Two new biographies of Hillary Clinton explain why she is hated but also why she could be the first female president of the US, writes
ONE thing is missing from Hillary Clinton’s public campaign for president, her husband. Bill Clinton’s role, so far, is mostly a private one. Hillary is up on stage on her own. Any joint appearances are carefully controlled; Bill is relegated, or maybe that should be regulated, to video appearances of the two posted on her website and the odd introduction at a campaign launch before he fades away.
Little wonder. For one thing Hillary needs to chart her own course in attempting to become the US’s first woman president. For another, when they have spoken together, Bill’s breathtaking skill as an orator simply subsumes the more impersonal style she is still working hard to overcome.
Looming over the campaign there’s also history. That history. The two new biographies of Hillary published in the past three weeks underscore the fact that while Bill, as a behindthe- scenes campaigner in chief, may be her greatest asset in her tilt at the presidency, he is also her greatest weakness.
Both these books, Carl Bernstein’s A Woman in Charge , and Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr’s Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton , portray a woman of great intellect, ambition and control, married to a man of equally great intellect and ambition ( throw in unmatched charisma), but famously of little control when it comes to sexual compulsion.
What these books do is trawl the old ground. It’s fertile stuff, of course. The Clinton presidency and his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky are aired again, a reprise of indulgence and lies that clearly does no favours to the Clintons every time it is reported.
It’s one of the key reasons why about half of voting America — Republicans — are resolutely opposed to the idea of having the Clintons running the country again.
They may be angry with the way George W. Bush has handled things, but in the Republican heartland they are still burning over the Clinton presidency.
‘‘ Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?’’ Republican candidates were asked in a recent presidential debate. ‘‘ You have got to be kidding,’’ said Mitt Romney, one frontrunner for the nomination.
While Hillary Clinton, as a woman, would break new ground in winning the presidency, Bill would be the White House’s ‘‘ first gentleman’’. It has been the stuff of late- night television jokes, along the lines of just what Bill would do with all that time on his hands.
But does it really matter? Hillary, by dint of all the things charted in these books, is firmly in the lead to become the next Democratic candidate.
She’s odds- on favourite to win the presidential race and it’s clear why. These books detail how her ambition and political smarts have been part of her make- up from early on and chart her ability to rise again and again in the face of personal challenge.
Of the two books it is Bernstein’s 600- page tome that devotes most attention to Hillary Rodham’s childhood and teenage years and provides two instructive insights: her inability to please her father and the way she watched her mother stick by her father despite life in a strict Methodist house that resembled a ‘‘ kind of boot camp, presided over by a belittling, impossible- tosatisfy drill instructor’’.
Bernstein also charts an evolving character, breaking from her father’s strict conservative values to become a Democrat. It’s a thorough, if not workmanlike, personal history; from the teenage years in the 1960s, when she was a Barry Goldwater Republican, to a metamorphosis ( in part inspired by a Martin Luther King speech) that would eventually make her an integral part of a team that has already taken her to the White House and then to the US Senate.
She has, according to Bernstein, ‘‘ demonstrated extraordinary capability for change and evolutionary development — from Goldwater Girl to liberal Democrat, from fashion victim to power- suit sophisticate, from embattled first lady to establishmentarian senator’’.
And that’s despite everything thrown at her. Bernstein writes that the rise and rise of Hillary was more than a little frustrating to the Clintons’ enemies, ‘‘ who grew ever more numerous and outraged as the Clintons marched toward the summit, seemingly unbowed by humiliation and unfazed by peril, ambush, and attacks that would have felled lesser mortals’’. To them, he says in A
Woman in Charge , it was ‘‘ an act of hubris such as modern American politics had never witnessed’’. Reading these books and watching her in action close up, it’s easy to conclude that the nub of the Hillary Clinton campaign is that she is her own competition. She may do herself out of the presidency. Indeed, many Republicans believe they will have their best chance of winning back the White House in 2008 if Hillary is Democratic nominee. Both books touch on this paradox at the heart of the Hillary phenomenon.
