Fourteen years ago in 2007, the New York Daily Observer ran an exposé on an unknown 32-year-old political aide that spilled over with encomiums of an extreme usually reserved for the likes of Beyoncé or Madonna.
She was “mysterious, glamorous and eerily unflappable”, gushed the newspaper, “a mythical figure.” This was the very public debut of Huma Abedin, the closest personal aide to Hillary Clinton, the woman who would become the very first serious female candidate for US President.
Immediately after the “unauthorised” Observer piece, she was profiled by Vogue as “Hillary’s Secret Weapon”, again with as much attention paid to her looks as her competence: “[she] has had three hours of sleep and four cups of coffee, but her black Prada suit is wrinkle-free, her skin is flawless, and her long, luxurious hair is blow-dried into the kind of bouncy waves you see mostly in shampoo commercials.”
The intervening years have not been nearly as breathlessly positive. Abedin served her famously pioneering boss when Clinton was Barack Obama’s Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, and then became vice-chair of her 2016 campaign for President of the United States.
This is when the wheels really fell off what had seemed to be a charmed life. She married the rising star of New York City politics, the Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, whose series of sexually suggestive tweets to various women led to a succession of scandals, and his eventual resignation. Abedin’s loyalty to him wound up compromising her professional standing, with calls for her to be fired.
Hillary Clinton kept faith in her, however, which is when significantly greater drama erupted after accusations that Weiner had been sexting an underage girl. Those new charges led to his laptop being seized, and emails being found that seemed to incriminate Clinton in an (eventually dismissed) email controversy. This prompted the FBI Director, James Comey, to reopen an investigation 11 days before the presidential election, which many observers believe effectively killed off Clinton’s chances to break through and defeat Donald Trump.
Working for Hillary
All this drama, and much more besides, is in Abedin’s new memoir, Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds, where she writes movingly about this entire episode – which stretched from 2011 to 2016 – and the pain caused by her marriage to Weiner. She also goes much deeper, taking the reader into her family background and life experience, and along the way providing revealing insights into her personality, as well as the interior lives of American political elites, especially – of course – the Clintons.
As one might expect, Abedin provides a supportive and sympathetic view of Hillary Clinton in particular. She is thorough in documenting the injustices done to her boss by the media and public, first in 2008, when she lost the democratic primary to Obama, and then in 2016, with the devastating blind-siding by Trump.
Abedin believes the bar appeared to be set way higher for Clinton than for her male opponents, with critiques focusing as much on her appearance, her “likeability”, and other intangibles rather than on the substance of her arguments and proposals. Indeed, after the 2016 election, a number of journalists mentioned to Abedin that, in retrospect, they felt they had been too hard on the historic female candidate since they felt that she was certain to win the election anyway.
Clinton’s own loyalty to Abedin is well-chronicled, but numerous examples are provided in Both/And, including when the Secretary of State supported her aide during the Weiner scandals in 2011 and 2013, by not only refusing to fire her but going further and secretly arranging a reunion with her mother and brother during a trip to Abu Dhabi.
Indeed, the ultimate gesture of empathy was provided after Comey’s decision to reopen the email investigation, when Hillary hugged and comforted a sobbing Abedin in full view of all present. Even after the 2016 election, there was no self-pity nor recriminations from Clinton, who continued to engage Abedin as a senior aide, and treat her as a member of an extended family.
At the same time, winning the affections of the Clintons would have been no easy task and the book provides ample indications of the work ethic, loyalty and ability to perform under minute-to-minute pressure that was required from Abedin. There are also hints at the demands involved: “When your life entails travelling with a Clinton, it is hard for any other star to shine. Only when you pull away can you see that there is light elsewhere”.
Misreading the signs
The natural question here, of course, is why someone with such impeccable judgement and social awareness failed to read Anthony Weiner accurately. In this regard, Abedin provides a convincing account of how the ebullient New York politician’s charm and persuasiveness overcame her and her family’s concern regarding their different ethnic and religious backgrounds (he is Jewish, and the Abedins are Muslim).
