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Excelsior!

Hillary’s Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign

Michael Tomasky
Free Press, 309 pp., $25.00

1.

Hillary Clinton must be throwing a fit. Here she is, a United States senator, rising up at last from the Grand Guignol of her husband’s presidency, eager to be judged on her own merits—and she’s pulled back down into the muck. She is, yet again, not “Hillary,” but one half of “the Clintons,” and the Clintons are getting it right between the eyes. The gradually unfurling narrative of the former president’s pardons of well-connected crooks and swindlers has proved so revolting that even some of the Clintons’ most ardent defenders have finally had it up to their keister. Bob Herbert, the New York Times columnist, recently described the Clintons as “a terminally unethical and vulgar couple” who might well be “led away in handcuffs someday,” and have in any case forfeited all rights to leadership. This is the kind of language one is accustomed to hearing from the Clinton-haters, like former Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Now you hear it from even the stoutest resisters. Clinton-fatigue has suddenly collapsed into Clinton-contempt.

It will, of course, be easier for Mrs. Clinton to pull herself out of the ooze than for Bill, who no longer has the power of the presidency to distract us from his peccadilloes. Mrs. Clinton can use the next six years to erase whatever ill feeling lingers from the previous eight. Look at what a combination of time and unremitting dedication to causes has done for Teddy Kennedy, to whom she is often compared. Mrs. Clinton, whose ability to command attention equals Kennedy’s at the height of his power, and perhaps exceeds it, called a press conference in late February to take on the allegations over the pardons. She was, as she has taught herself to be in such moments, equable, patient, even masterful. But that doesn’t mean she solved the problem. She denied having “any involvement” in the pardons, though both her big brother, Hugh, and her little brother, Tony, had actively canvassed their White House contacts on behalf of friends or clients in need of clemency.

What’s worse, last December she sat in on a meeting which the President held with a Hasidic leader who sought pardons for four members of his community who had been convicted of embezzlement and fraud. This Hasidic community had supported Mrs. Clinton in her Senate campaign by a comically lopsided margin. The four men received their pardon, and federal prosecutors are now examining whether Mrs. Clinton broke the law, presumably by promising lenient treatment in exchange for continued support. The senator is not likely to be led off in handcuffs, not only because it’s hard to imagine her offering any such quid pro quo but also because such transactions are virtually impossible to prove. But people just don’t believe Mrs. Clinton’s sweeping assertion of innocence anymore. This one earned her Slate magazine’s “Whopper of the Week” award.

Mrs. Clinton cannot get in the clear, no matter what she does. She has in many ways patterned herself after her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt; but though she may earn as much enmity as Mrs. Roosevelt had in her day, it is almost inconceivable that she will earn anything like the same reverence. While Mrs. Roosevelt was despised by her political foes, Mrs. Clinton has somehow contrived to be disliked, and often intensely so, by people who share her views. This is the great peculiarity of her political career, and it is a mystery with which Michael Tomasky wrestles manfully in Hillary’s Turn, his account of Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign.

He does not, however, wrestle it to the ground. The question will remain whether Mrs. Clinton’s gift for inspiring enmity is her fault or ours. To put the question differently, should we try to understand Mrs. Clinton’s larger meaning by delving into her character or into the liberal political culture? I, for one, would love to see someone write a book about her similar to Wayne Koestenbaum’s Jackie Under My Skin, his attempt to mine the meanings we project onto Jackie Kennedy. At the same time, politicians who can’t make their own supporters like them are probably in the wrong line of work. Watching her, you sometimes think: if only she had a sense of humor you could live with her piety. But it seems, alas, that she doesn’t.

Michael Tomasky is a member of the literary subgenre of Rudy Giuliani’s victims. Like the mayor’s two biographers, Andrew Kirtzman and Wayne Barrett, he expected the public’s attention to be riveted by a senatorial contest between Mrs. Clinton and Giuliani, two of the most formidable and easily dislikable politicians ever to run against anyone, much less each other. Giuliani, of course, disobliged an avid press by withdrawing from the race last May, before he even formally entered it. Tomasky and his colleagues in the daily press were left to observe a campaign that was grotesquely distended, generally tedious, and—unlike the contest for president—anti-climactic. Tomasky has written a faithful account of a contest that hardly bears the weight of a faithful account.

Tomasky seems to like Mrs. Clinton more than her most recent biographer, Gail Sheehy does, not to mention her caricaturists on the right, including Peggy Noonan and Barbara Olson, wife of Bush’s solicitor-general and author of Hell to Pay, a masterpiece of unremitting contumely. Sheehy’s Hillary, like Susan Stanton in Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, is a character you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley, a policy-wonk version of Xena, Warrior Princess. Tomasky, who writes the “City Politic” column for New York magazine, was braced for that Mrs. Clinton when she came to his office for his one and only private interview, early in the campaign. But when he asked her about her “interests in life outside politics and policy,” she responded with an apparently unrehearsed lit-any of upper-middlebrow hobbies—archaeology and anthropology and classical history and modern art. She also knew the Flintstones theme song, and she clinched the sale when she did the Three Stooges’ finger-snapping routine. “She wasn’t enigmatic or brittle,” Tomasky writes, with undisguised relief. “She had enthusiasms and a playful side.” This is setting the bar pretty low: Mrs. Clinton has turned out to be a human being, rather than a silicon-based life form. But such a conclusion gives a telling picture of her received image.

