Monday, June 11, 2007

Hillary, the director's cut

One of our most fascinating, polarizing public figures is forever destined to be embroiled in controversy, and open to interpretation. But enough about Tony Soprano. Let’s talk instead about Hillary Clinton. Two new interpretive biographies have just been dropped atop the Hillary heap, and I read them so that you don’t have to. I summarized my thoughts in a print column yesterday. A much longer version – the indulgent “director’s cut,” as it were – appears below:

Maybe somebody should just open a Hillary Clinton emporium, a 24/7 store dedicated to the sale of all things Hillary, featuring a book department stocked only with Hillary biographies. It could be the political junkie’s version of a Baskin Robins, a place where fans and foes can choose their favorite Hillary flavors, ranging from sweet to sour, from Hillary as heroic public servant to Hillary as a leftist Lady Macbeth.

There would be no consensus on what constitutes the most accurate Hillary, of course, but we’re long past the point of being capable of distinguishing between partisan spin and empirical substance. There is, it seems, no objective middle ground. The ’08 Democratic frontrunner is one of our most polarizing political figures; virtually all Americans made up their minds about her long ago, pro or con; and the book publishing industry is quite happy about that, because it keeps cranking out new volumes that fit every conceivable preconception.

I can’t imagine that she and her campaign aides are pleased by all this ceaseless attention; they would much prefer to conduct their methodical march to the nomination with minimal focus on her embattled personality, maximum focus on dry public policy, and with minimal references to the controversies that marred her husband’s tumultuous tenure. She can’t erase the ‘90s, but she’d like to be judged afresh. Her presidential bid gives her a second chance to make a first impression, a phenomenon that is quite rare in politics; the problem is, she has to compete with the wide variety of impressions on sale in the Hillary market.

Psychobabble devotees have long been able to consult the Hillary book by Gail Sheehy, conservatives who loathe Hillary’s politics can find comfort in the writings of Bay Buchanan or Dick Morris or Barbara Olson or Emmett Tyrrell, liberals who love Hillary’s politics can consult her memoir or buy the laudatory tome by Susan Estrich, lovers of salacious anti-Hillary gossip can pick up the book by Edward Klein (who claims that Hillary was “widely rumored” to be gay) or perhaps Christopher Anderson’s analysis of her marriage (he compares her to Evita)….it’s endless, really. She’s less a candidate than a mass culture commodity.

And now, naturally, we have two new biographies for the shelf – Her Way, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Atta Jr. (Gerth was the New York Times reporter who “broke” the Whitewater scandal, or pseudo-scandal); and A Woman in Charge, by the famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein (who reportedly spent eight years on his project). Not surprisingly, the Clinton camp started dumping on both books long before they hit the bookstores.

While both books do have their strengths, discerning readers basically have two choices: They can either cherry-pick their favorite information, to reinforce how they felt about Hillary prior to purchase, or they can read the biographies from preface to index – and rightly decide that Hillary is a lot like most of her fellow humans. In other words, she is complicated. She has her strengths and weaknesses. She is passionate about her ideals and extremely competitive; she is warm to her friends, and uncompromisingly cool to her enemies; she is arrogant and she has a great belly laugh; she is (as Gerth and Van Atta assert) “tough, funny and brilliant,” but also “hardened, and unwilling to fully acknowledge her mistakes.” And of course she is “ambitious,” a word that is considered a compliment when applied to a male politician.

None of these observations are particularly new, but I’d argue that Bernstein’s account is richer. His writing is more lyrical (“the most essential and yet elusive dynamic of the Clinton presidency came to be the relationship between the two of them – the sand in the gears in bad times, the grease that moved the machinery in good ones…”). His depiction of Hillary’s domineering father is more anecdotal (“If Hillary or one of her brothers had left the cap off the toothpaste tube, he threw it out the bathroom window and told the offending child to fetch it from the front yard evergreens, even in snow”).

And he trumped his competitors by gaining access to some valuable Arkansas sources. He was able to sit down with Betsey Wright, a longtime family friend who ran Bill Clinton’s gubernatorial office; it turns out that, not only was Bill driving Hillary crazy (for the reasons we all know), he also made Wright so crazy that the two of them – governor and staffer – signed up to see a shrink together, in order to fix their office relationship. Wright also dished to Bernstein about yet another Bill paramour – Mary Jo Jenkins – who posed a serious threat to the Clinton marriage, just three years before he launched his presidential candidacy.

But Wright is not in the narrative to sling gossip; she is uncommonly insightful about the complexities of the Clinton partnership. She traces her friendship with Hillary back to the latter’s law school days, and she was convinced, even then, that Hillary was destined to be a trailblazer for women in national politics. Indeed, for that very reason, she urged Hillary not to marry Bill and thus take a subordinate role.

Bernstein also scored by gaining access to some private notebooks, compiled after the 1992 election by Hillary’s closest friend, Diane Blair. A political scientist, Blair interviewed virtually everyone who had worked on the Clinton campaign’s secret “defense team,” which had the onerous job of deflecting the relentless GOP attacks on the Clintons’ private lives. Blair never did anything with her thick files; she died in 2000, and the material was locked away. But Bernstein got permission to read them. Hillary is revealed in those pages as the toughest pugilist of all, in the service of saving her marriage and serving Bill’s career.

