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Lightning Rod

This book tells some tales of Ms. Clinton’s service on the congressional investigating staff for Nixon’s impeachment, but I heard her tell much vivider and better ones. Also, before the Gennifer Flowers story broke, she told me of the time when Bill Clinton was working on the George McGovern campaign in Texas while she was still in Washington working for the Children’s Defense Fund. Mr. Clinton told his campaign supervisor that he wanted to take a weekend off to go see his girlfriend in Washington, but that supervisor said he should straighten out his priorities—there would be time for private affairs after the election they were hard at work on. “You know who that was?” she asked me. “Gary Hart!” Here she went into one of the loud guffaws she was always known for—though known less and less for it in the White House, and not at all in this book.

2.

The Money Shot

So at last I reach what is known in porn movies as the money shot—the ejaculation to which everything has been leading up. The Monica section is literally the money part of Clinton’s book, the thing for which she was paid eight million dollars. It was widely said before the book appeared that if she did not include the Monica affair, she would in effect be stealing the cash—taking it under the false pretense that she did not know what was being demanded. She had to agree to undergo the humiliation of telling how humiliated she was by her husband’s sex games with a passing thong-snapper. OK, she tells us how humiliated she was: Very. Surprised? This is not enough for some. They want to know if she was very, very humiliated. Or they ask how she could have been truly humiliated only then, when she had been humiliated so often before. How much had earlier affairs humiliated her? Andrew Sullivan demands that she tell us all whether she believed Mr. Clinton’s denial that he had an affair with Gennifer Flowers.3 Of course she didn’t—the whole Sixty Minutes show was an admission by Mr. Clinton that he had caused suffering in their marriage. That is why it was such a “violative” experience for his wife.

I do not recall similar requests being made of other women who have loved lecherous men of ideals and achievements—not a rare species by any means. No one said that Coretta King could not write a book without saying how much she had been humiliated by her husband’s affairs. (Was she more humiliated because he was a religious leader, or did that just make her believe more in redemption?) Nor was such a demand made of Jacqueline Kennedy, whose husband’s affairs were more numerous and inclusive (except where Jews were concerned, Nora Ephron wittily observed4 ). Lyndon Johnson not only humiliated Lady Bird with his affairs, but insulted and belittled her before others—yet she was allowed to retain her dignity without requests for an emotional assessment of the damages inflicted and survived. Eleanor Roosevelt was not asked to calibrate the degree of her humiliation by Mr. Roosevelt.

But we are told that a strong woman, a “true” feminist, can no longer put up with such humiliation. We are usually informed what the true feminist should do by anti-feminists. I wonder what world such people live in. We see all the time women who are strong and independent, but who love disappointing partners. I am thinking of a truly strong woman like Jacqueline (Mrs. Jesse) Jackson. I know, and I suspect you do, many women (and for that matter men) in whom love interferes with consistency. Eulogies of the recently deceased Katharine Hepburn rightly celebrated her as a forerunner of and model for modern feminists, proud and free, with her own shrewdly crafted career, the daughter and niece of pioneer woman suffragists. But Claudia Roth Pierpont noted that this free spirit subordinated herself to the demanding Spencer Tracy, “from the part of her that required someone to save.”5 Even before she met Tracy, she was enamored of the director John Ford. I have read her love letters to him in the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana. Written in her delicate slanting hand, they are schoolgirl effusions. Even the tough Ms. Hepburn could be sappy. Feminism, like any other ism, is not an inoculation against sappiness.

Love is not easily judged from the outside. Some who knew Samuel Johnson said that he could not possibly have loved his rather grotesque wife. But James Boswell, who had read his many private papers about her, knew better, and he wrote:

To argue from her being much older than Johnson, or any other circumstances, that he could not really love her, is absurd; for love is not a subject of reasoning, but of feeling, and therefore there are no common principles upon which one can persuade another concerning it. Every man feels for himself, and knows how he is affected by particular qualities in the person he admires, the impressions of which are too minute and delicate to be substantiated in language.6

Some people have asked why Ms. Clinton has stayed with Mr. Clinton. The obvious answer is that, rightly or wrongly, she loves him. That is the universal testimony of those who know her well, from close friends like the author Taylor Branch to part-time friend-foes like Joe Klein to the fine biographer David Maraniss. Something of that love comes through even the muffled accounts of her book. The least dull parts of it are the memories of vacations with her husband, games they played, their shared moments with their daughter. One comes, page by page, to hope Mr. Clinton will be coming back into the story soon, to relieve the tedium, as readers of Dickens skipped ahead to see when Mr. Micawber would show up again. Charming rogues are not easily resisted.

