Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton; drawing by David Levine

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.

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

This Issue

July 19, 2007