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Can We Know Her?

Their main piece of evidence for the “pact” is a letter Hillary wrote to Bill, which they do not quote and apparently did not see, in which she laid it all out. They interviewed a former girlfriend of his who says she saw the letter. As the book progresses, they quote former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta attesting to the Clintons’ ambitions, and finally, the terms of the pact are expanded to include eight years as president for him and eight more for her, based on statements the Clintons supposedly made to the historian Taylor Branch. Branch has called the story “preposterous” and has issued a press release to rebut Gerth.5

It’s possible and even likely that the Clintons harbored such an ambition (at least with regard to his becoming president). But exactly how unusual would that make them? My guess is that a good percentage of 585 American politicians—435 House members, 100 senators, and 50 governors—and their spouses have such ambitions today. But the creation myth of the Clinton partnership demands that we see their ambition as unique; for writers living in New York and Washington, that would be the only conceivable explanation for why she would go to a place like Arkansas.

And this brings us to the second reason why the story of Hillary’s arrival in Fayetteville is important: it enables authors to make something exotic out of this backwater patch of flyover country, where people get drunk and yell pig chants, where life is comically wretched and coarse, and where politics is clubby and backroomish and undoubtedly corrupt. This presumption about Arkansas, so easily entertained in East Coast newsrooms, would have very real consequences as national coverage of the Clintons heated up.6

Bill became governor in 1978, lost his 1980 reelection bid, and retook the statehouse in 1982. Chelsea was born in 1980. Bill doted as a father but continued to cat around. By 1989 he considered getting a divorce but decided in the end to stay with Hillary—and she, of course, with him. She had joined the Rose Law Firm, where, both Bernstein and Gerth and Van Natta agree, her career was less then a spectacular success; and the recognition she received—being named in 1988 one of the country’s one hundred most influential lawyers—hardly seemed deserved.

The entire decade of the 1980s is a bit of a blur in most Clinton books, a time-marking decade between the creation myth and the presidency, and these books are true to form (even the methodical Bernstein jumps from 1982 to 1989 in a mere ten pages). Hillary’s notable accomplishment of the decade was her leadership in reforming the Arkansas school system. Her plan was criticized by teachers, upon whom it imposed mandatory testing, but it did improve high school graduation rates and reduce class sizes. Roughly a third of the way into A Woman in Charge and a quarter of the way into Her Way, we’re on to the 1992 campaign and the presidency.

Both books—Bernstein’s more assiduously—discuss Hillary’s involvement in policymaking during her husband’s tenure in the White House, especially with regard to the health care debacle, and both rightly blame her for its failure (although it is also true that insurance companies mobilized an intense national campaign against it). Bernstein devotes many pages to telling the story of how a shaken Hillary refound her footing through events like her impressive September 1995 speech defending women’s rights in China, and, later, how she emerged from the Lewinsky scandal with dignity. But both devote far more energy to the controversies that engulfed the White House—and her—from the first day to the last. Whitewater was the core of it all.

It began when Jim McDougal, whom Bill had known for a decade by 1978, suggested that the Clintons join him and his wife, Susan, in investing in vacation plots along the White River. When interest rates shot up, depressing the market for second homes, they all lost money (the Clintons lost $36,862 according to Gerth and Van Natta, and $69,000 according to Bernstein). That would have been that, except that by 1985, McDougal headed a savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, and to do his legal work, he retained the Rose Law Firm.

Rose’s work for Madison—and the famous billing records that had gone missing and were not found until January 1996—is the main reason Whitewater dragged on so long, and the only reason Hillary Clinton was very nearly indicted by Starr (an indictment was drawn up but never filed). If then Governor Clinton had pressured McDougal to hire his wife’s firm as part of a wider conspiracy somehow involving their Whitewater losses, as many people alleged throughout the 1990s, then that would have been a legitimate scandal. But this was never established. Rick Massey, then a young associate at Rose, told Al D’Amato’s Senate Whitewater Committee in January 1996 that he was the one who solicited McDougal’s business.7 Hillary Clinton did a small amount of work for Madison Guaranty, and since she was a partner and Massey only an associate, her name went on the bills. And when the billing records were finally examined, they supported her recollections of having done comparatively little on behalf of Madison during about a year and a half.

The two books take different views of the entire mess. Bernstein thinks the matter “became overblown almost from the moment the New York Times first wrote about it” with articles and editorials that were “long on innuendo, short on context, and in some important ways unfair to the Clintons.” At one point he draws directly on the authority he earned from his Watergate days in assessing the situation the Clintons faced:

During Watergate, Richard Nixon, who declared famously, “I am not a crook,” was never questioned by a special prosecutor or a grand jury, even though he was a constitutional criminal, and the cover-up had been about concealing his constitutional offenses. If there was anything that Bill Clinton was not it was a constitutional criminal, or a president who would deliberately accede to constitutional criminality. Nor would his wife. Her reverence for the Constitution was unshakeable.

He even quotes former Clinton aide Mark Fabiani as having been told by Gerth himself that Gerth believed the story “never deserved to be the subject of years of long independent counsel work.”

Gerth and his coauthor—respectively, former and current New York Times reporters—do not admit any such exaggeration. Gerth wrote the original, much-criticized Whitewater story, published in the Times on March 8, 1992, and Her Way is an extended implicit defense of his original reporting8 and even, explicitly, of Starr’s tactics. They note that the controversial expansion of the inquiry into new allegations—the expansion, that is, that led to Bill Clinton being questioned under oath in the Paula Jones lawsuit about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky—“actually grew out of actions taken by [Robert] Fiske”: the initial special prosecutor whose appointment, which Hillary opposed, turned out to have been one of the greatest mistakes of Bill’s career. Still, Fiske was concluding his investigation and had announced that he wouldn’t be bringing any high-level indictments when he was replaced by Starr, whom right-wing forces considered far more reliable. Keeping Susan McDougal in prison for years, he turned out to be even more ruthless than many expected.9

The Clintons, certainly, made other grave errors. Hillary’s was to attempt to stonewall the press and the prosecutors, creating a suspicion of serious wrongdoing where at worst some corner-cutting of the sort that passes unremarked nearly every day in Washington had occurred. Bernstein writes that “something holds her back from telling the whole story, as if she doesn’t trust the reader, listener, friend, interviewer, constituent—or perhaps herself—to understand the true significance of events.” Bill’s was to indulge in sexual relations with “that woman,” and to lie about it under oath, and to his wife and friends and Cabinet members and supporters. These are not minor things. As both books emphasize, the two Clintons proved to be the sort of adversaries Ken Starr could only have dreamed of.

With the benefit, now, of a few years’ historical hindsight, both books might have done more to survey the huge changes in journalism and politics that took place in the 1990s and give readers something that reads more like the first draft of history than the second draft of journalism. But both books are cast in the present tense, partly because the authors rely on interviews conducted at the time. The Clintons refused to talk to them,10 but all three spoke with many of their sources during the Clinton presidency and even before, which gives both books a weird sense, all these years later, of trying to “be there.” Bernstein leans far too heavily on Dick Morris, whom he talked to in the fall of 1999—before, Bernstein says inaccurately, Morris “had invented a career for himself as a Clinton-basher.”11

And it is partly, of course, because Hillary Clinton is still in the game. It’s this current chapter of her life that one most wants to read about, uncovered as it is by the numerous predecessor books, and looming as it does before her fellow citizens more insistently than her billing records as she seeks the presidency. She has by all accounts been remarkably successful and attentive in addressing the needs of her adopted home state of New York, and a respectful colleague to fellow senators, Republicans and Democrats. She has been an active critic of the Food and Drug Administration’s heavily politicized approval process for the Plan B abortion pill. But she has not been a leader on many national concerns, and with the exception of her Iraq vote, the press has concentrated on the kind of frustrating and sail-trimming issues with which one too often associates her—her support for a federal law against flag-burning, for example.

It is an odd and disappointing thing about A Woman in Charge that though Bernstein spent eight years working on the book, he devotes virtually no space to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns and record—just seventeen out of 554 pages. He says nothing not previously explored, so we are left with Gerth and Van Natta’s assessment of her post–White House career, which fills about the final third of their book. There are chapters on her first campaign; her loyal—and loyal they are, to a person—team, known on Capitol Hill and around Washington as “Hillaryland”; her actions relating to September 11; and her steps toward setting up her presidential campaign—she is clearly the Democrats’ front-runner, and even if mere name recognition is partly responsible for her current lead in the polls, it’s also true that she dominated the first two Democratic debates (her lead widened after the first one) and that she and her staff usually seem to be thinking one step ahead of the other campaigns.

Gerth and Van Natta also discuss, notably, her vote for the war in Iraq, and here, they finally circle in on an inconvenient truth. Senator Clinton has not denied their assertion that she failed to read the full classified version of the National Intelligence Estimate from the fall of 2002, a document that cast some doubt on the administration’s statements that Saddam Hussein had or was about to produce weapons of mass destruction. The authors state that only six senators read the NIE, a claim that is not hard to believe.

But if one were told that six senators did so and were asked to guess which six, one might well speculate that the good Wellesley girl who bothered to involve herself in the minutiae of determining a better method for returning library books would have been among them. If it is true that she did not, we can reasonably conjecture that this was because she had already made up her mind to vote to authorize war, wanting to cast a “tough” defense vote in preparation for her 2008 presidential run; any evidence that might have interfered with that vote was to be set aside.

