly flip to the index to look up all the references to Benghazi. Those conservatives won't find a smoking gun here. Parnes and Allen suggest that a results-minded Clinton may have pressed the situation in Benghazi too quickly—she wanted improved relations with the Libyan city to be a demonstration of her smart power, so the State Department ignored increasing hostility and other warning signs until it was too late. But they also suggest that Clinton was on top of the situation immediately, and that she handled the resulting deaths and political repercussions in an intelligent, compassionate—some would say, presidential—manner.
Clinton's record as secretary of state will be used as a political baseball bat by Democrats and Republicans for the next two years. But the truth of her record isn't as simple as a series of pluses and minuses lined up in columns. Ultimately, it appears that Clinton approached the State Department with the same plan she brought to her presidential run: She came prepared and armed with boundless energy. But when the unexpected occurred, she simply had to do what every other politician does in the real world: react, to the best of her estimable ability.