According to Both/And, their busy schedules meant that Weiner and Abedin only spent brief but intense periods together before marriage, which impeded a proper understanding of each other’s weaknesses. As elsewhere in the book, apt metaphors are employed to press home the point: “We were never in each other’s presence long enough to reveal our warts or insecurities. The penny was always returned to the jar when it was still shiny”.
These and other revelations regarding the attitude and mores of the highest level of American political elites are of great interest in Abedin’s book, as are her experiences as a South Asian Muslim (her father is from India, her mother from Pakistan, and she grew up in Saudi Arabia) working close to the apex of power in the United States.
While treated respectfully and warmly by most of her colleagues and superiors, she could never fully escape the suspicions of the newly growing conservative base, with ultra-right Congresswoman Michelle Bachman falsely accusing her of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, she was also placed on the hit list of ISIS, which accused her of being an apostate and a crusader.
What this reader found most compelling is the journey that Abedin took from an uncomplicated, stable and idyllic childhood to an exciting but volatile professional and personal life that is characterised by highs and lows. The voyage brought with it contrasting tensions that one senses led to Abedin being tugged and pulled by opposing considerations.
For instance, there was the contradiction between her traditional and conservative South Asian upbringing – characterised by marriage and children at an early age – and her relatively unconventional life driven by professional priorities and a late marriage outside her faith.
In parts of her book, Abedin looks at her siblings with a sense of envy at their stable and settled lives. She finds them to be thriving “as they always seemed to be” and as her marriage crumbled, she asks how her “brother and sisters managed to pull off something that seemed so out of reach for me? Why had I been the outlier?” From a secure and disciplined upbringing, with little by way of inner-family conflict, she descended into a disintegrating marriage characterised by anger, betrayal and yelling. The unspoken question here is: perhaps greater personal freedom comes at a cost?
Looking for happiness
As Both/And progresses, we see that out of multitudes of experiences, Abedin emerges a more rounded and understanding person. Perhaps the lowest point for her came when she took her young son to visit his father in prison. Given her roots in a tradition and culture where respect and honour are of paramount importance, Abedin seems to have travelled far enough to observe that “Shame is what we teach our children, not something born of their own authentic experiences”.
The transition from an unquestioning life to one that experiences conflicting thoughts and emotions leads to self-reflection, by itself an acknowledgement of the distance she has come.
Abedin’s life can be viewed in the context of chance and fate. She had the good fortune to find work at the White House, and the opportunity to impress Hillary Clinton, and possessed the requisite skills to take advantage of this element of serendipity. But then her favourable destiny was compromised by crossing tracks with Weiner. Throughout this memoir, it seems as though Weiner’s misdemeanours counterbalanced and outweighed her every moment of professional fulfilment.
The good thing, so to speak, is that Abedin’s decency, honesty, loyalty and humility never wavered, and they are evident throughout Both/And. In turn, she received sustained support and kindness from many different sources, including John McCain, Barack Obama and Anna Wintour. However, there were also hurtful social slights, and, among elements of the wider public and right-wing politicians and media, an additional antipathy owing to her religion.
Abedin is nevertheless determined to create her own peace and in doing so win the battle against feelings of guilt and responsibility regarding the impact that her relationship with Weiner may have had on the 2016 Presidential election. With a hint of bitterness, she washes her hands and transfers the responsibility to Comey, of whom she says “One man’s decision to play god changed the course of history. It should not be my burden to carry the rest of my life. It should be his.”
From this reader’s point of view, there were disappointingly fleeting references to India in the text, not much more than naming the country of origin of her father. However, the home country does appear as a fitting setting towards the end, when, in 2018, Abedin travels with Clinton and a friend to Rajasthan where she meets an astrologer.
The astrologer explained that she had spent a lot of her life seeking entertainment, which she thought would make her happy, but those feelings were not the same as bliss. The observation struck a chord, and the now battle-scarred Abedin asked herself, “how exactly would I achieve this state called bliss?” It is a question that hangs over the last chapters of her book, and we are left hoping that she can achieve it.
Krishnan Sharma works as an economist in New York.