Huma Abedin has long been an object of media fascination. There are several reasons: her close professional and personal relationship to Hillary Clinton, her unlucky marriage to disgraced former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, and her origins (Abedin is an American citizen of Indian and Pakistani descent who grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia). Her quiet dignity in the face of public humiliation and racist right-wing persecution, along with her beauty and fashion sense, has added to her mystique. As well, Weiner and Clinton are outsize public figures from whom the world has heard too much. With her recent memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds — a doorstop of a book, at 544 pages — we finally get to hear Abedin’s side of things.
Well, some things.
Abedin renders many of her experiences vividly, including her family’s history (her mother, a Fulbright scholar, comes from a line of Pakistani women who took extraordinary measures to secure education for themselves and their daughters); her happy childhood, much of it in Saudi Arabia; her relationship with Weiner; and the devastation of election night in 2016.
Abedin’s narrative deftly captures the (mostly female) labor force behind Hillary Clinton. An intern in the first lady’s office as a college student, Abedin, now forty-five, has never left what insiders call “Hillaryland,” remaining a loyal right-hand woman to Clinton through her years as secretary of state, senator, two-time presidential candidate, and beyond.
It was years after an early promotion that Abedin asked her then boss, Kelly Craighead, why she was chosen for the competitive position, given that more experienced insiders applied. Craighead replied with another question: What would you do if you were in a faraway country with Hillary Clinton and she lost a contact lens just before giving a speech? Abedin answered without hesitation: she would get on the floor and find the missing lens. “Exactly,” replied Craighead:
You get on your hands and knees on a disgusting, grimy floor and find that contact, because that’s what needs to be done. If you can’t find the lens, perhaps the speech can’t be delivered, and that canceled speech leads to a domino effect of consequences. A disappointed audience, a speculating media, a frustrated administration, an offended host country. Find the contact lens and the world keeps turning.
Craighead is jokingly coy when Abedin asks her if that’s a real-life example. But early on in her career, Abedin experiences something similar. The first lady, about to go onstage to give a speech, tells Abedin that she has the wrong version of her remarks. Without hesitation, Abedin replies, “I got it.” Inferring that the annotated speech must have been left in the limousine on the way over, she races outside to the parking lot to find the car and retrieve the speech. She runs back inside as Hillary approaches the podium. The world keeps turning.
Not everything is rendered so vividly, however. We don’t get much of a sense of Abedin’s political convictions. She longs for peace in the Middle East, believes in women’s rights, and feels deeply that the Clintons want to “make a difference in people’s lives.” She is more sympathetic to the Palestinians than we might expect — and, less surprisingly, an apologist for the Saudi government — but these topics are broached delicately. Conspicuously absent from her narrative are any conversations about issues, policies, or politics in Hillaryland. The reader will initially assume that this absence is calculated to elide controversy or that it reflects a superficiality on the author’s part. A startling anecdote suggests these aren’t the reasons.
Abedin’s husband, Anthony Weiner, although popular in his New York district, had to resign from Congress because he could not stop himself from texting photos of his penis to women. (He is perhaps the most unfortunate victim of nominative determinism ever.) The tale of their unraveling relationship is distressing on many levels, and Abedin tells that story well.
But the scandals aren’t the most interesting episodes in this memoir. More revealing is Abedin’s account of her first date with Weiner in January 2007, soon after Clinton had announced her first run for the presidency. Weiner, a committed liberal of the pre–Bernie Sanders era (to the left of the Clintons, except on Israel), wants to discuss politics. He has opinions and principles. Hillary should come out for gay marriage and admit that her vote on the Iraq war was a mistake, he argues. He’s critical of his country’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia, which he views as a hotbed of officially sanctioned antisemitism and a funder of terrorism.
Abedin and Weiner have a lively discussion about their politics; they agree on some things (gay marriage) and disagree on others (Saudi Arabia). It’s a normal first date between intelligent, young, political people in Washington, DC, but this kind of discussion is novel for Abedin, she relates. Although her family enjoyed spirited debate on political issues, Hillaryland did not. It’s in that moment that Abedin comes to realize that the kind of Democrats she works with every day rarely discuss their political beliefs: they only talk about strategy, tactics, and messaging. In short, they don’t care about policy, but about gaining power and keeping it.
With this admission, Abedin seems to highlight the emptiness at the core of Clintonite politics. When Abedin seems baffled in 2016 that so many of her fellow Muslims favor Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, it’s another reminder that her political education, at least as an adult, has left her ill-equipped to navigate the world of political principles, issues, and values.
The Show Goes On
The train wreck of Abedin’s marriage to Weiner was obviously a humiliating public experience. But the consequences for Abedin were far more dire than they should have been. She was hounded by the media and, even worse, by members of the public, who called in complaints about the couple to child protective services, with the result being that they were under constant investigation over the “safety” of their young son — a horrific form of harassment given that both seem to be loving and responsible parents. (Weiner served prison time because one of the people he sexted was a minor, but there is no evidence that he ever failed as a parent; indeed, he was often his son’s primary caregiver because Abedin’s job in Hillaryland was so demanding.)
I finished the book feeling sad that this intelligent and public-spirited woman has spent her whole adult life working for the Clintons, whose main purpose in life has been the attainment of power. Similarly, her major romantic attachment has been to a man who, though a devoted father and public servant, is a narcissist who made epically foolish mistakes and caused her years of trouble and stress. These relationships, especially the decades with Hillary, have given her access to power (and glamour, counting Anna Wintour and the late Oscar de la Renta as close pals), but they’ve also limited Abedin’s potential.
With her divorce from Weiner underway, it seems likely that Abedin will again find love. One can’t feel as hopeful, however, that she will ever move on from Hillaryland. Indeed, the book’s jacket describes Abedin as Hillary Clinton’s “chief of staff.” Why does Hillary Clinton still need a chief of staff, one might wonder? Though Clinton is no longer in government service, apparently Hillaryland must go on. What if the former secretary of state drops a contact lens?