An­drew Broert­jes

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The De­struc­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton By Su­san Bordo Text, 252pp, $29.99 Ris­ing Star: The Mak­ing of Barack Obama By David J. Gar­row Wil­liam Mor­row, 1455pp, $49.99

Sen­a­to­rial col­leagues, pri­mary ri­vals, pres­i­dent and sec­re­tary of state: the in­ter­twined po­lit­i­cal lives of Barack Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton con­tinue to pro­vide work for pun­dits, writers and his­to­ri­ans, es­pe­cially in the wake of the global hand-wring­ing over Don­ald Trump. Could Clin­ton have been a better can­di­date? Could Obama have done more to sup­port Democrats to win con­gres­sional and gu­ber­na­to­rial races? And what legacy re­mains now that Obama and Clin­ton have re­tired from ac­tive po­lit­i­cal life?

The two books un­der re­view pro­vide par­tial an­swers. Su­san Bordo’s The De­struc­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton is a tightly wound polemic that places the blame for Clin­ton’s loss to Trump firmly on misog­yny and sex­ism.

David Gar­row’s Ris­ing Star: The Mak­ing of Barack Obama is a sprawl­ing tome ex­am­in­ing Obama’s life lead­ing to his his­toric pres­i­den­tial win in 2008, pro­vid­ing im­por­tant clues to his gov­ern­ing style and his pres­i­dency gen­er­ally. While con­tain­ing some sig­nif­i­cant flaws, both books pro­vide in­sight into these ex­traor­di­nar­ily com­pli­cated po­lit­i­cal fig­ures.

Clin­ton has been a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure for decades. Her mar­riage to Bill Clin­ton sealed a “two for the price of one” po­lit­i­cal part­ner­ship that dom­i­nated Arkansas in the 1980s and reached the White House in 1992. The Clin­tons helped pioneer “tri­an­gu­la­tion”, as­sist­ing the Democrats back into elec­tion-win­ning po­si­tions through right­ward shifts on pol­icy is­sues such as law and or­der and wel­fare re­form.

In 2008 Hil­lary Clin­ton em­barked on a his­toric cam­paign to win the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent, only to be de­feated by Obama. She served as his sec­re­tary of state, a con­tro­ver­sial ten­ure that saw the col­lapse of Iraq and the rise of Is­lamic State.

In 2016, another at­tempt at the pres­i­dency saw her fight off the pop­ulist in­sur­gency of Bernie San­ders to win the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, only to lose to a prop­erty mogul and some­time re­al­ity tele­vi­sion star in an elec­tion cam­paign widely ac­knowl­edged as one of the ugli­est in his­tory.

Bordo, who is pro­fes­sor of gen­der and women’s stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Kentucky and au­thor of sev­eral books on fem­i­nist the­ory, traces one as­pect of this elec­tion cam­paign in The De­struc­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton, the ti­tle of which pro­vides am­ple ev­i­dence about where her sym­pa­thies lie: peo­ple would mock me for us­ing the word ‘trauma’ in con­nec­tion with the events that I re­call here. Yet for nearly a year I lived in a state of per­pet­ual fury … I of­ten found my­self wak­ing up way too early, then fall­ing asleep at un­ex­pected times, not be­cause I was sleepy but be­cause con­scious­ness felt like a bur­den.

While the tone may dis­suade some read­ers, Bordo ini­tially makes a com­pelling case re­gard­ing the dou­ble stan­dards in which female politi­cians in gen­eral, and Clin­ton in par­tic­u­lar, are held. Clin­ton has been a po­lar­is­ing fig­ure in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Bordo out­lines Clin­ton’s at­tempts over the years to con­form, from chang­ing her last name from Rod­ham to Clin­ton and light­en­ing her im­age as first lady of Arkansas, through to the tur­bu­lence of her hus­band’s 1992 cam­paign for pres­i­dency.