Hillary Clinton is one of those public figures of whom it is often said, “If you could only see what they’re like in private.” Indeed, we have it on no less an authority than Dick Morris, the disgraced genius of polling and spin, that Mrs. Clinton is “warm and friendly as an individual but relatively rigid as a political figure.” (Morris’s use of his column in The New York Post to stomp all over her during the campaign, despite the friendly feelings he’s expressed about her elsewhere, makes him Tomasky’s principal villain.)

The principal drama of Hillary’s Choice is the laborious effort of this extremely cautious figure, prone to both solemnity and sanctimony, to construct a usable political persona. The press, Tomasky very much included, hunted desperately through Mrs. Clinton’s every public utterance and act for clues to the private self. Tomasky makes the intriguing point that the New York reporters, unlike the ones in Washington, did not view themselves as gatekeepers of national morality, and scarcely ever asked Mrs. Clinton about Filegate, Travelgate, or any of the other gates with which she was perpetually taxed back home; but they peppered her remorselessly with questions designed to “solve the vexing riddle of who she was.”

Part of Mrs. Clinton’s problem was that she was not “ethnic,” meaning not only that she was not Italian or Irish or Jewish or black, but that she lacked the sense of ethnic particularity that for New Yorkers spells authenticity. New York politics, and indeed New York life, is still atavistic this way. You are expected to be tribal; and Mrs. Clinton was, instead, deracinated and bland, just the way New Yorkers imagine Midwesterners to be. She lacked not only an accent but a sense of personal commitments, passions, even preferences. This was why the incident early in the campaign in which she appeared in a Yankees hat and claimed to be a lifelong Yankees fan despite having grown up in Chicago rooting for the Cubs, was such a gaffe. If she was willing to fabricate a primal allegiance to prove that she was a real New Yorker, then she probably didn’t have any real allegiances at all, in which case she certainly wasn’t a New Yorker. (Tomasky points out that Mrs. Clinton actually was a lifelong Yankee fan, but, apparently viewing the incident as too trivial to pursue, she said nothing in her own defense.)

Mrs. Clinton could have responded to the clamor for self-revelation by dropping her “g”s and talkin’ ‘bout family calamities, the way Al Gore did. But she didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t. Tomasky records her telling a bus full of frustrated reporters, “‘Who are you?’ and all of that. I don’t know if that is the right question.” Almost despite himself, Tomasky comes to admire her high-mindedness, her refusal to stoop to the kind of therapeutic twaddle that has become the stock-in-trade of the aspiring pol. Tomasky describes Mrs. Clinton as a throwback to an era when “politicians talked more about the social order and less about themselves.” But Mrs. Clinton never talked about anything as grand as the social order, and besides, making the distinction between policy and character, between high and low, is mostly a symptom of not liking politics. Ask yourself: Would Mike Dukakis have made a great president? FDR, to take a counterexample, didn’t have to talk about who he was; you understood just by listening to him.

Not so Mrs. Clinton, who rarely speaks an unpremeditated syllable; somewhere between her consciousness and her lips she has constructed the kind of flash-boiling tank that renders wine mev shulam, or super-kosher, by removing every last trace of impurity. Perhaps this would happen to anybody who’s taken the kind of public pounding that she has. Viewing the solid earth as too dangerous, Mrs. Clinton often dwells instead in the ether of generality and fine sentiment. Here is an excerpt from, of all things, a CNN interview that Gail Sheehy used as an epigram for Hillary’s Choice: “I think that in everyday ways, how you treat your disappointments, and whether you’re able to forgive the pain that others cause you, and, frankly, to acknowledge the pain you cause to others, it’s one of the big challenges we face as we move into this next century.” Goodbye Oprah, hello UN General Assembly.

And yet she won. In the end, Mrs. Clinton found a way of presenting herself to the public. She devoted nearly three hours a day, Tomasky writes, to “rope-line time,” shaking hands with voters, looking them in the eye, asking about local problems and taking mental notes. It was, Tomasky surprisingly argues, “a pivotal, perhaps the pivotal, development in this campaign.” Voters could see the First Lady not as a political adventurer parachuting in from Washington, or an avatar of the Sixties, or the other half of the world’s most powerful couple, but as a dedicated reformer who cared deeply about fixing traffic flow. She neutralized the “carpetbagger” argument by sheer hard work, visiting heavily Republican upstate New York towns dozens of times, facing down the forest of “Go Home to Arkansas” signs with her implacable demeanor. In the end, she won a startling 47 percent of the vote upstate. Voters must have been flattered by her persistence; and, as New York City political pros like to observe, upstate is basically the Midwest, so Mrs. Clinton may have benefited from the sense of cultural fit.

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