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Can We Know Her?

The 1988 presidential campaign is generally thought of as a low point in political journalism, if not national politics itself, during which coverage of politics was gravitating more and more toward polls, cheap symbolism—a ride in a tank, a visit to a flag factory, and Willie Horton—and even tawdrier matters. It was in the 1988 campaign that a candidate, Gary Hart, was first asked directly by a reporter, Paul Taylor of The Washington Post, if he had cheated on his wife. Because of what was widely seen as increasing superficiality and partisanship in the press, we were introduced around this time to a figure known as the media ethicist, who would be called upon to keep watch on this degeneration of coverage, as then Los Angeles Times press critic Tom Rosenstiel did in September 1992. When the 1992 campaign began, he wrote,

the press vowed to do things differently. In short, journalists in both print and broadcast were influenced by criticism that the media bore some blame for the failure in 1988 to squarely address the nation’s most pressing issues….1

Those “pressing issues” in 1992 turned out to include Bill Clinton’s sex life, the state of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage, and a land investment they’d made in 1978 in which they’d done nothing wrong (except lose money), even though their misguided involvement in Whitewater set off an investigation that very nearly led to his downfall. By the time special prosecutor Kenneth Starr issued his report in September 1998, the political and journalistic cultures that had reigned for many years had undergone dramatic changes. Highly partisan men like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were running the House—and in the Senate, Trent Lott now sought to ape them.

Gingrich’s rise brought new power to a constellation of right-wing groups dedicated to dismantling both the federal government and the Clinton presidency. On the journalism front, The New York Times and The Washington Post now increasingly shared their power to shape opinion with three all-news cable channels—one of them, Fox, an obvious servant of the Republican Party—and The Drudge Report, from which journalists at the major dailies were now taking their lead. “The press” had now become “the media,” and the new beast needed constant feeding.

These changes allowed the story of the Clintons’ alleged crimes and misdeeds to catch fire in a way it otherwise never could have. The allegations didn’t end up amounting to much: Bill Clinton left office immensely popular and accepted by most Americans as a successful president, and Hillary Clinton’s long-term future in politics, whether as senator or president, seems secure, and she currently leads all the other Democratic presidential candidates in the polls. But this is small recompense for our having had to endure the years wasted because of nasty and largely baseless attacks on the Clintons.

Carl Bernstein, in A Woman in Charge, and Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., in Her Way, want to relive the controversies of the Clinton White House. After an unprovoked war built on lies, the deaths of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, illegal domestic spying, government-sanctioned torture, the indefinite incarceration of suspects, a scandal surrounding efforts by the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer to install prosecutors willing to undertake blatantly political prosecutions, and astonishing tales of congressional corruption, is it not at least demeaning and superfluous to be presented with one-thousand-plus pages revisiting such questions as how many hours of billable work Hillary Clinton actually performed for Madison Guaranty? It might not be, if we learned useful new information, about both the Clinton presidency and Hillary’s more recent record in the Senate. But A Woman in Charge and Her Way—the former sometimes by intent, the latter almost always inadvertently—tell us less about Mrs. Clinton than they do about the political and journalistic cultures that allowed hysteria about the Clintons to thrive.

Like mosquitoes on the Tidal Basin, books about Hillary Clinton arrive seasonally and in profusion. In addition to A Woman in Charge and Her Way, at least three other new hard-covers have been released in the past year. Two of those are part of the steady stream of right-wing literature devoted to describing her secret radical agenda and other alleged failings—one, The Extreme Makeover of Hillary (Rodham) Clinton, is by Bay Buchanan, sister of Pat. The overall tally now stands at more than three dozen, most of them negative.2

Only a few have attempted what Bernstein aims for, a full-blown and balanced biography. Most are more akin to Gerth and Van Natta’s effort, a political biography that gestures toward covering her early years, largely for the purpose of anticipating the decisions, almost invariably unsavory, made by the adult Hillary. Bernstein, for example, devotes nearly ten pages to discussing the character of Hillary’s father, Hugh Rodham, who owned a drapery business in downtown Chicago and whose “continuous bullying, ill-humor, complaint, and dejection” bordered, to the author, on sadism:

His control over the household was meant to be absolute; confronted with resistance, he turned fierce. If Hillary or one of her brothers had left the cap off a 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. Regardless of how windy and cold the Chicago winter night, he insisted when the family went to bed that the heat be turned off until morning.

Gerth and Van Natta’s Hugh Rodham, by contrast, gets just a few sentences and merely demanded “that his children be smart and tough and absorb life’s many jabs without complaint,” which she clearly failed to do with regard to Ken Starr.

