America's undiplomatic top diplomat

Hillary's blunt honesty should be no surprise

Posted Feb 24, 2009

“Hillary Rodham Clinton's blunt and unadorned style of diplomacy has been evident throughout her first trip as secretary of state the past week in Asia. She questioned the efficacy of sanctions against the repressive junta in Burma, spoke openly about a possible succession crisis in North Korea and admitted that she expected to make little progress on human rights in China” wrote the Washington Post. As the Post reports, Clinton’s unvarnished honesty offended some, especially those who believe we must keep up the rhetorical pressure on China in the area of human rights.

However, the truth is, and this has been the truth for a long time, America is not about to jeopardize its relationship with one of our top trading partners, especially in these perilous economic times, over an issue that China simply refuse to budge on.Normally, when dealing with China, America talks tough on human rights, and then quietly goes to work on bread and butter economic issues. What was unusual was that Clinton was honest enough to acknowledge what has been our defacto policy since Nixon. It was particularly surprising (and upsetting) to some coming from Hillary, who has been outspoken advocate of human rights, especially women’s rights.

While Hillary has developed a reputation in the press for being a schemer, even a “congenital liar,” as the New York Times’ William Safire famously put it, the truth is the diametric opposite. She is frank to a fault and always has been. Her specious reputation as a dissembler grew during the politically motivated Whitewater investigation led by Ken Starr. While most Americans recall her being hauled before a grand jury by Starr, few know that the special prosecutors final report vindicated both Clintons completely on Whitewater. The truth about Whitewater was exactly what the Clinton claimed all along: They gave their money to a con man and got taken, period.But their exoneration was given all the attention of a retraction found on page 13 of a newspaper, after years of front page stories about the faux scandal.

If you knew Hillary, her impolitic honesty would be no surprise. I have interviewed dozens of people who have known Hillary for decades. “She tells it like it is, and she’ll give it to you right between the eyes,” one old friend told me, laughing and shaking her head. In my many conversations there was complete consensus on this point. Especially in a state like Arkansas, where politeness is at a premium, her take-no-prisoners bluntness stood out.

Unlike Bill who, because of hypomanic temperament, often says what he thinks in an impulsive outburst he later regrets, Hillary means to say what she says and never apologizes for it. She is formidable, tough and intimidating. She is also pragmatic, hence her real politic statement about China. Are these good traits in our top diplomat? I don’t know. We’ll find out. But honesty, strength and pragmatism are a powerful combination.With Hillary that’s what we’ll get whether you like it or not.No surprises.

John Gartner, Ph.D., is the author of the book, In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography