Friday, June 15, 2007

The GOP seizes on Verbalgate

Everybody behaved badly. That’s my verdict on the Harry Reid imbroglio, which perhaps can be nicknamed Verbalgate.

Four days ago, in a phone conversation with liberal bloggers, the Senate Democratic leader referred to Peter Pace, the lame duck chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as “incompetent” – a fact that surfaced yesterday, when Politico posted a somewhat sketchy report. In the ensuing fallout, all interested parties played their predictable (and sometimes hypocritical) roles, thereby illustrating the stark ideological divisions that pervade wartime Washington.

Start with Reid. He spent much of yesterday trying to parry the Politico story, telling reporters “I’m not going to get into it, what I said or didn’t say.” Politico had reported the “incompetent” remark, but hadn’t provided any context. That came late in the day, when excerpts from a tape recording of the conversation were posted online. Here’s what Reid said to the liberal bloggers:

“…Well, I guess the president, he's gotten rid of Pace because he could not get confirmed here in the Senate. Pace is also a yes-man for the president. I told him to his face, I laid it out last time he came in to see me. I told him what an incompetent man I thought he was…”

Politically speaking, it’s easy to see why Reid felt compelled to beat up on a senior military officer in a phone call with the bloggers. He is well aware that the Democratic Congress has been plummeting in the polls, in large measure because his party base is furious that it has failed thus far to effectively confront President Bush on the Iraq war; as evidenced by the Washington Post’s surveys, support among liberal Democrats had dropped 22 percentage points since April.

This helps to explain why Reid felt the need to demonstrate that he’s on the case, that he’s still determined to block Bush on the war, that he’s still willing to play the tough guy (at least verbally) – and what better way to demonstrate toughness than to tell the liberal bloggers that he had dressed down a beribboned brass hat in private?

But assuming he really did call Pace incompetent to his face in private, I would suggest that it’s somewhat graceless to publicly share that news. Maybe I’m just an old-fashioned guy who is out of sync with the transparency culture, but it seems to me that there is something to be said for discretion, a trait that was widely embraced in pre-polarized Washington.

Is it fair to Pace – whatever his shortcomings, some of which we’ll discuss in a moment – that criticism directed at him in private is then repeated as red meat for the liberal base? Does that speak well of Reid’s leadership style? Reid himself may have sensed that he had erred by dishing with the bloggers; that may explain why he declined to repeat the “incompetent” characterization while under questioning yesterday.

But while Reid ran his mouth too freely, the Republicans did the same in response. The GOP was in a huff yesterday at the idea that a Democrat would dare say something bad about a man in uniform. At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow declared that “in a time of war, for a leader of a party that says it supports the military, it seems outrageous to be issuing slanders toward the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”

Isn’t this the same White House that dumped Pace only one week ago, having apparently decided that his stalwart defense of the Iraq war had tainted him politically, thus making him a poor candidate for a second term as Joint Chiefs chairman? On the issue of “outrageous” “slanders,” isn’t this the same White House that has repeatedly suggested that Democrats who oppose the Iraq war are aiding the terrorists?

And why didn’t the White House assail Sen. John McCain back in February, when he suggested in a hearing that another military luminary had botched his job in Iraq? (McCain to Gen. George Casey: "I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq. And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy.")

While the GOP message machine will focus on Reid’s use of the word “incompetent,” it’s just as useful to note that Reid, in his chat with the bloggers, also described Pace as “a yes-man for the president.” That’s about as earth-shattering as the news that Britney Spears parties without underpants. Pace has been uttering the Bush-Cheney line on Iraq for a long time, seemingly impervious to the downward spiral. He was a faithful servant to Donald Rumsfeld, and he was so loyal to the White House that he took it upon himself to write a character reference for convicted felon Scooter Libby, and send it to the judge (“He impressed me as a team player…”).

But even Pace seemed to sense the pitfalls of being a yes man. During a conversation last July with Bob Woodward, the author asked Pace to characterize the latest spike in violence that was plaguing U.S. forces at the time. Pace replied that the insurgents were simply desperate to stop democracy from functioning.

Part of the reason for the violence, Pace said, “is the understanding of the enemy, that they’re on the ropes as far as if this parliament continues to function…” Woodward then asked whether Pace really wanted to suggest that the insurgents were “on the ropes.” Pace replied, “Wrong word.” Woodward then said, “Yeah, you’re going to sound like Dick Cheney. Do you want to retract that?” Pace said, “I would like to retract that, thank you.” All told, however, when asked to characterize the Iraq war, Pace replied: “I do not have doubt about what we’ve done.”

Bush and the GOP are desperate to find anything that might distract Americans from the havoc they have wrought in Iraq, and they seem to think that Reid’s indiscretion will suffice. In reality, however, Verbalgate will provide them with approximately 17 minutes of respite. The GOP seems to think there is political mileage in labeling Reid as “the Far Left’s front man on Iraq,” but, in truth, “the Far Left” and centrist America are in current agreement that this disastrous war is a GOP production, and that the GOP should be held to account. The 2008 election will not hinge on whether Harry Reid is too loose with his lips.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tony lowballs Iraq, Rudy punts

Back on May 29, I mentioned that the Bush team, despite having originally indicated that September would be a key juncture for measuring the effectiveness of its so-called Surge, was suddenly trying to take a slide on September by dampening in advance any expectations of meaningful progress. Late last month, President Bush’s friends at Fox News and in the think tanks were dutifully spreading the word, in the hopes that perhaps restive congressional Republicans would sit tight and give Bush even more time to indulge his signature disaster.

Actually, from Bush’s perspective, weaseling out of the September deadline makes perfect sense, because the idea that the political and security conditions in Iraq would suddenly improve, just because the U.S. had commenced a troop escalation, seemed laughable from the start. And, sure enough, the Surge thus far hasn’t made any appreciable difference.

Iraq’s political leaders, divided by sectarian hostilities, have taken virtually no steps toward reconciliation, much less enacted the reform laws that the Bush team is demanding as a gauge of progress. And today we have a new Pentagon report, which says that the average daily casualties in Iraq have actually increased since the Surge strategy was first implemented on Feb. 10.

So it’s no surprise that Bush, now tagged with a 29 percent job approval rating, is backing off the statement he made in a Reuters interview on May 22. At the time, he characterized September “as an important moment, because (General) David Petraeus says that’s when he’ll have a pretty good assessment as to what the effect of the Surge has been.” But today, it’s a different story.

My dictionary defines the word important as “of much or great significance or consequence.” The Bush dictionary apparently has a looser definition.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow did his bit for the team yesterday, playing a game of lowball with the White House press corps (while insisting, naturally, that he wasn’t low-balling anything). When he was asked to characterize the impending September assessment, he called it “the first opportunity to have a little bit of metric…At that juncture, you’re going to be able to have a little more granularity, as they say.”

I’m having a little trouble squaring “a little bit of metric” and “a little more granularity” with the dictionary’s “of much or great significance and consequence.” It seems to me that something of great consequence translates, at the very least, into a large amount of granularity.

A reporter asked Snow whether his characterization of September was different from Bush’s May 22 characterization of September. He replied, “No, I will let the president do the characterizations…I think we’re parsing a little bit here.”

A reporter reminded Snow that Bush has said in other interviews that we would know in September whether the Surge was working. Snow was then asked, in reference to September, “is it the right time to judge whether the new way forward is working?”

Snow replied, “Again, let’s see. We’ll have to take a look. I just - ”

Reporter: “But that sounds like backpedaling.”

Snow: “No, it’s not backpedaling. It’s just - it seems to me to be such a vast, metaphysical question.”

And so on. I sympathize with Snow. It’s the thankless job of the White House flak to spin a disastrous war by talking about granularities and metaphysics, and hoping that nobody remembers what the administration has previously said about the Surge (in Senate testimony on Jan. 12, Defense secretary Robert Gates said that we would be able to measure the effectiveness of the Surge "fairly quickly," within "a couple of months").

So perhaps we should seek out substantive answers elsewhere, starting with the Republican frontrunner for the ’08 presidential nomination. What would Rudy Giuliani do in Iraq? How would he differ from the current lame duck? Let’s check out Giuliani’s policy agenda, which he released on Tuesday. He calls it his “12 commitments.” I’ve got it right here. Let’s see….

