Deconstructing Hillary

The two new additions to the Hillary Clinton shelf differ from previous books in timing, scope, and especially in their ambition: They seek to sum up Clinton without fear, bias or political spin.

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

"A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton" by Carl Bernstein, Knopf, 630 pages, $28

"Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton" by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr., Little, Brown and Co., 448 pages, $30

Charles Franklin, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, recently published on his Web site an amusing analysis of how the name "Monica" fell out of favor as a choice for American baby girls; inadvertently, it was also the story of how a Washington scandal shaped public perceptions. The analysis featured a graph covering a period of time that began in the early 1970s and ended in 2006. Monica, it seems, has plummeted down the list of common baby names, dropping from 39th place at the height of its popularity to 250th place.

The name's popularity began to diminish back in the 1970s, and the process continued in the following decade, for no obvious reason. Its fortunes between 1998 and 2006 are easier to explain. While in 1997 "Monica" was ranked 79th on the list of popular names, a year later it had fallen to 151st place, and since then its popularity has continued to drop. Franklin estimates that parents of female babies born today were teenagers or college students when White House intern Monica Lewinsky had an affair with President Bill Clinton, entangling him in one of the strangest and most embarrassing scandals in the history of the American presidency. Clearly, they would be reluctant to give their daughters a name that has become inscribed in public memory as belonging to a promiscuous bimbo from California.

The Lewinsky affair is first mentioned in the most intriguing chapter of Carl Bernstein's new book about Hillary Clinton, "A Woman in Charge." Bernstein, famous as the journalist who, along with Bob Woodward, exposed the Watergate scandal, claims that Clinton is a deeply religious woman. "Aside from her family," he writes, "Hillary's Methodism is perhaps the most important foundation of her character." He claims that one of the strong influences in her life has been that of Reverend Don Jones, whom she met when she was a girl in the Chicago suburbs and with whom she corresponded for many years. "She's a woman of tremendous faith," he cites one of her aides as saying, and that faith is what enabled her to "get through all this" (that is, through the most embarrassing of all scandals).

That is Bernstein's version, which differs significantly in many details and in its sympathetic tone from the one offered by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, Jr., two New York Times journalists who are the authors of another Clinton biography. If Gerth and Van Natta came across any evidence of Clinton's religious commitment, it clearly didn't impress them much. They mention Jones only fleetingly, as someone who helped Clinton (then still only Rodham) to understand that there were also people "less fortunate" than herself living in the U.S.

Hillary Clinton's persona has beckoned to writers for many years, and dozens of books about her have appeared: She is idolized, attacked, praised, disparaged - the last, perhaps most of all. The list runs from David Brock's "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham" (1998), through to Peggy Noonan's "The Case Against Hillary Clinton" and Laura Ingraham's "The Hillary Trap" (both from 2000). Yet another book, "The Extreme Makeover of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton," appeared just this month; authored by Republican Bay Buchanan, it is a highly critical work that flagellates Clinton for her sins, from inconsistency to fundraising by illegitimate means. By the way, the list of books should also include Clinton's own paltry contribution, "Living History" (2003), which revealed little, concealed much and sold very well. It is the least interesting of the lot.

First lady with a twist

The two new additions to the Hillary Clinton shelf differ from the previous books in their timing and scope, and especially in their ambition; both seek to sum up Clinton without fear, bias or political spin. In the background hovers the American public's urgent political need to become reacquainted with one of the most highly exposed women in American history. Clinton is an ultra-mega-celebrity, and as is often the case with such figures, she is at once exhaustingly familiar and deeply mysterious. Soon the public will have to decide whether it wants Clinton again as the first lady, but with a twist: not as the president's wife, but as the president herself.

Gerth and Van Natta devote more meticulous attention to Clinton's recent years. Since leaving the White House, she made an unprecedented move for an ex-first lady, by joining the U.S. Senate. She represented New York State in the stormy days after September 11, voted in favor of the war in Iraq, and embarked on the presidential race in which she is now the leading contender for the nomination of the leading party. These are the years that Clinton will ask the voters to remember: high in accolades, low in scandal.

Yet in their search for the political materials of which the candidate is made, Van Netta and Gerth, like Bernstein, turn to the foundations of the Hillary fortress, to those formative years that stretch between 1968, when she was reborn as a Democrat, and 1998, when she was reborn as a politician.

In the course of five years during the 1960s, Hillary Rodham switched from actively supporting the lost candidacy of right-wing knight Barry Goldwater to volunteering in the campaign of leftist anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. On the way, in 1968, she even broke a small record for chutzpah: Still a registered Republican, she came to watch the convention that rejected her own preferred candidate, Senator Nelson Rockefeller, and which predictably chose Richard Nixon instead; a few days later, she was already making the rounds as a potential Democrat through the rough-and-tumble Chicago streets of the Democratic convention, which rejected the candidate for whom she had worked (McCarthy) and instead nominated Hubert Humphrey.