But her re­fusal to play the game com­pletely, to be seen as am­bi­tious and grasp­ing in her own right, has de­fined her. In many ways this im­age is un­fair. Women tagged as “am­bi­tious” are dif­fer­ent, out­liers. This un­fair­ness is re­flected in Clin­ton’s polling num­bers. When she held a po­si­tion such as sec­re­tary of state or se­na­tor, her polling num­bers were high. When she ran for the pres­i­dency in 2008 and 2016, those num­bers dropped.

Bordo also pro­vides an ex­cel­lent cat­a­logue of the smears that have been lev­elled against Clin­ton over the years, if not nec­es­sar­ily prod­ucts of a “vast right-wing con­spir­acy” then cer­tainly the result of groups on the right un­able to ac­cept her place in the cor­ri­dors of power.

Yet for much of this book Bordo be­comes a Clin­ton apol­o­gist. The use of a pri­vate email server as sec­re­tary of state was an avoid­able own-goal that dogged Clin­ton through most of her cam­paign. While Bordo points out that per­haps tech­ni­cally Clin­ton didn’t do any­thing wrong, es­pe­cially re­gard­ing the dele­tion of non­work-re­lated emails, it looked bad and proved to be crip­pling in terms of the cam­paign.

Clin­ton’s elas­tic re­la­tion­ship with the truth, hardly un­usual among pro­fes­sional politi­cians, also gets a pass in Bordo’s eyes: nei­ther in Clin­ton’s run for the Se­nate in 2000 nor in her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2008 did the is­sue of “trust” play such a ma­jor role as it did in 2016 … it wasn’t un­til 2016 that the fic­tion of a peren­ni­ally ly­ing, cal­cu­lat­ing, un­trust­wor­thy politi­cian emerged full force.

The im­age of Clin­ton as un­trust­wor­thy had emerged years ear­lier. Christo­pher Hitchens’s 1999 polemic against the Clin­tons was en­ti­tled No One Left to Lie To. In 2008, Clin­ton’s com­ments about com­ing un­der sniper fire in Bos­nia dur­ing the 90s Ser­bian con­flict played heav­ily in the press, fur­ther dam­ag­ing her cred­i­bil­ity. And Matt Taibbi, writ­ing for Rolling Stone, early in 2016 said “she has been play­ing the in­side game for so long, she seems to have be­come lost in it. She be­haves like a per­son who of­ten doesn’t know what the truth is, but in­stead merely reaches for what is the best an­swer in that mo­ment, not re­al­is­ing the dif­fer­ence.”

Bordo has writ­ten a flawed but read­able ac­count of one as­pect of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s his­toric run for the pres­i­dency. How it will com­pare to Clin­ton’s own ac­count of her cam­paign, to be pub­lished later this year and en­ti­tled What Hap­pened, re­mains to be seen.

“Read­able” is not the word one reaches for when sur­vey­ing Gar­row’s her­culean book on Obama, which was nine years in the mak­ing. Wad­ing through this nearly 1500-page opus, it’s im­pos­si­ble not to ad­mire Gar­row’s work ethic, even if that ad­mi­ra­tion can­not be ex­tended to his edit­ing skills.

A Pulitzer prize-win­ning civil rights his­to­rian, Gar­row has as­sem­bled a for­mi­da­ble range of sources. Over 1000 peo­ple were in­ter­viewed, in­clud­ing Obama, who sat for an eight-hour “off the record” in­ter­view and also read the first 10 chap­ters of the text. The bib­li­og­ra­phy alone will pro­vide an in­valu­able source for fu­ture his­to­ri­ans to scour through.

Ris­ing Star traces, as the sub­ti­tle gen­tly sug­gests, the as­cent of Obama to the pres­i­dency. Out­side of the epi­logue, the pres­i­dency it­self is not cov­ered, giv­ing any reader pause when em­bark­ing on this vol­ume, as Gar­row is de­ter­mined to in­clude as much detail of Obama’s life prior to the pres­i­dency as pos­si­ble.

Read­ers keen on de­tails such as Obama’s first con­tracts class at Har­vard will find am­ple re­wards here. Those keen for a co­her­ent nar­ra­tive and an ex­pla­na­tion of the forces that drove him to be­come the first black pres­i­dent of the US might have a more dif­fi­cult time.