Wait…Iraq must be on this list somewhere….Still looking…

Nope, not a single word here about Iraq.

He does declare that “I will keep America on offense in the terrorists’ war on us,” but that’s hardly a profile in courage, since I doubt that any ’08 candidate will be promising to put America on defense. And one would think that, if he wants to “keep America on offense,” he might want to at least address what he would do about Iraq, which, at a price tag of $2 billion a week, is severely complicating America’s attempts to stay on offense worldwide.

But not a word about Iraq. And when asked Tuesday why he had stayed mum about the electorate’s number-one concern, he said this: “Iraq may get better, Iraq may get worse. We may be successful in Iraq, we may not be. I don’t know the answer to that. That’s in the hands of other people.”

This, from the guy who wrote a book called Leadership. My dictionary defines leadership as the act of providing “guidance” and “direction.” But, apparently, Giuliani doesn’t want to take the lead and offer guidance and direction; he’d rather punt, by simply saying that the war is “in the hands of other people.” If a Democratic candidate had made such a statement, he and his fellow Republicans would be citing it as proof that the other party doesn’t have the guts and moxie to lead America in time of war.

His dilemma is obvious, however. If he had spelled out a commitment that essentially endorsed Bush’s strategy, he would have endeared himself to the Bush diehards who are expected to vote heavily in the GOP primaries – but he would have signaled his foolhardiness to the swing-voting independents who have long concluded that the war is Bush’s folly. On the other hand, if he had spelled out a commitment to radically change course in Iraq, he might endear himself to swing voters – but hurt himself with GOP primary voters.

This is the mess that Bush has created for his fellow Republicans, and it explains why people like Snow and Giuliani have to play games with the dictionary.


If you're not sick of hearing about Hillary Clinton, you might want to download yesterday's "Radio Times" show on Philadelphia's NPR station. I discussed the Hillary-as-polarizer issue for an hour with author and foreign relations fellow Peter Beinart. It's available here, at 6/13, Hour One. Listen for the caller who insists that Hillary reminds many men of their first wives.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is Bush plowing fallow soil?

Once again, there is fresh evidence that George W. Bush has severely damaged the Republican party and imperiled its ’08 presidential nominee. It turns out that even rural Americans – roughly 20 percent of the national electorate – are profoundly fed up.

And if those folks say they are disenchanted, it means the GOP is in serious trouble.

Republican presidential candidates generally depend on winning big in the rural environs, to help offset the usual Democratic urban margins. That was the Bush formula in 2000 (when he won 59 percent of rural voters, topping Al Gore by a whopping 22 points), and again in 2004 (when he won the same percentage, besting John Kerry by 19 points). Bush’s father won the rural vote by 11 points in 1988. Ronald Reagan won the rural vote by 16 points in 1980 and by 34 points in 1984.

Yet today, in a new survey sponsored by the non-partisan Center for Rural Strategies, and designed on a bipartisan basis by Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg and GOP consultant Bill Greener, rural voters are signaling something different. When asked whether they would favor a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate in 2008, they opted for the Democrat by two points.

Among swing-voting independents who live in rural areas, the unnamed Democratic candidate is favored by 11 points; among blue-collar rural voters, the Democrat is favored by 12 points; and, perhaps, most significantly, the Democrat is favored by three points among rural voters who have family members fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.

For the Republicans, these numbers should be a wake-up call that’s roughly equivalent to being jabbed in the kidneys with a cattle prod. The Democratic game plan for recapturing the White House in 2008 does not require winning the rural vote at all. They merely need to be competitive. They merely need not to get wiped out. Indeed, in both 1992 and 1996 Bill Clinton fought the GOP to a virtual draw in rural areas. This new poll suggests that the Democrats are well poised to do that again.

As GOP consultant Greener put it the other day, obviously choosing his words carefully, “Republicans are vastly underperforming among rural Americans. And if we’re going to succeed in 2008, we’re going to have to do better.” Or, as he said in the polling analysis that he co-authored with Greenberg, “Bush’s problems directly impact the entire Republican brand in rural America and usher in a new era of political competition…Democrats in turn have a historic opportunity to strike deep into the Republican base.”

