MADAM PRES­I­DENT

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­off El­liott

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

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