Clinton said at the time, and has said since, that she was not voting for war per se, but merely to give George W. Bush the authority to launch war if inspections and diplomacy failed. But if that was the case, she might have voted for an amendment offered by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, which authorized war pending a second United Nations resolution. She voted against it. Her spokesman, Philippe Reines, told me that “Senator Clinton agreed with Senator Levin’s goal of restarting inspections in Iraq” but that Levin’s amendment, in requiring a second Security Council resolution, would “give the UN a veto over US policy.” Supporters of Levin’s amendment didn’t see it that way. Lincoln Chafee, then a Republican senator from Rhode Island, recently argued on The New York Times‘ Op-Ed page that the Levin amendment “[ceded] no rights or sovereignty to an international body” and “explicitly avowed America’s right to defend itself if threatened.”12

Other chapters by Gerth and Van Natta on Clinton’s Senate career are far less persuasive. When they write on how Bill’s presence might affect her candidacy, on its face an interesting question, they harp on one churlish interview the former president gave to Fox News’s Chris Wallace, in which Clinton exploded at Wallace and accused him of doing “Fox’s bidding” when Wallace asked him why he hadn’t killed Osama bin Laden. Another chapter warns that YouTube and Google, those omnipresent monitors of public actions and utterances, might prove damaging to her prospects because her many opponents might find clever ways to manipulate video clips to reinforce what Gerth and Van Natta reductively call her “cold, bossy, stern, and controlling” image. Another asserts that she became interested in global warming mainly to steal some of Al Gore’s thunder.

In these chapters as in Her Way generally, Gerth and Van Natta impute to the Clintons a deep cynicism that they see as the inevitable result of their quest for power. They rarely acknowledge, as Bernstein does, that the Clintons’ ambition was not only for power but for public service and a desire to change the country for the better as they saw it. In this sense, it’s Gerth and Van Natta who are the real cynics, and they are all too representative of the political and journalistic cultures that have spent most of the past decade telling citizens that failure to admit an affair was an impeachable offense while a war launched on cooked intelligence was the only patriotic course of action. It is a way of thinking that would seem absurd if it hadn’t done so much damage.

—June 21, 2007

  1. 5

    In a footnote, Gerth and Van Natta quote Branch as saying “I’m not denying it,” clearly implying that “it” is the story of the secret pact. But Branch says that this is not what he was denying when he spoke those words to Gerth. His statement says in part: “I never heard either Clinton talk about a ‘plan’ for them both to become president…. It is disingenuous for [Gerth] to imply that I am ‘not denying’ the substance of his story. What I didn’t deny is that I saw Ann Crittenden and John Henry in Aspen years ago.” (Her Way alleges that Branch described the pact to his friends Crittenden and Henry.)

  2. 6

    For an excellent and thoroughgoing analysis of such attitudes, see Gene Lyons, Fools for Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater (Franklin Square Press, 1996).

  3. 7

    His testimony is quoted in Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 2000), p. 206. Hillary Clinton also describes Massey’s approach to Madison Guaranty in Living History (Simon and Schuster, 2003), pp. 196–197. Gerth and Van Natta contend that when Gerth interviewed Massey in 1992, he “promptly declined to take credit for bringing in Madison.” They don’t address Massey’s subsequent testimony.

  4. 8

    There is one exception to this, flagged by Eric Boehlert of Media Matters for America. Boehlert discusses a footnote in which Gerth writes of having read the first print edition of his initial article and noticing that “to his dismay, that version had been rewritten by editors to include a number of mistakes,” which the footnote says Gerth quickly corrected. The headline on the piece, linking the Clintons to an “S&L Operator,” was also wrong, because McDougal did not own a savings and loan at the time the Clintons entered into business with him (he bought it later). It’s a crucial error because the headline—on the front page on a Sunday—gave the impression that the Clintons were enmeshed in one of the biggest political scandals of the 1980s. See Boehlert’s “Gerth Blames NY Times Editors for Whitewater ‘Mistakes,’” at www.mediamatters.org/col umns/200706050004.

  5. 9

    The technical, but intensely political, train of events through which Starr replaced Fiske was as follows. Fiske had been appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno to look into Whitewater, because the independent counsel law from the 1970s had expired. But Bill Clinton had pledged on the campaign trail to reactivate the law; and since he was under a cloud, to have reneged on that pledge at that moment would have looked bad. So he reactivated the law, which called for the independent counsel to be named not by the attorney general but by a special three-judge panel, called the “Special Division,” of the District of Columbia circuit.

    At the direction of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, that panel was headed by a protégé of Jesse Helms named David Sentelle, who had previously voted to overturn the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter. Reno asked the panel to reappoint Fiske, a Republican. But the panel named Starr, even though his law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, had filed a brief in support of Paula Jones’s lawsuit. As Bernstein rightly notes, “This alone should have been cause for Starr to recuse himself.”

  6. 10

    Both books, in the absence of fresh observations from the subject, quote heavily from Hillary’s Living History. Ben Smith of the journal The Politico reported that, according to the Clinton campaign, Her Way cites Hillary Clinton’s book 285 times, and A Woman in Charge quotes it 139 times. See “Highlights of the Hillaryland Chronicles,” The Politico, June 7, 2007, p. 14.

  7. 11

    As I show in Hillary’s Turn (pp. 66– 67), Morris began his Clinton-bashing in February 1999, as a columnist for The New York Post. Clinton had fired Morris three years earlier when Morris’s relationship with a prostitute was revealed.

  8. 12

    The Senate’s Forgotten Iraq Choice,” The New York Times, March 1, 2007.

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