And what’s Bush’s biggest problem, the problem that has triggered a 26-point plunge in his rural job approval since 2004? Take a wild guess.

It’s arguably no surprise that Iraq was cited by rural voters as their top issue - why should they be any different? – but what’s most significant is their personal stake in the war. As the polling analysis points out, “this is the part of the country that, more than others, sends its sons and daughters to do the fighting.” Here’s a stat you won’t see in suburbia: 75 percent of those surveyed know somebody who is fighting in the war; and 27 percent have a family member in harm’s way.

And if elected Democrats in Washington need any more evidence that it is politically safe to confront Bush on the war, consider this: Even in Republican-voting rural America, 50 percent agree with the statement that “the current course cannot bring stability, and we need to start reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq,” while 45 percent agree with the argument that “we must stay the course to achieve stability and finish the job in Iraq.”

I assume that some reality-challenged Republicans will be tempted to dismiss these numbers with the usual mantra - that surveys are a mere snapshot in time and that the only relevant poll is the one conducted on election day. But that line won’t fly, because rural voters have already vented their frustrations on election day. I am referring to last November, when the Democrats captured both the House and Senate – with serious help from rural voters.

Republican House candidates topped their Democratic counterparts by only three points among rural voters nationwide (a nine-point drop from the GOP’s winning rural margin in the 2002 House elections). Indeed, the ’06 Democratic rural surge helped propel the party into power; 18 House Republican incumbents with large rural electorates lost their seats. And the same pattern was evident in key Senate races – notably in Virginia, where Democrat James Webb ousted George Allen in part by dueling Allen to a virtual draw among rural voters (Webb won 49 percent of them); and in Missouri, where Democrat Claire McCaskill ousted Jim Talent in part by winning 45 percent of the rural vote.

Some Democratic strategists have arguing for years, and largely in vain, that their party has needlessly ceded rural voters to the GOP. Steve Jarding, one of the most prominent complainers, said several years ago, “It’s a moral argument. How morally right is it for our Democratic nominee for president to sell 60 million people, ‘You don’t matter to me?’” Last year he co-authored a book on the topic with Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, another Democratic strategist who believes in rural outreach; in an interview last year, Saunders argued that a Democratic presidential candidate could score big gains in rural areas if he or she takes the time to show respect for those voters' values. As Saunders put it, "These people have been voting Republican, but they're not really Republican, and we need to show 'em why" they should switch in '08.

But the new survey stats don't foresee '08 Democratic gains as a slam dunk. As the polling analysis makes clear, rural voters instinctively favor the Republicans as the folks more in tune with their way of life. These voters are ticked off about the Iraq war, and that has shaken their allegience to the GOP, but they still don't necessarily trust the Democrats on the crucially important "family values." As the analysis warns Democrats, "What is happening is less about an ideological alignment than a reflection on the current governance." (This helps explain why GOP candidates such as Mitt Romney are stressing "values" and barely mentioning Bush or Iraq.)

And Democrats should also remember that this survey was merely asking rural voters to choose between generic Democratic and Republican presidential candidates; once the actual names are filled in, their sentiments might be somewhat different. For instance, Hillary Clinton scored poorly in the survey, ranking lower than all the other major candidates, although presumably she would seek to employ some of the same strategies that enabled her to win over skeptics in the rural communities of New York State.

But the bottom line for the GOP is not encouraging. If Republicans have to spend precious time and money next year just to shore up their rural base, that alone is a Democratic advantage. It's tough to win a presidential race by playing defense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Scooter and Gonzo and Pace, oh my

It’s difficult to catalogue all the latest conservative grievances against George W. Bush, but let’s give it a try:

Conservatives wanted Bush to retain Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but last Thursday Bush dumped him. Conservatives want Bush to pardon Scooter Libby (who, after all, merely lied under oath to impede a national security investigation), but Bush refuses to do it. Conservatives want Bush to dump attorney general Alberto Gonzales (whom they consider an incompetent toady), but Bush won’t do that either.

