Lightning Rod

Living History

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

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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,…


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