Read­ing Ris­ing Star be­comes an ex­er­cise in frus­tra­tion, as the threads of a fo­cused story about Obama’s strug­gles with his racial iden­tity, and how this then played into his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, are present. Raised in racially cos­mopoli­tan Hawaii and in In­done­sia, Obama’s Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton at her con­ces­sion speech; Barack Obama with White House pet Bo, be­low “black­ness” didn’t come into fo­cus un­til he at­tended col­leges on the Amer­i­can main­land.

Gar­row tracked down nu­mer­ous for­mer friends, most con­tro­ver­sially for­mer girl­friend Sheila Jager, all of whom pro­vide tes­ti­mony of Obama’s shift­ing per­cep­tion of him­self, and the sense of be­ing caught be­tween two worlds: white and black. Jager’s ac­count, never be­fore aired and a coup for Gar­row, helps shape the im­age of an am­bi­tious young man (she claims he talked about seek­ing the pres­i­dency as early as 1987) who re­alised that ques­tions about his racial iden­tity (ini­tially raised even among the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity) would have to be re­solved be­fore a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer could be pur­sued.

For Gar­row, this ac­counts in part for Obama’s break-up with the half-white, halfJa­panese Jager, and his sub­se­quent in­volve­ment with Michelle Robin­son, who would even­tu­ally be­come Michelle Obama. Jager’s claim that there was still some over­lap and con­tact be­tween her and Obama even af­ter he be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with Michelle feels voyeuris­tic, turn­ing at times a se­ri­ous his­tory into more of a tabloid spec­ta­cle.

Nev­er­the­less, as the nar­ra­tive moves into the 90s and Obama’s en­try into po­lit­i­cal of­fice, first as a mem­ber of the Illi­nois state leg­is­la­ture, the pace of Gar­row’s text picks up. Obama’s ma­noeu­vres and his abil­ity to ne­go­ti­ate the mid­dle ground on a num­ber of key is­sues (and his out­right re­fusal to com­mit to others) paint a con­vinc­ing pic­ture of a cau­tious, prag­matic, yet am­bi­tious politi­cian.

By the time we reach the his­toric key­note ad­dress at the 2004 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, it feels like Gar­row has found flow amid the bar­rage of in­for­ma­tion to which he has sub­jected the reader.

Gar­row clearly in­tends Ris­ing Star to be the de­fin­i­tive work on Obama’s pre-pres­i­den­tial life, with a level of detail sug­gest­ing that he is in­tent on do­ing for Barack Obama what Robert Caro has done for Lyn­don John­son. Gar­row, how­ever, is no Caro. Caro’s books are in­cred­i­bly de­tailed, but ef­fec­tively tie those de­tails to the broader nar­ra­tive of John­son’s po­lit­i­cal achieve­ments. An en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory of Texas in The Path to Power leads into an ac­count of John­son’s hard­scrab­ble up­bring­ing, which helps to ex­plain why he em­braced the New Deal and later the Great So­ci­ety.

It is more dif­fi­cult to see the con­nec­tion be­tween the de­tails con­cern­ing the fate of Obama’s cat Max (left with a nice cou­ple called the Help­manns, lived for another eight years) and the pass­ing of the Af­ford­able Care Act.

And in a rushed epi­logue, Gar­row of­fers not only a cri­tique of the Obama pres­i­dency but takes aim at other Obama bi­og­ra­phers, in­clud­ing David Rem­nick and David Maraniss. It is a re­gret­ful note to end on. For fu­ture Obama schol­ars, there is much in this work to draw on for fu­ture en­deav­ours. For ev­ery­one else, this re­viewer would rec­om­mend Rem­nick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama for a metic­u­lously re­searched and far more read­able ac­count of Obama’s pre-pres­i­den­tial life.

teaches his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Western Aus­tralia. He is writ­ing a book about con­tro­ver­sial US elec­tions.

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