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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

This Issue

August 14, 2003