Saturday, June 16, 2007

She's Ready. But is America?

She's Ready. But is America?
By Lionel Barber
Published: June 16 2007 03:00 | Last updated: June 16 2007 03:00

In early 2005, after months of negotiations, I finally sat down in the Senate Dining Room to have lunch with Hillary Clinton. The occasion was billed as a conversation with the senator - one step up from a meet-and-greet but less than the Lunch with the FT I originally requested. (An aide explained that Clinton would never sit down for an hour-and-a-half with a journalist for an on-the- record interview, and anybody who assumed otherwise was out of his mind.)

The first 20 minutes went smoothly enough, although Clinton was interviewing me rather than the other way round. She appeared fascinated by Tony Blair, his sudden slide in popularity and his relationship with Gordon Brown. A tart remark followed about the importance of loyalty. Then I asked the former first lady whether America was ready to vote for a woman as president... "It depends who the woman is," she shot back, before professing, straight- faced, that she was very happy serving as the junior senator from New York and that running for the White House was far from her mind. Then, with a sly smile, she added: "Six out of 10 Americans say they are ready to vote for a woman as president. Mind you, six out of 10 whites used to say they would vote for a black mayor in Little Rock [Arkansas]."

Two-and-a-half years on, Hillary Clinton is the favourite to be the Democratic party's nominee for president. Victory would bring her within a glimmer of the White House, a prospect which inspires fear, loathing and admiration among many Americans, particularly women. On cue, a slew of presidential campaign biographies have appeared which purport to offer "the truth about Hillary", the "real Hillary" and the inside story on her relationship with Bill Clinton, her brilliant, charismatic and infuriating husband.

The trouble is that none of the authors has had access to the subject. Clinton's control of her image is legendary; so too is the ruthlessness of the Praetorian guard which surrounds her. Still, there is plenty to ponder here. What exactly is the deal between Bill and Hillary Clinton? Why has she put up with the compulsive philandering documented in these volumes? What are her guiding principles? And what would a President Hillary Rodham Clinton be like in practice?

Presidential campaign biographies are by their nature unsatisfactory. Rather than arriving at rounded portraits which benefit from the passage of time, the authors emphasise the revelation - an explosive fact or embarrassing anecdote which will dominate television news, disrupt the candidate's campaign and, ultimately, sell more books. The reader is left stranded in the middle of the narrative, not knowing whether the candidate has grasped the ultimate prize.

Carl Bernstein's book A Woman in Charge fits into the voyeuristic category. Bernstein is the other half of the famous Washington Post duo which broke the Watergate scandal. Unlike Bob Woodward, who has since exploited privileged access to make a fortune chronicling the inner workings of US government, Bernstein has remained a fringe player. The Hillary Clinton biography, seven years in preparation, looks like a belated bid to reclaim centre stage.

Much of the ground is familiar to those who have read the first couple's own sprawling (if airbrushed) autobiographies. Hillary Rodham had a solid middle-class upbringing in the suburban Midwest (her father was a stern Republican). At Wellesley College, she was radicalised by the Vietnam war, like so many of her baby-boomer generation. Then came the long back-and-forth over whether to marry Bill, subordinate a promising legal career and move to Arkansas, a hillbilly backwater in the South.

The marriage was always destined to be unconventional. Hillary declined an engagement ring, refused initially to purchase a wedding dress and finally unveiled the piece de resistance before a stunned wedding reception: she would not be taking her husband's name and would remain Hillary Rodham. Bill's mother burst into tears, while an old friend warned him, presciently: "Hillary Rodham will be your Waterloo."

The failure to conform to the traditional role of spouse is only half the story. Once inside the governor's mansion in Little Rock, Hillary assumes the role of chief counsellor to Bill, foreshadowing her later position as "co-president". Fast forward to 1992, when she reportedly toys initially with the post of attorney-general before settling for an office in the West Wing, a substantial staff next door in the Old Executive Office Building (dubbed "Hillaryland") and leadership of a task force on health care reform.

As Bernstein notes, the failure of health care reform became a metaphor for Bill Clinton's chaotic first term. A self-righteous Hillary Clinton operated in secrecy, failed to build bridges with Congress, and displayed a tin ear when dealing with criticism. Denounced in the media as an unaccountable eminence grise, she retreated, only to re-emerge in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The first lady, ever loyal, defended her husband against a "vast rightwing conspiracy" seeking to drive him from office.

Bernstein identifies the see-saw effect in the Hillary-Bill relationship. When he is most vulnerable (the Gennifer Flowers "bimbo eruption" and the Lewinsky affair) the first lady turns out to be the stronger partner and parleys Bill's guilt into supporting her own bid to become a US senator. Similarly, when Hillary falters (health care reform), Bill's fortunes and his personal confidence recover and he dispenses with her talents.

