A star in her own right

As Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to make her historic bid to become America's first woman president, Carl Bernstein's long-awaited biography, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, is finally published. A full eight years in the making, 628 pages long, based on more than 200 interviews with friends and enemies alike, it is undoubtedly the big beast in the current crop of Hillary biographies. It is joined by Hillary Clinton - Her Way: The Biography by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, which weighs in at 438 pages and is based on even more interviews (over 500).

Unsurprisingly, the authors are at some pains to justify their labours. Gerth and Van Natta, promise to "lift the veil on Hillary Clinton for the first time". Bernstein rises to even more hyperbolic heights:

The most talked about and important leader of her party, the most polarising politician in the land, a senator like no other, a celebrity like no other, taking the country on another wild Clintonion ride as she becomes close to omnipresent in what passed for socio-political dominance - on TV, in arguments every night at dinner tables all over America, in the foreign press, among her Senate colleagues, in the precincts of the supposed vast right-wing conspiracy that has tried to kill Clintonism.

Alas, after all their efforts, Hillary does not appear to have endeared herself to any of them. Bernstein tries to be balanced in his assessment. In fact, his efforts to be balanced are practically audible - as if he has to constantly remind himself not to be negative. This must have been difficult since his central thesis is that:

"With the notable exception of her husband's libidinous carelessness, the most egregious errors, strategic and tactical, of the Bill Clinton presidency, particularly in its infancy, were traceable to Hillary - not just her botched handling of their health care agenda, or the ethical cloud hovering like a pall over the administration, but so many of the stumbles and falls responsible for sweeping in the Congress led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 . . . The inept staffing of the White House, the disastrous serial search for an attorney general, the Travel Office fiasco, the Whitewater land deal, the so-called scandal over her commodities trading, the alienation of key senators and congressmen - all this can be traced in large measure to Hillary.

"For the first time in American history, a president's wife sent her husband's presidency off the rails."

Well, no ambiguity there. But, as Bernstein painstakingly examines each of these issues, a somewhat more nuanced version of events presents itself. Take Whitewater for example. This referred to a real estate transaction the Clintons became involved in in the early years of their marriage and in which they lost money. During Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, the issue surfaced and questions were asked about Hillary's role in the deal - specifically whether as the then-Governor's wife she was involved in a conflict-of-interest situation. As a result of the media frenzy of the campaign, coupled with the Clintons' determination to keep the media at bay, the issue ballooned into accusations that the Clintons were deeply involved in corruption. That, in turn, triggered an enquiry by a special federal prosecutor into every aspect of their lives. All the prosecutorial effort ended without an indictment. In fact, Bernstein dismisses the Whitewater story as "overblown almost from the moment the New York Times first wrote about it, during the campaign, in a series of articles and editorials that were increasingly long on innuendo, short on context, and in some important ways unfair to the Clintons".

There is no doubt that Hillary Clinton did make serious errors of judgment in relation to her health care strategy - notably not understanding, and even disdaining the Washington culture, the need for compromise, the need to consult and listen to other views, to be open with the media. But, as Bernstein acknowledges, "the Clintons came to Washington to accomplish great things. The greatest of their goals was to establish a system of universal health care in which every American would be insured against catastrophic illness and be guaranteed adequate, paid lifelong medical care".

They rode into Washington like knights on horseback - and were shocked by the antagonism and resistance they encountered. The strategies, tactics and close political partnership that worked in Arkansas was patently not working in Washington for either of them. However, Bill's political instincts kicked in faster. He might have been able to correct Hillary's political tone deafness were he not compromised himself. But just before this time, he was embroiled in another "bimbo-eruption" (the so-called Troopergate scandal). Grateful that Hillary had stood by him, he felt unable to confront her. So, the responsibility for the fiasco should also be borne by him. In fact, Bernstein himself admits that were it not for Hillary's toughmindedness and support, not just in the face of the sexual scandals but in crucial gubernatorial and presidential campaigns, Bill might not have been elected.

Hillary's mismanagement of the healthcare strategy is the past. Its importance lies in what it might presage about the future if Hillary becomes president. Surely then the crucial question is whether she has learned from that experience and is likely to repeat it? From this perspective, one of the major weaknesses of Bernstein's book is that it devotes only a few pages to Hillary's successful career as a senator, where she seems to have demonstrated an impressive ability to compromise, and to work well with even those Republicans who were once her arch- enemies.

Overall, however, Bernstein's account of Hillary Clinton - because it is detailed not because it is favourably disposed towards her - allows the reader to form their own picture. A few consistent themes emerge: that she is a star in her own right; that she is profoundly family-oriented; that her religious faith is deep and genuine and a powerful force in shaping her politics. And that the relationship between Hillary and Bill Clinton, whatever its problems, is one based on mutual passion, intense involvement and admiration.

HILLARY RODHAM WAS a true star in her own right, long before she met Bill Clinton. Bright, idealistic, prodigiously hard working, highly organised, extraordinarily articulate, she was elected president of the student body at Wellesley, the prestigious women's college. In 1969, the year she graduated, she was selected as the first student commencement speaker at Wellesley and her passionate anti-war speech was featured in Life magazine to exemplify what was happening on US campuses that summer, "together with a photo of Hillary in her Coke-bottle glasses of the moment, wearing striped bell-bottom trousers, her hair a mangy tangle". By the time she arrived at Yale, her reputation as both a bold leader and an activist had preceded her. "She was a recognisable star on campus, much discussed among the law school's students, known as politically ambitious, practical and highly principled."

