A political junkie friend of mine gave me this thick biography of Hillary Clinton published in 2007, telling me it was a good book. I was skeptical, but he was right. It’s well-written, well-researched, balanced and yet painful to read because of its detailed account of Hillary Clinton’s grim experiences married to Bill Clinton.
Hillary Rodham was a smart, take-charge girl who grew up under the heavy thumb of a brutish boor of a father and seemed determined–was determined, I should say–to prove that neither he nor life nor anything could keep her down. She excelled in school, in volunteer political work, in college and law school, and in the early phases of her post-education life, pursing matters of policy that mattered to her: social justice, children’s rights, gender equality, civil rights, and opposing the war in Vietnam. She was not a radical feminist or leftist or anything of the kind. She believed in principles, but she also believed in reason, problem-solving, and dialogue.
Along came Bill Clinton and she fell, as we know, madly in love with him, but she hesitated to marry him for a long time. She already knew, everyone knew, that Bill had a thing about fooling around. But he persisted in courting her, and he was brilliant and they agreed on the need for progressive political change. So they got hitched.
In a way, Hillary locked herself into an emotionally abusive marriage very similar to her emotionally abusive upbringing. Bernstein doesn’t quite say it this way, but there it is. Bill was a test as her father was a test, and no matter how long it took, Hillary was going to pass that test.
As Bernstein presents it, the Clintons’ cohort considered Hillary as likely to succeed on a national scale as Bill when they were starting out. In some ways, she was better known, and in some ways, she had more political experience, including an intense Washington experience as a staffer on the Senate committee investigating Watergate. But she married Bill, went to Arkansas and passed up a lot of personal opportunities that a more assertive feminist would have seized. Meanwhile, Bill ascended the political ladder from state attorney general to governor, and Hillary had Chelsea and succeeded as an attorney in Little Rock. All the time, however, Bill was wandering, skirmishing with skirts, presenting her with the kinds of challenges she’d been born into: the double bind of loving your father and knowing he is contemptible and loving your husband and knowing he is contemptible, too.
Real agony began toward the end of Bill’s governorship and intensified in The White House, where Hillary started out making an incredible series of missteps,most significantly bungling national health care even though, smart as she was, she understood the needs and issues as well as or better than anyone.
I spent a few decades in Washington and had a few personal encounters with Bill and Hillary that are not really relevant to this review. What is relevant is that Hillary struck people as bossy, arrogant, and insensitive to the cultural norms of Washington. She assumed she had been elected right along with Bill (Bill thought so, too), but that’s not the way it works. There can only be one president at a time even though several hundred people in Washington think that president ought to be him or her . . . and they didn’t think it ought to be Hillary. I frankly cringed as I read the things she said to senior White House staff and Cabinet members, but she apparently said them, and she flamed out in the biggest failure of her life–her national health care proposal was, as they say on Capitol Hill, d.o.a. (dead on arrival.)
But that humiliation was just the beginning. There really was (and still is) a vast right wing conspiracy gunning for the Clintons. Whitewater led to Vince Foster’s suicide led to Paula Jones led to Monica Lewinsky. Each stop along the way was brutal for Hillary (and Bill, too, but this book is about Hillary).
She didn’t give in completely because, I think, she had that determination forged in her as a child, a commitment to the same kind of policies as Bill, and a degree of religious faith that might be news to people who have not read this book. Christianity, in fact, is something she has thought about as much as she has thought about health care or education or social justice. It has given her the strength to endure having her privacy and family ripped asunder.
Hillary would despair but not give in. She would consider giving in a gift to enemies who did not deserve that gift, so she would rebound, strategize, and re-engage her excellent mind in the eight year battle that was Bill’s presidency.
Why anyone would sacrifice as much as she did is a good question. In fact, why anyone would want to be president is a good question. A life led at that level does not have to be sordid, but it is fraught with constant pressure, demands, uncertainties, and tests of one’s moral compass.
Bernstein’s book ends with a kind of coda. Hillary escaped Bill’s shadow to a certain extent when she ran for and won a senate seat while still First Lady. The degree to which he incinerated himself freed her. She became a thoughtful, courteous, deferential junior senator, but of course, she still had that national standing, which set her apart no matter what she did to observe the senate’s written and unwritten rules. And she also had the drive and determination and intelligence that made people think, back in the 60s and 70s, that she would be even more likely to succeed than Bill.
Going beyond Bernstein’s book, we know Hillary ran for president, wouldn’t give in to Obama’s obvious victory in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for the longest time (she just isn’t built to give in), and then served as a reasonably effective Secretary of State.
When she left State (where I worked, too), I thought she was beat, flat-out exhausted, and I was right about that, but I was wrong when I said that she wouldn’t have an appetite to campaign for president again. Persisting, unable to yield to her frailties or her foes, Hillary is on the trail again.
Fortunately for her, she has learned a lot since her disastrous time as First Lady. She is incomparably prepared to assume the presidency. No competing aspirant knows more about America or the world. Indeed, she may return to The White House, where she will try to run a progressive administration, a problem-solving administration, though probably not an elevating, eloquent, visionary administration because she is a pragmatist and might realize that simply being the first woman elected as president is inspirational enough.
Back to Bernstein: Though well-written, this is such a painful and detailed tale that it probably is a book for political junkies, not folks who like light reads. Its relevance today is the account it offers of someone who may be the next president. At times, Bernstein’s editor should have insisted on smoothing out the narrative flow, but that’s a quibble. I’ll give it four stars. He’s a dogged reporter and a fine writer.