Friday, October 26, 2007

Pillow talk as public policy, and vice versa

You may have noticed that Hillary Clinton likes to repeat herself:

"I have a unique perspective being on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" (Sept. 18); "My experience at both ends of Pennsylvania me special insight into what we must do" (Sept. 26); "My eight years of experience on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue..." (Oct. 10, 2002, when she voted to authorize the Iraq war option).

And with respect to that experience at the White House end of Pennsylvania Avenue, we also have this long-recurring theme:

"I talk to my husband about everything. We talk constantly (about policy), and, you know, he tells me sometimes why what I think won't work, or thinks it's a good idea and he'll look into it, but sometimes I talk to other people in the administration as well (May 28, 1996); "I worked alongside my husband..." (Jan. 24, 2005); "We have influenced each other so much over these, goodness, 36 years now...there's a bit of a challenge to say 'here's where he stops and I start'" (Essence magazine, Nov '07).

But if a scholar or journalist or voter tries to find out the exact nature of the Bill-Hillary collaboration, to indeed determine where he stops and she starts, the inquiring citizen will be stonewalled. Because all her '90s White House papers are locked away at the federally-financed William J. Clinton Presidential Library, and virtually none of them are expected to see the light of day prior to the '08 election.

Here's the deal, apparently: She gets to tout her First Lady stint as proof of her governmental experience, but we on the receiving end don't get to find out exactly what she did. She gets to travel America extolling the successes of the Bill Clinton administration, and she gets to tell us how much she influenced his thinking, but we don't get the chance to learn exactly what she influenced (much less how and why).

To verify her experience claims, to understand the nature of her advice, and to determine whether her advice helped or hurt her husband's performance, we would need to have access to a number of things: her policy memos, her notes from strategy meetings, her appointment calendars, and a lot more. But there is no such access - as the respected biographer Sally Bedell Smith discovered recently when she visited the library. When she requested material on Hillary's advice to Bill about welfare reform, she was told that "policy" matters were off limits; when she requested material on Bill's advice to Hillary during her 2000 Senate campaign, she was told that "political" matters were off limits.

Much of this is Bill's doing; as Newsweek determined, after reviewing documents obtained from the National Archives under a Freedom of Information request, Bill decreed in a 2002 letter that there should be no speedy release of "sensitive policy, personal, or political" material. He was also very interested in slowing the release of "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature." Apparently he was casting a wide net, because neither of his immediate predecessors, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, has reportedly placed any controls on the papers of their respective spouses.

Democratic strategists and pro-Clinton archivists have been arguing for months that Bill and Hillary are rightly concerned about the pitfalls of disclosure, that Clinton critics would merely cherry-pick the most negative material. Yes, they would do that. It's just too bad that the voters won't have the chance to decide for themselves whether to believe the critics, or, more importantly, to decide whether the archives confirm Hillary's claims about the breadth of her experience.

The bottom line is that this issue demonstrates why the Clinton collaboration is so unique - and potentially troublesome.

As Hillary keeps telling us, she and Bill have been talking policy since the day they were married; it's part of what bonds them as a couple. But now that she's running for president herself, and people want to understandably find out more about the nature of their policy talk (since, after all, their policy talk affected the nation in the '90s and may well do so again), they're invoking an expansive zone of privacy. Witness Bill's abiding interest in safeguarding "communications between the President and First Lady." Witness Hillary's remark, during a Sept. 26 debate, that "I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband."

So the deal, for the '08 campaign, is that when Hillary touts her close collaboration with Bill, as part of what she calls her "35 years of experience," she expects the voter to simply take it on faith and not sweat the details. Because those details are under lock and key.