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.