What keeps a Secretary of State up at night?

By Ande Jacobson

What happens when a former U.S. Secretary of State and a best-selling crime novelist decide to collaborate on a book? In October 2021, a gripping political thriller resulted from such a partnership. The book is State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny. The two became friends through a series of unlikely events. Clinton and her very close childhood friend, Betsy Johnson Ebeling shared a love of books. By chance in the summer of 2016, the two of them were reading one of Louise Penny’s books, something that Ebeling mentioned in an interview. Penny’s publicist happened to see the interview, and she arranged for Penny and Ebeling to meet at a publicity tour for Penny’s latest book that year. The two hit it off and became fast friends. In the fall of 2016 not long after her book tour, Penny’s beloved husband died of dementia. As Penny was reading some condolence cards, she opened one that changed her life again. The writer was Hillary Rodham Clinton, and it was toward the end of her brutal 2016 presidential campaign. Despite the intense pressure, she took the time to write an eloquent and heartfelt condolence note to Louise Penny, a woman she’d never met. Clinton knew Penny through her books and through Ebeling’s recent friendship with her and had to reach out. That was the first direct contact between Penny and Clinton. That, along with some other timely in-person meetings, started a close friendship. Sometimes that rapport thing just happens, and the three of them, Betsy, Hillary, and Louise, had that spark. And then in 2019, ending her long battle with breast cancer, Betsy died.

That loss pushed Clinton and Penny together mourning the loss of their kindred spirit, but the idea for the book came a little later and didn’t originate with either of them. It was the brainchild of a good friend of Penny’s, publisher Stephen Rubin. He contacted Penny’s agent to get the ball rolling. These two brilliant women came together to talk about their fears, their loves, their passions, and together, with the support of their families, a few close friends, and their publishers and editors, concocted a terrifying yet riveting story that is the stuff of nightmares that keeps a Secretary of State up at night. It is also a story of love.

The book brings readers into the life of the U.S. Secretary of State on the front lines of some of the most terrifying interactions between very powerful leaders. Behind those leaders are minions waiting in the wings to wreak havoc for their own purposes. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the U.S. any of its allies or enemies, or any combination thereof. Very often when tragedy strikes, there are things happening behind the scenes far more complex than any of the stories told in the press. Such is the case when three horrific bus bombings strike Europe in three different countries. It’s a race against time to determine who was behind the bombings, and why those particular targets were chosen. If not solved quickly, the tragedy wouldn’t end with those bombings as this political thriller reveals intrigue, shifting alliances, and a push to protect the world from the unthinkable.

Mirroring real life, this particular Secretary of State has a close childhood friend acting as her counselor. This counselor, Betsy Jameson, is partially modeled after Betsy Johnson Ebeling as a loving tribute. While the real Betsy was whip-smart, loyal, gentle, diplomatic, and very kind, her literary counterpart has those qualities beneath a tough exterior whose brashness can sometimes make a sailor blush.

Secretary of State Ellen Adams is a bit of a composite of some of Clinton’s experience, but also of her dear friend Ellen Tauscher, a former California House member and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Clinton and Tauscher served together in the State Department, and had been close friends for many years. Clinton not only suffered the loss Ebeling, but also of Tauscher and her brother in 2019. The loss of any one would have been difficult, but the loss of all three the same year was devastating. Tauscher had a grown daughter named Katherine, and with the permission of the families, in addition to Ebeling, Clinton and Penny used the Tauschers to name their fictional protagonists. While all of these characters shared many admirable traits with their real-life counterparts, there are several significant differences for the purposes of storytelling.

While it’s not clear whether this was drawn from real-life or Clinton’s imagination, Sec. Adams and her counselor have a unique way of communicating that they had used since childhood. They created a shorthand for various situations beginning their communications to one another with grammar-related code phrases such as:

A mixed metaphor walks into a bar …

Answered with:

… seeing the handwriting on the wall, but hoping to nip it in the bud.

These both ensured that the messages were sent and received by them while also conveying a certain status. Many of them are quite amusing, and if intercepted would read as nonsense.

The political climate in the story has some recognizable parallels to our current environment. The administration has recently changed. The former president was very obviously a hardliner both sympathetic to and manipulated by powers less-than-friendly to the U.S. He’s drawn as being not particularly bright, and very vengeful. The new administration is shown to be under pressure to get things done, but it is deluged by crises, though not necessarily identical to those that we currently face.

The family relationships portrayed are fairly realistic, for a high-achieving family. Sec. Adams has two grown children, one from each marriage, and both are exceptionally bright and capable. Her first marriage didn’t work out for reasons revealed in pieces through the story. Her second marriage ended in tragedy as her husband died under suspicious circumstances writ large. Betsy provides some of the glue that keeps Ellen on an even keel, and the stress they are all under from the events that unfold brings them all together in unexpected ways.

The action never stops as the story flips between multiple locations and points of view keeping the reader on edge the whole way. Clocking in at just under 500 pages, the book reads very quickly racing to its conclusion with surprises up through its final chapter. Clinton and Penny make the reader care what happens to these people, and to the country and the world at large. They also illustrate some significant cultural differences that can sometimes make cooperation very challenging, not for lack of will, but for lack of understanding.

This story shows us that it’s a dangerous world out there, and there are numerous nightmare scenarios that can chill us to the bone. Still, despite the challenges, there are also some good people willing to give it their all to help us survive and even thrive.

State of Terror, by Hillary Rodham Clinton & Louise Penny

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