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Hillary in Book-land

June 18, 2007

At first glance, the impact of the latest two mega-books on Hillary Clinton seems neutral if not mostly positive for her. She appeared a relaxed, commanding figure in the second Democratic debate, on the eve of publication of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein and Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. Although pre-publication items from both books appeared in the media, they didn’t provide much fodder for the campaign. Not one Democratic challenger asked questions based on the books. The Republicans also ignored them, in their own debate. Post-debate polls showed Clinton moving up. And within a week, she won an endorsement from Steven Spielberg, who earlier co-hosted a fundraiser for Barack Obama. The broader impact will take months to measure, once we learn who reads the books and whether minds are changed or existing strong views are reinforced. Clinton’s negatives remain sky-high, at 50 percent. Independents mostly favor Obama. Those wavering may find surprises in Bernstein’s book. The anti-Clinton group, for sure, will relish the Gerth-Van Natta rehashing of old problems. And their book is getting intense scrutiny by anti-Hillary activists preparing a docudrama on her this fall. Most reviewers critiqued the authors’ bottom-line slants on Clinton. Bernstein was seen as writing a nuanced and complex psychological profile of a politician, warts and all, but with a measure of sympathy for the pounding she’s gotten from right-wing critics. Gerth and Van Natta were portrayed more as attack dogs, reviving old scandals from two decades ago and treating their subject with suspicion bordering on hostility, cover to cover. Bernstein, one of the two reporters on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon, critiqued the myriad investigations—and the reporters and prosecutors—that pursued both Hillary and Bill Clinton. He found many of them wanting. With the notable exception of the Bill-and-Monica scandal, nearly all investigations petered out, with no evidence of crimes let alone conspiracy, despite the feeding frenzy on the right, often financed by billionaire conservative Richard Mellon Scaife. Bernstein does find fault, however. He concludes that much of the damage, in retrospect, was self-inflicted. The Clintons staffed the White House with Arkansans, ignoring Washington insiders with savvy about the media and national politicians. Hillary Clinton carried over her take-no-prisoners campaign mode into her work on health care reform. Her tough criticisms of Democrats who raised questions earned her a reputation for being tone-deaf politically, and arrogant to boot. Bernstein weaves hindsight judgments throughout his book, including one quoting people who say that, as senator, Clinton looked back ruefully at her dismissal of senatorial prerogatives in the health care battles. The first-year chaos in the Clinton Administration had set in motion extraordinary political opposition to the pair. Too insulated to realize how their moves would be perceived, they made one wrong step after another. Critics saw their missteps as Machiavellian misdeeds—and were sure that there was much more to uncover. What Bernstein saw as mostly naïve counter-productive actions, Gerth, in talking about the book, portrays as a consistent pattern of deception, with a motive of pure power. He hints that, for the Clintons, almost anything goes if it gets them ahead. Intriguingly, both books argue that Hillary Clinton can influence the outcome if she reveals more of herself now. Gerth and Van Natta don’t think that is likely, however. They say her lifetime pattern of “refusing to look within” has sustained her “through a life of incredible accomplishment and heartbreak. But it has also resulted in a forced, artificial demeanor, a reinforced tendency toward arrogance and a belief that she is immune to the rules and a sense that anyone who disagrees must be an enemy.” Bernstein spent much of his book portraying a Hillary who is ambitious but also vulnerable, who absorbed Methodist social activism principles with the goal of making the world better—not one who sought personal power for the sake of it. He also would like her to open up more. “Almost always, Hillary has stood for good things,” he says, and although her actions don’t always live up to her rhetoric, “the jury remains out. She still has time to prove her case, to effectuate those things that make her special, not fear them or camouflage them. We would all be the better for it, because what lies within may have the potential to change the world, if only a little.”

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