Bernstein’s detail and doggedness give us a fuller picture of Clinton, but they add little to what is known from Gail Sheehy’s Hillary’s Choice, Clinton’s own Living History, or for that matter any number of magazine profiles. She was raised a Methodist and a Republican. Her inherited view of the world was jostled a bit by Don Jones, the youth minister who took Hillary Diane Rodham and her classmates to Chicago to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and to see the living conditions endured by black people (she remains close to Jones today). She chose to attend Wellesley, in part because of the all-female environment; Bernstein quotes a former classmate as saying, “You don’t have the thing where women don’t put their hands up because someone might not take you out because you know the answer and they don’t.” At graduation, she delivered the student commencement address, the first in the school’s history—“it was clear who the student speaker would be,” Bernstein writes—during which she famously reproved the official commencement speaker, Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, for seeming to defend the Vietnam War and failing to appreciate her generation’s search for “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” She chose Yale for law school, in part because a Harvard professor told her “we don’t need any more women at Harvard.”

A central debate about Clinton’s young-adult years—although it is a debate only insofar as today’s right-wing commentators have manufactured it—has to do with the degree of her supposed radicalism. Conservatives point to her commencement address, her summer spent at the left-wing law firm of Bob Treuhaft (who defended the Black Panthers and was married to Jessica Mitford), and her work in Chicago with the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky as evidence of her hatred for the system. Both A Woman in Charge and Her Way reject this argument. Of her feelings toward Alinsky, Gerth and Van Natta write that “although she admired his argument that people should be empowered to help themselves, Hillary did not change her belief that it would be difficult to change things from the outside,” i.e., outside the conventional political system. And Bernstein observes that while she did lead campaigns for such reforms at Wellesley as permitting antiwar activities in campus facilities and rescinding the skirt rule, she was more drawn to meeting than marching:

One of Hillary’s strengths as a leader, still evident today, was her willingness to participate in the drudgery of government rather than simply direct policy from Olympian heights. She attended committee meetings, became involved in the minutiae (of finding a better system for the return of library books, for instance), and studied every aspect of the Wellesley curriculum in developing a successful plan to reduce the number of required courses.

All of this should sound familiar to observers of Clinton’s cautious and diligent Senate career.

When she met Bill at Yale, he was a bearded and long-haired man from the Ozarks via Oxford, already possessed of unusual magnetism, a roving eye, and the burning desire to be president someday. Hillary, whose previous boyfriends were tame by comparison, was famously smitten. Many of the books about her give special attention to her decision, after law school and work on the staff of the Watergate committee, to abandon a possible career in Washington or New York to follow Bill back to Arkansas. The story of her drive from Washington to Fayetteville, where Bill was living at the time, seems to change from book to book. In Gail Sheehy’s telling, Hillary and her friend Sara Ehrman set out from Washington on a “steamy…August evening” just after Richard Nixon’s resignation and landed in Fayetteville on the day of the Arkansas–Texas football game (which in fact was played three months later, and in Texas that year).3 Bernstein has them arriving to witness a rally for the football team, with “thousands upon thousands of fans wearing pig hats and yelling Sou-ee, sou-ee, pig, pig, pig.”4 Gerth and Van Natta write that when Hillary arrived, “she watched, enthralled, as Bill gave a campaign speech before a good-size crowd in the town square in Bentonville.”

How this story is told is important for two reasons. First, it is meant as proof of her overwhelming ambition—that Hillary attached herself to Bill like a barnacle because she knew they were destined for the White House. There is undoubtedly some truth to this, although Gerth and Van Natta go considerably farther here than any previous authors with an assertion that is their book’s main conceit and “scoop”:

Though still unwed, Hillary and Bill had already made a secret pact of ambition, one whose contours and importance to the two of them has remained their secret across all these years. They agreed to embark on a political partnership with two staggering goals: revolutionize the Democratic Party and, at the same time, capture the presidency for Bill. They called it their “twenty-year project,” an auspicious timetable for two young people in their midtwenties. And they agreed that the only way they would be able to achieve these goals was to do whatever it took to win elections and defeat their opponents. Bill would be the project’s public face, of course. And Hillary would serve as the enterprise’s behind-the-scenes manager and enforcer.

  1. 1

    Quoted in M. Mark Miller and Bryan Denham, “Horserace, Issue Coverage in Prestige Newspapers During 1988, 1992 Elections,” Newspaper Research Journal, Fall 1994. The authors conclude that despite post-1988 vows by news organizations to change their ways, coverage of the 1992 campaign by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times was only marginally more substantive than in 1988.

  2. 2

    I should confess that I have contributed to this genre, with Hillary’s Turn (Free Press, 2001), an account of her first Senate campaign. For the full list, see the Wikipedia entry “List of books about Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

  3. 3

    I reviewed Hillary’s Choice (Random House, 1999) for The Nation, February 7, 2000.

  4. 4

    If Bernstein is going to go for such audio verité, he might as well get it right: the actual chant is “Woooooo, pig, suey! Razorbacks!”

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