So here’s the right-wing recipe thus far: Keep Pace, free Scooter, ditch Gonzo. Whereas the Bush recipe is: ditch Pace, ditch Scooter, keep Gonzo.

Then add the immigration ingredient, and you’ve got a bubbling cauldron. Conservatives want Bush to ditch his reform bill, the compromise deal that would give 12 million illegals a path to citizenship. But Bush refuses to do that either.

Lately, the Bush-bashing on the right has become nearly as virulent as the Bush-bashing on the left - which I suppose is another way to gauge the political death throes of this administration. He might wish that he had stayed a bit longer in Albania.

For instance, Bill Kristol, the conservative activist and commentator, is furious today that Bush won’t wield his pen on Libby’s behalf; he thinks that Bush is “selfish,” fearful of the political backlash that a Libby pardon might trigger, and motivated by a “petty desire to avoid some additional criticism.”

The Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial writers added their ire yesterday: “With Mr. Libby, what is Mr. Bush afraid of – jeopardizing his 33 percent approval rating? A pardon would be a two-day story…his supporters would cheer to see the president standing by the man who stood by him when others in his administration cut and ran.”

Washington attorney Victoria Toensing, a prominent conservative voice, linked two of the grievances and came up with this sound bite: “If the president can pardon 12 million illegal immigrants, he can pardon Scooter Libby.” This quote turned up yesterday in a column by Robert Novak, the conservative pundit who lately has become a conduit for aggrieved conservative Bush-bashers, most of whom are ranting behind the cloak of anonymity in the hopes that the Bush White House will notice their smoke signals.

These sources are linking the Gonzo and Scooter grievances. From Novak: “Prevailing opinion among Republican office holders, contributors and activists could not differ more from Bush’s posture. They regard Libby as a valuable public servant…Republican insiders are enraged by Bush’s retention of Gonzales, whom they consider a political and governmental disaster (presiding over) a crippled, leaderless Justice Department.”

Others suggest that Bush’s credibility on the immigration issue is shot, because he has so little credibility in general. Rich Lowry at the National Review, writing today, even manages to work Gonzo into the mix: “The backdrop to all this, of course, is the Iraq war. The government of the United States presented to the world intelligence that turned out to be wrong. It insisted we were making steady progress in the guerrilla war when, by the end of 2006, we were facing catastrophe. And it has still managed only fitful progress against an enemy whose main weapon is homemade bombs. This casts a pall over our public life, augmented by Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, corruption in Congress, paranoiac ranting on the Left, and incompetence in high places (see: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales).”

Still others are equally incensed about the ditching of Peter Pace. Last Friday, the Bush team announced it had decided not to re-nominate Gen. Pace for a new term as Joint Chiefs chairman, because it knew that Pace would be grilled about the Iraq war during his Senate confirmation hearings. That decision has really ticked off the conservative base, which is accusing Bush of timidity under fire.

More grievance linkage, this time from a blogger at, the popular grassroots conservative website: “Pace is being ungraciously sacrificed at the altar of capitulation to the antiwar movement…Bush seems more interested in standing by a struggling attorney general…Why, after such a military career, does Gen. Pace find (himself) alone in an open field, with no cover fire? Because the political expediency of his superiors is of greater concern…Throwing yet another faithful servant under the bus for political expediency is NO WAY to honor and respect this Soldier, Warfighter, and American Patriot.”

The Wall Street Journal editorialists chimed in yesterday: “Is George W. Bush still president? We can’t help but wonder.” Dumping Pace “only makes Mr. Bush look weaker as a commander in chief who can’t even select his own war generals.” Dumping Pace is tantamount to “appeasement.”

An appeaser who won’t secure our borders? A “selfish” and “petty” president who’s afraid of political fallout? This is not the Bush image that his handlers sought to nurture back in ’03 when they dressed him in that flight suit. And history tells us that an incumbent party has a tough time staying in office when its own base is deeply disenchanted.


By the way, here was Bush yesterday, complaining about all those U.S. senators who persist in going after Gonzo: "This process has been drug out a long time."

Drug out? It would appear that, in some long-ago grammar class, a certain child got left behind.

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.