Even those who refuse to criticize Ms. Clinton for staying with a straying husband say that, precisely because of his previous infidelities, she cannot be telling the truth when she says that she believed his denials of the dealings with Ms. Lewinsky. She was, in fact, suspicious of his promises, one close to her told me, but thought she was safe in the White House, where opportunities for straying were so circumscribed. It is astonishing that Mr. Clinton would be so reckless as to have his encounters just off the Oval Office; and a concatenation of unusual circumstances surrounded them. Only because the White House staff was reduced by Newt Gingrich’s shutdown of government was Ms. Lewinsky reassigned there. Nonetheless, people say, how could Ms. Clinton claim shock when told the truth by her husband since she had been warned by her lawyer, the night before, that there might be more to the story than Mr. Clinton was admitting? She was, she indicates, in a siege mentality, with a barrage of dubious accusations being directed at her as well as at him—that he ran a drug-running operation out of Mena, Arkansas, that he had an illegitimate black child, that the two of them were implicated in Vince Foster’s death. She was trying to shut them all out, until one could no longer be denied.

Those who tell us what Ms. Clinton should have done cannot think she was really angry with him, even after this renewed betrayal, since she once again stayed with him. Though she says she was fuming at him after he publicly admitted his shenanigans with Ms. Lewinsky, Sidney Blumenthal’s book, The Clinton Wars, is quoted to show that he (Blumenthal) heard them “bantering” in the background as he spoke to James Carville on the phone right after his public confession.7 This is supposed to prove that she was not really mad—though her body language and isolation in days following are eloquent testimony that she was.

I have my own reason for suspecting that she was plenty mad. Right after Mr. Clinton’s television confession, Walter Isaacson, then still the editor of Time, called and asked me if I could write an essay on it overnight. I did. I called for Mr. Clinton’s resignation, as the only way to save his honor, that of his country, and that of his party. If he did not resign, I predicted what turned out to be true—that he would spend the rest of his term dodging and evading and maneuvering, rather than advancing his own political ideals. If he did resign, he would allow a proper succession to Vice President Gore, and would win forgiveness for his own later career. Since I was already scheduled to receive an award at the White House when I wrote that, my wife asked me wryly what kind of reception I was expecting to get there. I did not know. So when I met Ms. Clinton, I tentatively held out my hand to shake hers. “Don’t I get a hug?” she asked, and then placed me next to her at dinner. I did not interpret this as a sign of regard for me so much as agreement with at least some of what I wrote.

If anyone knows so little of human personality as to think deep love of a person cannot coexist with deep anger with the same person, he or she is more ignorant than Ms. Clinton was even as a college senior. In the famous speech she gave at her graduation for Wellesley, she said that she and her coevals of the late 1960s were told, in effect, to love their campus or leave it. She said that the protesting students had refused to leave it because they loved it. In the part of that speech that she improvised, she answered the speaker who had preceded her on the podium, the African-American Republican senator Edward Brooke, who had attacked student protesters:

They ask us quite often, “Why, if you’re dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?” Well, if you didn’t care a lot about it, you wouldn’t stay. It’s almost as though my mother used to say, “I’ll always love you, but there are times when I certainly won’t like you.” Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality, allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education. Before the days of the media-orchestrated demonstrations, we had our own gathering over in Founder’s parking lot. We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirements. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were in a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education, there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning.

3.

