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Lightning Rod

Living History

by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon and Schuster, 562 pp., $28.00

I tried a high-minded approach to Ms. H.R. Clinton’s book, which was a great mistake. I had been told that the Monica stuff was off at the end of the book, whence all the early leaks, excerpts, and comments had been extracted and endlessly remasticated. Instead of going straight back to that section, I felt that the book as a whole should be judged in the order of its own presentation. The putative author is known as a policy wonk. Maybe she should be given a chance to discuss issues, not just affairs. The first part, about her early life, proved to have some points of interest (to which I’ll return), but there is not much about issues at that stage. That was not surprising. What did surprise is the dearth of substantive discussion given to political issues through all the long later stretches of the book.

1.

Social Calendar

It was naive, I suppose, to think that Ms. Clinton would analyze what really worked or went wrong in the administration she was so much a part of. Her main effort was her main failure, the health plan. It would be very interesting to learn where and why that experiment failed. Was the strategy wrong (a complicated combination of public and private funding, as opposed to a single payer) or just the tactics (secret meetings with representatives of too many interests)? Was the staff ill chosen or ill directed (the Ira Magaziner problem)? Did opponents’ money and maneuvers doom the plan, no matter what its content? These are all important matters, which she does not so much address as allude to. Her diagnosis of the failure is on the order of “The historical odds were against Bill.” True, perhaps, but not very enlightening. Later we learn that “the defeat of our health care reform effort…may have happened in part because of a lack of give-and-take.” Or else there was too much give-and-take, too many (six hundred) consultants, too great deference to the private sector. Whatever.

In one of her few impolitic slips regarding people who are now her colleagues, Ms. Clinton blames part of her troubles on dumb congressmen, who did not even know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid: “Health care reform represented a steep learning curve for more than a few members of Congress.” But Magaziner seemed to be counting on the dumbness factor. He thought he could install the new program by slipping it into a Budget Reconciliation Act, cutting off congressional debate—despite the fierce record Senator Robert Byrd had for excluding non-germane matters from Budget Reconciliation. Ms. Clinton attributes this slick approach to the fact that Magaziner “was not a Washington insider.” But she and Mr. Clinton backed the Magaziner ploy.

To her credit, Clinton does not make the excuses she might have. She does not blame her two-week absence from the hundred-day schedule, when crucial decisions on the plan were being made while she was detained at the bedside of her dying father. She does not sharply criticize the alarmist “Harry and Louise” ads paid for by insurance companies—she just prints the dialogue from a Harry-and-Louise skit she did with Mr. Clinton at the White House Correspondents Dinner. She does not mention the wildly erroneous but widely distributed attack on the plan run by Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic—an attack that launched the bizarre political career of its author, Betsy McCaughey.

But neither does her book trace the longer-term result of the way she and her team went about health reform. The attack team assembled to defeat the plan was an innovative blend of activists, pollsters, pundits, lobbyists, and officeholders, which went on to produce the Contract with America and the Gingrich takeover of the House of Representatives. This was the real right-wing combination that threatened the Clinton presidency. It was to fight this that Ms. Clinton called Dick Morris to the White House and backed his “triangulation” effort at recovery. The keystone of this campaign was the transfer of welfare responsibility to the states, which lost Ms. Clinton the support of her old friends Marian and Peter Edelman, though it probably won Clinton his reelection. Her own defense is unabashedly political—“If he vetoed welfare reform a third time, Bill would be handing the Republicans a potential political windfall”—coupled with a salving gesture: “A Democratic administration was in place to implement it humanely.”

On the other, more covert, Republican combination—which she rightly called a conspiracy, since it was secret in funding and tactics, but which would not have been as effective without the earlier and open combination of the Gingrich Revolution—she repeats what she has already said, in legal forums forced and unforced. The scurrying of many right-wingers with an obsessive animus against her and her husband was not a fringe activity. It reached well into the courts and political counsels of the Republican Party. Richard Scaife is a loony outsider convinced that Vince Foster was murdered, but his money and contacts supported people who were and are very inside players, men like Ted Olson. A qualified special counsel, Robert Fiske, a Republican, was removed, in part because he would not go along with the view that Foster’s death “had anything to do with Whitewater.” A new prosecutor reopened and exploited the investigation of that death. The way this change was made was sordid; the man who conducted it would never have accepted his job if he had any honor. The one important datum about Ken Starr that Clinton emphasizes is the crucial one. He had already intervened on the side of Paula Jones’s attorneys in their effort to sue the President before he was asked to be special counsel. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his grounds for that intervention, it clearly disqualified him from the role of objective investigator—which is why five former presidents of the American Bar Association said he should recuse himself.