When her autobiography was published, Clinton told an interviewer that she was too busy with her life to waste time on the way in which others imagined her living it. In other words, she does not read the books that appear about her, a privilege reserved for those who have a flock of assistants to read for them. And indeed, Clinton's staff saw the new biographies long ago and breathed a sigh of relief: They contain nothing in the way of shocking revelations.

The worst thing Gerth and Van Natta found is a dubious letter that an old acquaintance remembers from the early days of Rodham and Clinton's relationship. As early as that, they argue, the two were already plotting to win the presidency twice over. This questionable story sheds light mainly on its authors and on the particular interpretation that they have chosen to explain the survival of Hillary and Bill's marriage: "They agreed to embark on a political partnership."

This is a possible interpretation, but not the only one. Bernstein, who also describes the political partnership with an air of due suspicion, notes that Hillary did not come easily to her decision to marry Bill, and he also mentions her qualms about their future after the Lewinsky scandal. He quotes Hillary as saying that she stayed in the marriage because she "loves him." Bill, too, stayed because he cannot be without her.

In any case, the Hillary Clinton story, as reflected in these books, contains considerable irony when it comes to the status of a contemporary feminist icon: Here is a prominent woman-leader, perhaps the most important one of her generation, and the entire story of her life comes down to the story of her relationship with a more important man, her husband. In both books, Clinton's marriage is described as the key to understanding her personality, and neither book actually offers that key to the reader. One thousand pages, and the mystery remains: Why did they marry, why did they stay together, and how have they survived the constant, intensely documented crises of their relationship? The mystery that shrouds any relationship is in this case doubled and tripled: Friends, aides, assistants and other witnesses offer multiple versions about the nature of the Clintons' bond.

'Hillary's worst nightmare'

These books scrutinize not only Hillary's attitude toward the marriage, but Bill's as well. After all, as Bernstein's book claims, Bill considered divorcing Hillary when, during his term as governor of Arkansas, he fell in love with Marilyn Jo Jenkins ("Hillary's worst nightmare: an attractive, accomplished, rich antagonist"). But Hillary would not let him go; she had "put too much of her own heart and mind and soul into her partnership with Bill" to let it crash and burn. Bill himself, then in the throes of a "severe midlife crisis," according to his chief of staff, and as childish as only Bill Clinton could be, explained to friends that he was in love with both Jenkins and his wife.

There is something odd, almost surreal, about rereading these stories today, especially in the chapters that deal with Hillary's second formative year, 1998, and with the events leading up to it. Clinton is now in the midst of a political race in which she must confront life-and-death issues. She is currently squirming as she tries to explain why she voted for the war in Iraq - without, as Van Natta and Gerth claim, having taken the time to read the full intelligence reports. She proudly flaunts the compliments she has received even from her opponents for her performance as a junior senator for New York.

Clinton is an intelligent woman, very hard-working, not the "bitchy caricature" sketched by her enemies. But the turn back to the 1990s, to the small and large scandals in which she was involved, to the previous president's philandering, to the elusive girls associated with him, to the slick lawyers who sought to extricate him from crisis after crisis - none of this serves her public persona very well.

Hillary and Eleanor

In January 1997 Clinton invited historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to the White House to discuss the role of the First Lady during the second term. Two years earlier, Goodwin had published the excellent book "No Ordinary Time," about the strange and wondrous White House partnership of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; now she came to help Clinton plan her next four years. Ultimately, 1998 marked the crucial difference between Hillary and Eleanor, and perhaps also between the Roosevelt era and the current one. After her husband's death, Eleanor rejected an offer to run for governor of New York, channeling her energies instead into her public influence as a revered figure, political but not power-hungry.

Clinton chose a different route, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed her life story: She latched on to her husband's political collapse, at that rare moment of grace in which she was seen as a victim and given sympathy, and she used it as leverage for her rise all the way to the U.S. Senate, and soon perhaps even higher. This is the so-called cruel, aggressive quality that Dick Morris, a former aide and ex-member of the Clintons' close circle, has identified in her.

Clinton, it seems, has always tended to choose the path that would give her power at the expense of affection, influence at the expense of sympathy. She is an impressive candidate, who could probably be a fine president. If anything stands in her way to the Oval Office, however, it will be the voters' tendency to respect her, but not necessarily to like her.

In any case, the name "Hillary" is not enjoying a renaissance so far. For one moment, in 1992, it seemed as though it might; the Clintons had taken the nation by storm, and the name "Hillary" leaped to 132nd place on the list of popular names, its highest ranking in the last 50 years. Since then, however, it has plummeted rapidly, a drop that probably shows that even those who will give Hillary their vote do not necessarily consider her someone they would like to encounter in their own home. Last year, when Senator Hillary Clinton was already busy preparing for her long race to the White House, the Social Security Web site reported that the name Hillary had dropped to the 982nd place on the list.