The Inmost Nexus

The early part of Living History is the most interesting part, since it charts Ms. Clinton’s moving away from a conservative Republican upbringing toward that 1969 speech. Only three years before the speech, when she was still a Republican, she had campaigned for Senator Brooke. What was now making her challenge him? In a Frontline television documentary on “Hillary’s Class” at Wellesley, a mother who was there is quoted as thinking someone should stop a mere student who was challenging a United States senator. When, instead, her classmates rose and cheered at the end of the speech, this struck fear in the mother: “The whole group frightened me.” That was a harbinger of many fears that Ms. Clinton still inspires—as of many hopes she encourages in others. One of her classmates who listened to that speech says, in the documentary, that she also wondered whether anyone was going to stop her, though she was quietly shouting inside herself “Awwright!” as the speech went on. Those conflicting reactions explain both the popularity of the new book and the great venom in some of its reviewers. Andrew Sullivan reveals one source of ire when he writes, “There is no doubt that the anti-Vietnam and the anti-Nixon crucible formed Hillary as it formed so many others in her generation.”8

But it is not mere policy that causes the grave concern over Ms. Clinton. It is the fact that a woman was voicing the protest. In the same way, many would later protest her having a policy role in her husband’s White House—not, as they claimed, because “nobody elected her.” Nobody elected President Eisenhower’s brother Milton or President Kennedy’s brother Robert, though they had powerful policy roles in their brothers’ administrations. But that was acceptable because they were men. People have reason to react emotionally to a change as deep and widespread as the women’s movement. For the first time in history, the equality of women with men was taken seriously in the second half of the twentieth century.

There could not be a deeper transformation of all social arrangements. Change the status of women, alter the whole concept of womanhood, and the most intimate relationships are challenged, subverted, or reestablished at their inmost nexus—the relationships of wife to husband, husband to wife; of mother to children, of daughters to parents and siblings, of men to women employers or employees or professional colleagues. The rapidity of the change has been astounding. In the class of Harvard Law School in 1964, there were fifteen women out of 513 graduates, and each was individually asked by the dean, in their first year, to justify “taking the place of a man.”9 It was a question Dean Erwin Griswold had used for years. Four years before, he had asked it of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a future justice of the Supreme Court, who remembered: “It was one of life’s most embarrassing moments”—and meant to be. Fifteen years after that class graduated, there were still only one hundred members in the National Association of Women Judges. Today there are 1,300.10 Changes on a similar scale have taken place in all the professions, in business, in sports, in what would have been considered the least likely places—the military, the religious ministry.

The change was resisted. One professor at Harvard refused to call on women in the 1964 class—their voices were too soft, they were too easily flustered, they could not stand up to the master’s “Socratic” probings. He reserved a Ladies Day on which all the women had to go up on the dais and only they were questioned, in ways to make them uncomfortable. I wonder if it was the same professor Ms. Clinton met when she went to look Harvard over after she had been accepted into its law school. The law student escorting her around said to a professor that she was also considering “our closest competitor.” The professor responded: “Well, first of all, we don’t have any close competitor. Secondly, we don’t need any more women at Harvard.” She went to Yale, where she met Mr. Clinton, with whom she lived and traveled while studying law in that fizzy time of youth and change.

When she had entered Wellesley, it was still the practice for graduating women to run a hoop-rolling race, with the winner reputed to be the first one who would get married. By her time there, the hoops were being used for hula hoops. The president of the school did not like what she saw happening. Nora Ephron, who graduated from Wellesley in 1962, says that it was typical of the school that the president saw Ms. Clinton swimming in a forbidden area after she had finished her graduation speech and sent a security guard to take away the clothes and coke-bottle glasses she had left on the shore. Since she was all but blind without the thick lenses, she did not see them being removed. “It just reminded me,” says Ms. Ephron, “of what Wellesley really was like, what Wellesley really wanted from its young women in that period. They did not want you to be a controversial graduation speaker. They wanted you to be the president of the League of Women Voters.”11

The commencement speaker invited to address the ladies in 1969, the very respectable Senator Edward Brooke, said what the president and most parents wanted to hear—that the protests students were mounting were mindless. They refused to see that President Nixon had so cut the poverty rate that “the total number of poor is now sufficiently small to contemplate rapid and large-scale action to end poverty.” Attacking the self-indulgence of a student “Lumpenbourgeoisie,” Brooke quoted with approval Al Capp, who was ridiculing feminists with his character “Joaney Phoney.” It was a long and pompous and self-satisfied speech, and Ms. Clinton could not let it go unchallenged.

