Huma Abedin hadn’t been working in the White House long when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Although she would eventually become like a second daughter to Hillary and Bill Clinton – most visibly as the former’s right-hand woman during the 2016 presidential election campaign – she was then just a distant junior aide to the first lady. Perhaps that explains why, as she writes in her new memoir, she initially assumed the rumours couldn’t possibly be true. Everyone in politics was young and starry-eyed once.
Unusually, however, Abedin seems to have stayed that way. Even when the president actually confesses to the affair she was sure hadn’t happened, she resolves sternly to “put my judgments and emotions aside” and focus on the bigger picture. Hadn’t she been taught as a child that “slander, gossip and exploiting people’s personal weaknesses are among the worst forms of conduct for any Muslim”?
It’s at this point – well before the story of the older senator who lunged when she went back to his place for what she genuinely assumed was coffee, or the husband who betrayed her – that some readers may wonder whether the author is almost too pure for her chosen world. But then, in her telling, so is half the White House. Bill Clinton comes across as thoroughly avuncular. The first lady’s office is a sisterly utopia where the boss instantly apologises for getting even mildly tetchy under pressure. “Hillaryland is ‘how is your mom feeling?’ and ‘you should talk to my allergist’,” Abedin writes. “Hillaryland is ‘Happy birthday!’ and ‘amazing job!’ and ‘get some rest’! Hillaryland is all of those things because Hillary Clinton is all of those things.” Working up close with politicians means getting to know them warts and all, and most aides have their moments of doubt or despair. But either Clinton is uniquely inspirational or Abedin uniquely generous. It’s the dynamic between the two women that makes this book compelling.
It opens with a fascinating exploration of a childhood spent between two worlds. Abedin is the daughter of two professors: an Indian-born father, and a mother whose family moved from India to Pakistan after partition. They emigrated to the US separately on academic scholarships before meeting and starting their family in Michigan. When Abedin was a toddler, the family took what was meant to be a sabbatical in Saudi Arabia, and ended up staying.
She had to get used to covering up, and watching her mother relinquish the right to drive. Yet in the book, Abedin argues that growing up overseas in a culture supportive of her family’s Muslim faith built her confidence: “I’d never had to be the brown kid in an American school who was teased for bringing ‘weird’ ethnic food in my lunchbox … I was never ‘the other’ and I found I could fit in everywhere.” Returning to New York for university, she slips comfortably enough back into American life, though she steers warily clear of dating. It’s this ability to move between cultures – the most obvious both/and of the title – which makes her stand out, first as an intern at the White House, and later in her first big job organising foreign travel for the globe-trotting first lady. What also sticks in the mind, however, is her promise at the job interview to do “whatever it takes” to help the woman she idolised succeed.
The next section of the book is the only one that drags a little. More glorified bag-carrier at this stage than strategist, Abedin offers little deep insight into the Clinton presidency or Hillary Clinton’s subsequent career as a New York senator, despite some intriguing glimpses behind the scenes. (At one point she overhears Clinton calling home, telling the now ex-president where to find cleaning materials under the sink.) The story crackles back to life, however, when Anthony Weiner enters it.
He is a confident, and suspiciously smooth, young congressman a decade her senior; she is a virgin with a tendency to see the best in everyone. Reading about their courtship is like watching a horror film and screaming at the heroine not to go into the haunted house, while knowing that, of course, she will.
When Abedin finds a flirty email from a stranger on Weiner’s phone not long before their wedding, she accepts his explanation readily enough. Even when her husband is caught sexting other women, having accidentally posted an indecent photo on social media, a newly pregnant Abedin initially believes that his account must have been hacked. Besides, having lost her own father young, she desperately wants their baby to grow up with a daddy. Thus begins a painful spiral recognisable to anyone ever sucked into a toxic relationship.
Abedin is often asked whether, in standing repeatedly by her sexually transgressive man, she was simply copying Clinton. Yet the book suggests that is too reductive an explanation. Weiner was her first ever lover, and she believed he could change. By the time she realised he wouldn’t, she had a toddler to consider and a job reliant on a spouse taking care of everything at home. (After his political career ended in scandal, Weiner became a house-husband.) The final chapters see her worlds colliding messily as she attempts to reconcile being both vice-chair of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and a wife embroiled in a scandal.
Despite pressure to fire Abedin and protect her own career from the fallout, Clinton resisted. She stood by her closest aide even when Weiner did it again, this time in such grim circumstances – sending indecent photographs of himself with their sleeping son in shot – that Abedin finally filed for divorce. Both Clintons emerge from this episode as unfailingly kind, particularly to Abedin’s son, and true to the feminist principle that a woman shouldn’t pay for her husband’s crimes. (A year after the election, Weiner was jailed for sending explicit pictures to an underage girl.) But this story raises the haunting, hard-nosed question of just how wise that was.
True to form, Abedin apparently didn’t see her boss’s defeat coming. She understood some voters didn’t warm to Clinton; she knew how damaging an eve-of-election FBI investigation into her boss’s use of a private email server was, having been dragged into it after her own emails were discovered on Weiner’s laptop for reasons she cannot explain. Yet she still couldn’t quite believe Donald Trump would beat a better-qualified woman. Does that make her naive, or merely human? Perhaps for Huma Abedin, it’s always a case of both/and.
• Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds by Huma Abedin is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.