‘‘ Some of the Republicans we talk to, though they won’t say it publicly, say she’s a more beatable candidate,’’ says Gerth, co- author of Her Way, in an interview with Review . ‘‘ At the moment the polls show that.’’ Those polls indicate that she is firmly in front of her Democratic rivals but in a head- to- head contest between Hillary and Republican candidates like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain or Mitt Romney, she would lose, while Democratic challenger Barack Obama would win in a similar contest. The Los Angeles Times , surveying respondents to its polls on this issue, noted ‘‘ a sour aftertaste from controversies of her White House years with president Clinton’’.
Bernstein quotes an unnamed long- time associate of the Clintons, with whom Hillary consulted about a run for the White House, as saying: ‘‘ I’m not sure I want the circus back in town.’’ Bernstein adds: ‘‘ This may be a succinct expression of her biggest obstacle.’’
Gerth was unsure whether the tortured Clintonian personal history in the White House would be as much of an issue as the prospect in voters’ minds that if Hillary gets the nod as the Democratic candidate the US is facing the possibility of a 28- year uninterrupted political court of Bush- Clinton- Bush- Clinton.
‘‘ I think some of her advisers worry that is a significant problem for her,’’ Gerth says.
Gerth and Van Natta note the electrifying entry of Hollywood into this debate in February when studio and music mogul David Geffen endorsed Obama, saying he was not only inspirational, but ‘‘ he’s not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family’’.
Geffen also slammed Hillary thus ( as reported at the time by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times ): ‘‘ I don’t think that another incredibly polarising figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is — and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton — can bring the country together.’’ Geffen added that ‘‘ everybody in politics lies but [ the Clintons] do it with such ease, it’s troubling’’. Whether any of these things will matter come next November no one knows yet. But both these biographies indicate why they might. Apt working titles for both treatments might have been Baggage.
Bernstein’s treatment is the fuller profile of Hillary, but Gerth and Van Natta write with a sharper pen. Gerth has a long history of covering the Clintons, including breaking stories for The New York Times on the Clintons’ real estate dealings that became known as the Whitewater affair. Both books, as documents on one of America’s most enduring political dynasties, are good reads. Their failing is that they remain portraits of political power and smarts without exposing any new ground. Hillary’s Senate spokesman, Philippe Reines, says the biographies ‘‘ are nothing more than cash for rehash’’.
And of course they can’t really answer the question until after November 4 next year.
Asked if Clinton would make a good president, Gerth says: ‘‘ It depends which Hillary is on display . . . There are two Hillarys . . . there’s one who is cogent, articulate, well- prepared and willing to make deals with her opponents. And then there is the other Hillary who, when it comes to a bump in the road or thorny issue, she makes mistakes [ and] she won’t admit to them, she plays fast and loose [ with] the facts and she’ll lash out at critics.’’ Sounds like a definition of a politician. An Achilles heel with her support base is her vote to support the Iraq War, which the liberalleft wing of the Democrat party wants her to apologise for. She’s refusing, saying only that she regrets trusting the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/ 11.
‘‘ I think she has distinguished herself, if that’s the right word, on Iraq, by overstating the intelligence before the war and then distorting her legislative record after the war,’’ says Gerth, who with Van Natta trawls over this issue in their book to conclude that Hillary is twisting history.
They note how recently she has emphasised how she backed an amendment to limit the authorisation of the war before her final vote that approved the President’s war powers.
‘‘ Hillary had been against the war before she was for it,’’ Gerth and Van Natta conclude, reprising one of the devastating Republican attacks on 2004 Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry, which cast him as a ‘‘ flip- flopper’’.
And like Kerry once did, Hillary is leading in the polls. Unlike Kerry, the Clintons’ formidable campaign machine is engendering a sense of inevitability about her tilt at the White House, a political prize some of her friends say has long been her destiny, even before she met the bearded Bill at Yale University in 1971.
It’s a self- made political dynasty that Americans and the world already know well after their tumultuous eight years in the White House. They certainly have a lot of baggage to carry back in if she is victorious next November. Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr ( John Murray, $ 35); A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein ( Hutchinson, $ 89.95). Geoff Elliott is The Australian’s Washington correspondent.
Her way: Clockwise from main picture, Clinton campaigning this year; catching the camera’s eye on the hustings; with Bill on their wedding day in October 1975; and in 1999, when she and her husband were in the White House