She had canvassed the students who put her up to speak after demanding that Wellesley for the first time let the voice of one of the graduates be heard. Her classmates told her to stress three themes—integrity, trust, and respect—which they felt society had forfeited. Answering the senator’s claim that the women should be satisfied with how much the President was doing, she said:

Our attitudes are easily understood—having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade, years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn’t a discouraging gap, and it did not turn us into cynical bitter old women at the age of eighteen. It just inspired us to do something about that gap.

What happened to these Wellesley women seeking integrity, trust, and respect over the next twenty-five years? The Frontline report on the class showed a period of struggle for most of them. A very thoughtful woman told the camera that she came back for the tenth reunion and found her classmates disturbingly smug. But by the fifteenth reunion they had become more uncertain, more confused—and more interesting. They were facing the consequences of choices made, or not made. There were marital problems. Just as feminism does not inoculate against sappiness, it does not exempt anyone from the decisions and dangers of freedom. By the twenty-fifth reunion one woman who gave up a television career for family regretted her choice. Another, Martha Teichner of CBS, kept her career but was sad that it meant she had no children. The only two blacks from the class who were interviewed said they found it easier than some white graduates, since black women always knew they might have to make their own living. Some were proud of Ms. Clinton, some resented her, some kept measuring themselves against her.

One who used that measurement to help her was the class darling, Nancy Wanderer, an ebullient young woman, with bouncy blond hair and a sunburst smile. The class leader as a freshman, she instead of Ms. Clinton might have been class president as a senior except that she got married in her junior year, with the whole school attending their friend’s nuptials. She did not need to worry that the hoop-rolling contest had been abolished. She had her man. But she says, twenty-five years later, that “I never felt like a wife.” She recognizes that she should have gone to Yale Law School instead of trying to settle down. Only when she realized that she was a lesbian did she belatedly go to law school. Her husband was kind and cooperative as she made the change. Her mother—the same one who was frightened by the class response to Ms. Clinton’s speech—has, after a period of shock, become her daughter’s close friend again. Her classmates welcomed her back to their reunion.

What would have been hidden and considered a disgrace by “the old Wellesley,” is now seen as what Ms. Wanderer calls it, a search for her authentic self. It is what Ms. Clinton described in her graduation speech: “Every protest, every dissent, whether it’s an individual academic paper, Founder’s parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age.” For some, that is still a frightening prospect. For others, who make Ms. Clinton a symbol and a standard bearer, it is the whole point of the human adventure. It is what is taking place at the inmost nexus of our society, in mothers and wives and daughters. Much of the earthquake response to the career of Hillary Rodham Clinton is simply one sign of a far wider seismic disturbance rumbling through the whole of our society. That is why her book is a significant event—significant more for the polar responses to it than for any fresh thinking in it.

  1. 3

    Sullivan, “Cover Book”: “She doesn’t let us know if she believed him.” How dare she not let us?

  2. 4

    Nora Ephron, Op-Ed, The New York Times, May 18, 2003 (on JFK and the “Mimi” revelation coming from Robert Dallek’s book).

  3. 5

    Claudia Roth Pierpont, “Born for the Part,” The New Yorker, July 14–21, 2003, p. 63.

  4. 6

    Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited by George Birkbeck Hill and L.F. Powell (Oxford University Press, 1934), Vol. 1, p. 235.

  5. 7

    Sidney Blumenthal, The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 465.

  6. 8

    Sullivan, “Cover Book.”

  7. 9

    Judith Richards Hope, Pinstripes and Pearls: The Women of the Harvard Law School Class of ‘64 Who Forged an Old-Girl Network and Paved the Way for Future Generations (Scribner, 2003), p. 104.

  8. 10

    See Justice Stephen J. Breyer’s introduction to Pinstripes and Pearls, p. xix.

  9. 11

    Nora Ephron, speaking on CBC, “Tina Brown on Topic A,” June 12, 2003.

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