If Clinton has steeled herself to handle old charges coolly, she is similarly remote where we might want some warmth. One of her more interesting ideas was to hold weekly “Millennium” gatherings in the White House, to begin thinking ahead into the third millennium of the Common Era. She lists some of the thinkers who circulated through this program, but does not tell us what (if anything) she learned in the process or what influence (if any) the process had on the real world. What we get is a celebrity list.

That is typical of the entire book. Take what might have been expected to be the most substantive chapter, the one on health care. There we are told that the Clintons gathered with Magaziner in a small study near the Oval Office, where “the Navy stewards brought us our food from the White House Mess.” Then they went out and strolled “past the bust of Abraham Lincoln by Augustus Saint-Gaudens,” in order to reach the Roosevelt Room, where Ms. Clinton would add “a small bronze bust of Eleanor Roosevelt” to the decor. This tour-of-the-White-House approach continues as we hear of state dinner after state dinner, until it widens out to tour-of-the-world sections on state dinners with many foreign leaders. The book is mainly ceremonial, a padded social calendar.

I suppose that is what many are buying it for. It worked with other presidents’ wives, most notably with Jacqueline Kennedy. It supplies the vicarious experience that might have been derived, in an earlier time, from a TV show like Queen for a Day. The constant you-are-there touches (Look! The Saint-Gaudens!) are mechanical but, for some, soothing. This is the world of First Ladydom, a world as artificial as the unconstitutional title First Lady, which is taken from court language like Lady-in-Waiting. Presidents’ wives are expected to play up (or down) to this title, though Ms. Clinton once wryly nodded agreement with me when I complained of its pomp. Her critics say that in playing the role she acted as if she were a queen, a function that has been forced on all presidents’ wives. When she plays it, she is accused of not being a “regular person.”

This reached a silly new low when P.J. O’Rourke wrote:

Hillary and her husband aren’t representative of much of anything American. Neither can drive a car…. In nearly twenty years of family life, the Clintons did not own a home or go to the mall without armed guards.1

The Secret Service wants its own expert drivers for the President and his wife—unless, like Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush, they have large private ranches to bucket themselves around in, away from the public. As for the “nearly twenty years,” Ms. Clinton drove me around Little Rock eleven years ago without any armed guard. In fact, as the governor’s wife she drove to work at her law firm, and ferried her daughter to school, without any armed guard.

Ms. Clinton has a good mind, as her early scholarly writings showed; but she seems not to have switched it on for this book. Of course, having a good mind can be a political disadvantage (the opposite of the George W. Bush phenomenon). And there would be no point for a woman still in the midst of her political career to stir up old animosities, refight battles, attach blame to possible allies in future. Candidates are not supposed actually to discuss issues during a campaign, but to invoke needs and put aspirations in vague language. There are some points Clinton cannot avoid entirely, like Whitewater (and, yes, I know, Monica is still coming up); but the politic course is to touch as lightly as possible and move on. This drains her voice of all vibrancy. Much of the ceremonial part of the book was clearly turned over to the ghost writers (who, contrary to Andrew Sullivan’s assertion,2 are handsomely acknowledged). But even more personal stories for which she had to be the immediate source come out bland, as through a filter.

The book recounts, for instance, how a woman preacher about to be put in a mental home in a small Arkansas town was defended by Ms. Clinton as part of her pro bono work while she was teaching at Arkansas University. I heard her reminisce about that event with her fellow faculty member Diane Blair, and all the vivid details they traded back and forth are leached from the bare-bones account in the book. When Professor Rodham got a call from a female guard at the jail that was holding the woman, her husband, Professor Clinton, was using their only car to run political errands. So she called a law student who had done other pro bono work with her, a man who owned a pickup truck. They set off in the truck through the woods of northern Arkansas. When she went to see the judge who was about to commit the woman, she slipped into his Southern drawl (he said the woman was a public nuisance on the streets of the small town). When she went to see the black woman in the jail where she was being held, she imitated her. Ms. Clinton is a natural mimic and raconteur, who automatically “does the voices” when telling a story—a thing that got her into trouble on the Sixty Minutes appearance she made with Mr. Clinton to answer questions about Gennifer Flowers. She went into a Tammy Wynette accent when she said she was not “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” It sounded like she was mocking the singer. A good friend of hers told me she started checking her spontaneity after that appearance, which had a “violative” impact on her.

  1. 1

    P.J. O’Rourke, “Hillary’s History,” The Weekly Standard, July 7–14, 2003, p. 33.

  2. 2

    Andrew Sullivan, “Cover Book,” Times of London, June 22, 2003: “Hillary’s intellectual amour propre forbids her sharing credit.”

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