As one ’92 campaign aide revealingly explained in the Blair papers: “She doesn’t look at her life as a series of crises but rather a series of battles. I think of her viewing herself in more heroic terms, an epic character like in The Iliad, fighting battle after battle. Yes, she succumbs to victimization sometimes, in that when the truth becomes too painful, when she is faced with the repercussions of her own mistakes or flaws, she falls into victimhood. But that’s a last resort and when she does allow the wallowing it’s only in the warm glow of martyrdom – as a laudable victim – a martyr in the tradition of Joan of Arc, a martyr in the religious sense. She would much rather play the woman warrior…She’s happiest when she’s fighting, when she has identified the enemy and goes into attack mode.”

Typically, of course, that assessment can be read two ways. Hillary haters can claim it as proof that she is a dangerous polarizer who (like her husband) is prone to self-pity; but Hillary lovers can claim it as proof that she (unlike her less battle-tested Democratic rivals) has the requisite moxie to slug it out with the GOP in 2008.

Gerth and Van Atta have experienced the latter, first hand; their new book has already been attacked online by Hillary-friendly media watchdogs, not just because of Gerth’s old Whitewater coverage, but because it’s clear, from at least 30 footnote citations, that he and Van Atta were in close contact, during the late ‘90s, with the office of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Given Starr’s role as chief sleuth in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Hillary fans may well cite that as sufficient proof of authorial bias.

It’s a sign of the times that the watchdogs at Media Matters for America, a non-profit Washington group, have sought to undercut this book even before it hit the shelves, by noting the Starr office citations and questioning the quality of Gerth’s Whitewater reporting. It’s also a sign of the times that Gerth and Van Atta, clearly anticipating these rebuttals, chose to rebut the rebuttals in advance, by contending in their book that Media Matters has long been “an aggressive protector of Hillary’s reputation,” and thus, presumably, is biased in her favor.

It’s not surprising that Hillary’s allies have targeted those two authors; compared to Bernstein, they’re far tougher on Hillary. Gerth underscored his book’s theme by contending yesterday, on Meet the Press, that “she plays fast and loose with the facts, she won’t admit a mistake,” an assessment that, at least superficially, could be made about George W. Bush.

Whereas Bernstein calls her “principled” and “well-intentioned” and motivated by her Methodist faith to do good, Gerth and Van Atta see her as a cold customer who eschews introspection by defining herself through action; she has, in their words, “a forced, artificial demeanor, a reinforced tendency toward arrogance and a belief that she is immune to the rules, and a sense that anyone who disagrees must be an enemy. It is a great challenge to ask Americans to get to know the authentic self of a person who in some ways has deliberately not gotten to know it herself.” They persuasively demonstrate that her “inflexibility and I-know-what’s best mindset” helped to precipitate the health care reform debacle of 1993.

At times they cut her some slack, by suggesting that she and Bill did have real enemies who were determined to destroy them, thus making it necessary to fight from a bunker in order to survive. On occasion, they even dismiss the critics who think that every Hillary action is the product of calculation. For instance, three weeks before the Lewinsky scandal broke, Bill and Hillary were spotted, courtesy of a telephoto lens, laughing and semi-snuggling on a beach. Some critics insisted the Clintons had staged the whole thing, to dispel doubts about their marriage, but Gerth and Van Atta quote approvingly from Hillary’s 2003 memoir: “Hello? Just name me any 50-year-old woman who would knowingly pose in her bathing suit – with her back toward the camera.”

Nevertheless, regarding the intersection of policy and politics, they do see her as a calculating Machiavelli. They buttress this assessment with some diligent reporting, focusing particularly on Hillary’s Senate career, which gets short shrift in the Bernstein book. The money chapters are about Iraq.

They painstakingly track Hillary’s ongoing attempts to distance herself from the vote she cast in 2002, authorizing President Bush to exercise the Iraq invasion option. Clearly she didn’t read the classified intelligence report that vigorously questioned Bush’s case for war – a report that had been made available to all senators – and she has since insisted that, by voting Yes, she was merely expecting that Bush would take new diplomatic steps to avoid war. But the war resolution itself didn’t require Bush to do that; moreover, she had already voted against a Democratic amendment that would have compelled Bush to take such steps before going to war. All told, they conclude, “Hillary was stuck in her own Iraq quagmire,” and she has been trying to extricate herself ever since.

More debatable, however, is the authors’ assertion that Bill and Hillary hatched a plan, way back in ‘70s, to put Bill in the Oval Office within 20 years – and then updated the plan in 1993, mapping out a presidency for Hillary as well. The authors breathlessly write, “Their audacious pact has remained a secret until now.” But Bernstein, in his book, doesn’t mention any “his and hers” agreement, and the heresay source cited by Gerth and Van Atta – the historian Taylor Branch, a Clinton family friend – insists now that he has never said any such thing. Last month he told a reporter that “the story is preposterous….I never heard either Clinton talk about a ‘plan’ for them both to become president.”

Gerth struck back yesterday, on Meet the Press, by contending that Branch is merely trying to cover for his pals: “Taylor is a respected historian, but he himself has admitted that when it comes to Bill Clinton he can’t be objective.” In other words, we’re stuck once again in the spin zone. We’ll never know whether there really was such a pact, but it hardly matters. All that matters, at least to the publishing world, is that Hillary is generating heat, and heat is what sells.

More books are in the pipeline (prominent biographer Sally Bedell Smith takes a crack at Hillary this autumn), recent books are still being flacked (a right-wing publisher just emailed me: “Find out the real truth about Hillary’s pathological need to lie”), and the Hillary enigma will endure. No outsider can definitively pierce what Bernstein calls her “camouflage,” and that probably suits her biographers, and the 24/7 media, just fine. It means that all Hillary theories are possible. It also suggests, unfortunately for us, that little is truly knowable.