There is a Shakespearian quality to this nouveau American power couple. Hillary Clinton comes across as a Lady Macbeth figure, possessed of a ruthless will. She stiffens his spine after his devastating one-term defeat as Arkansas governor. She - not Bill - is the driving force behind the recruitment of Dick Morris, the Mephistophelian political guru. At the expense of her core liberal convictions, Morris devises the centrist "triangulation" strategy which saves the president in the wake of the catastrophic 1994 mid- term defeat at the hands of Newt Gingrich's Republicans.

Sadly, Bernstein's literary skills fall well short of the Bard's. After nearly 600 pages, which cover next to nothing on her record as a senator, he concludes: "Hers is a story of strength and vulnerability, a woman's story. She is an intelligent woman endowed with energy, enthusiasm, humor, tempestuousness, inner strength, spontaneity in private, lethal (almost) powers of retribution, real-life lines that come from deep wounds, and the language skills of a sailor (and of a minister), all evidence of her passion - which down deep, is perhaps her most enduring and endearing trait."

By contrast, Edward Klein is unequivocal in his judgments. He relates breathlessly how the first lady uses her staff to intimidate journalists, shut down debate, and impose whatever storyline happens to be the demand of the day. Her support for the invasion of Iraq her subsequent retreat is but one example. Klein claims Clinton's successive makeovers leave her the true heir of Richard Nixon.

He also insinuates that Clinton has flirted with lesbianism - one of several innuendos which drew outrage when the book was first published in 2005. This allows the author to claim that The Truth About Hillary is "the book they didn't want you to read", a challenge which conservative talk-show hosts have been happy to repeat, and will do so throughout the 2008 campaign in order to sink Clinton's candidacy.

Klein's book is mean-spirited and tendentious but his accusation that Clinton has a habit of being economical with the truth is harder to dismiss. As Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr document in Her Way, Clinton has landed herself (and her husband) in persistent trouble by failing fully to answer questions about her past, notably her work as a lawyer in Little Rock.

The two authors, both veteran investigative New York Times reporters, have produced what must rate as the definitive account of Clinton's stint as a partner in the Rose Law Firm and the notorious Whitewater land deal. Like most corporate lawyers in the US, she had several roles, doing business involving the state, the private sector and various good ol' boys. The difference was that she happened to be the governor's wife.

The reporters also reveal a supposed "secret pact of ambition" between the Clintons, a plan that he would be president for eight years and she would follow him with another eight. This plot line is even better than Macbeth, but the sourcing is disputed. Certainly, Hillary Clinton seems to have believed that she could have it all: lawyer, mother, political counsellor and sometime commodity speculator. When her husband finally decided to run for president, she was determined that nothing would derail the campaign, neither Bill's womanising nor the speculative Whitewater investment.

In fact, as the authors make clear, the sums of money in these so- called scandals were pretty trivial. The Whitewater deal, which triggered the fateful special prosecutor's inquiry, was a loss- maker and involved no criminality on their part. But in the poisoned atmosphere in Washington, Republicans targeted her as a proxy for the presidency. The couple's cover-ups gave ammunition to their enemies. William Safire's charge in The New York Times that Clinton was "a congenital liar" still sticks.

Has she learned her lesson? Gil Troy, the McGill University historian, suggests in his lively primer that she has developed since moving from the White House to the Senate. She has become "warmer, more self-assured, a more agile public figure". Rather than adopting the journalistic method, Troy fixes Clinton in the cultural-political spectrum. She is the Methodist feminist, a moralistic hippie preaching a doctrine of individual accountability and government social responsibility, a combination of the puritan and the progressive.

These contradictions explain why many Americans remain ambivalent about her. In Bernstein's book, Doris Kearns Goodwin, the presidential historian, pinpoints why Clinton has attracted more opprobrium than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. "Because Eleanor was so far ahead of her time, she didn't raise deep fears in men because she was going to somehow become a model... But Hillary is part of a whole movement of women becoming important in all sectors of life... and this is unsettling for many Americans."

Curiously, the Hillary Clinton in these books bears little resemblance to the woman I met back in 2005. She was charming, humorous, well-informed and manifestly intelligent. She also came across as tough as rhinoceros hide.

What matters in media-driven American politics is the public persona, not the private person. Hillary Clinton remains a polarising force. Many women have still not forgiven her for the 1992 campaign quip about stay-at-home moms who bake cookies rather than seek careers. Others find offensive her hectoring manner, her evasiveness under questioning, and the whole power-sharing deal with Bill. Americans may well be ready to vote for a woman as president. But it probably won't be Hillary Clinton.

Lionel Barber is the editor of the FT.


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