The Bernstein book is a comprehensive chronicle of the forces that shaped this young woman up to and after that high point in her career. Many of the biographical facts are already well known. Born in 1947, the oldest of three children, Hillary was reared in Park Ridge, a comfortable middle-class suburb of Chicago. But her life was far from idyllic. Her father Hugh is described as "a sour, unfulfilled man whose children suffered his relentless, demeaning sarcasm and misanthropic inclination, endured his embarrassing parsimony, and silently accepted his humiliation and verbal abuse of their mother" . But, the Rodham family was intensely close and Hillary loved her father, constantly working for his approval. Both parents imbued their children with the values of discipline, hard work, education and the belief that "a child could pursue almost any dream".

Bernstein makes much of the fact that the Rodhams was "a family of secrets . . . Complicated feelings of hurt and confusion were never matters for family discussion". To this he largely attributes her defensiveness, especially in relation to the media. But, whatever the psychological frailties of the Rodham family, they remained deeply involved in each other's lives. Her parents and brothers moved to Arkansas to campaign for Bill; they even accompanied the Clintons on their honeymoon. Her widowed mother still lives with her. It is clear from everything written about Hillary Clinton that she is a devoted and affectionate mother to her daughter.

In such a deeply affiliative personality, it is perhaps more understandable why she stuck with her errant husband. And, of course, she loves him deeply. The sheer accumulation of facts, anecdotes and opinions of those who have known the Clintons for a long time makes it difficult to believe the accusation that this is a marriage of political convenience and instead attests to the enduring passion, mutual admiration and dependence in this relationship.

Europeans often cynically interpret Hillary Clinton's openly professed faith as politically tactical. But it is clear from Bernstein's account that her religious faith is a deeply integral part of her character and a powerful driver of her political conviction. Reared a Methodist, she has deeply internalised John Wesley's teaching: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can". It has its dark side of course. Bernstein refers to her "set of beliefs that to some border on a messiah-like self -perception, to others a licence to do whatever she pleased in the name of God, and to others a touchstone of spirituality that infused her notions of love, caring, and service".

At the end of the book, Bernstein praises her passion - particularly her genuine desire to do good - as perhaps her most enduring and even endearing trait. But in the end, he can't quite bring himself to like her. He seems irritated by "her straight-faced earnestness" ; her "self-importance" ; her "kind of grown-up Girl Scout-speak". He faults again her desire for privacy and secrecy, leading to what he calls her "difficult relationship with the truth . . . something always holding 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". It should be noted, of course, that the Clintons refused to co-operate with the book.

GERTH AND VAN Natta enunciate this theme of "inauthenticity" even more strongly in their biography. In their final portrait, although mentioning some positive attributes, they return again to the negative: her "forced, artificial demeanor".

Their text is peppered with descriptors like "behind-the scenes manager-and enforcer"; "Try as she might, to many she came off as grating, a schoolmarm snapping about undone homework"; "aggressive and abrasive" and "Hillary's overall inability to radiate warmth". They unveil with some fanfare the central "scoop" of the book - the Clintons' "secret pact of ambition": Hillary and Bill's never-before-revealed plans to revolutionise the Democratic Party, and to get first Bill and then Hillary elected President. The evidence for this staggering ambition, this "twenty-year project" this "audacious pact" is based on a single source - who has since publicly denied it to be true.

You might be tempted to say "so what?". Many young people, including aspiring politicians, harbour big dreams. Many of their contemporaries thought the youthful Bill and Hillary presidential material. The shock- horror seems to be inspired by something else: that Hillary, a woman and wife, harboured such ambitions.

And that seems to be a large part of the Hillary Likeability and Hillary Authenticity problem. This is a woman with ambition, who has always aspired to be better than conventional. This is a woman who, in Bernstein's own words, wants to be in charge. But unlike Margaret Thatcher, who was feared but adored by the men around her, Hillary Clinton just seems to scare the pants off American men.

I believe it is because she deeply violates unconscious sexual stereotypes. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who was judged in her own right as a politician, her roles as wife and mother correctly appraised to be of lesser consequence to her, Hillary Clinton tried to keep the two sides of her life going. She gave up her promising career to follow the man she loved to Arkansas.

As both biographies make painfully clear, she endured constant public criticism for being a career woman, yet, in order to support Bill's political ambitions, was also under pressure to be the major breadwinner and to involve herself in the small-time work and small-time compromises of Arkansas to do that. Her desire to keep her own name was under sustained attack and she eventually had to change it. She was repeatedly publicly humiliated by her husband's infidelities. And she always took him back. Yet, through it all, she retained her ambition to make her own political contribution, to be acknowledged as a woman of significance in her own right.

Inevitably, she invites judgment on both fronts: as a traditional wife and as a woman of ambition. She fits neither role in a conventional way. And that confounds people. So she is judged "inauthentic". And, to compound matters further, she is a first in so many respects - a real trailblazer - and one who will always be compared to her spouse. It is disappointing that a writer of Carl Bernstein's calibre did not address these more profound issues in a more thoughtful way. If she gets the Democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see if the wider American public - when they go to elect their next president - will.

Originally published in the Irish Times. 


Posted: 28 July 2007