Resume Imitates Life
Hillary Clinton's "Living History" shows that, to the senator and former first lady, politics isn't everything--it's the only thing.
8:45 PM, Jun 12, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
WITH THE RELEASE this week of "Living History," it is worth noting that this title is not Hillary Rodham Clinton's first foray into children's literature. In 1996, came her blockbuster smash, "It Takes A Village," in which she condescended to parents as if they were children , by preaching the healing power of making sock puppets with teeth-grinding chapters like "An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Intensive Care." I'd share more, but it would take a village to hold me down and make me read the rest of it.
Then in 1998--Impeachment Year--Hillary took a break from hiding her head in the sand on the Lewinsky affair, and fired a shot across her critics' bow with "Dear Socks, Dear Buddy--Kids' Letters to the First Pets." To the unsophisticated reader, it might have appeared like more avoidance therapy. In actuality, it was a clever long-term political strategy. Locate people who will be of voting age in 2008 and who think that Labrador retrievers can read their letters. They'll believe anything. It was some of Hillary's ghostwriters' best work: "Socks and Buddy follow in the paw prints of many distinguished pets at the White House." Doggone great read, Hill.
In keeping with the children's theme, "Living History"--or as the gals in my Hillary reading circle call it, "Living Herstory"--is Hillary's first scratch'n'sniff book. Let me explain. Take a claim in this book, almost any claim, scratch it hard enough and it smells like BS. There's Hillary the Faux Populist telling us how back in Arkansas, she loved going to "sale barns and barbecue joints" and Razorbacks football games where she would "call the hogs." Yeah, uh-huh. There's Hillary the Paranoid, who, after the furniture had been suspiciously moved around in the White House, worried about Rush Limbaugh, who had left a message in the Lincoln Bedroom right before the Clintons moved in, saying "I was here first, and I'll be back." (Security, it turns out, had swept the room for bugging devices.)
Then, of course, there's Hillary the Naïf. Right before Bill finally fessed up about Monica Lewinsky--seven months after the story broke--she claims to have told a friend, "My husband may have his faults, but he has never lied to me." Which would have made her the only person in America by that time who could say the same of her husband. And then there's the least attractive Hillary, Hillary the Martyr, who in her eagerness to reach for grandiosity after her life had been turned into a sex farce, draws strength from the examples set by Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, and Elie Wiesel. Wiesel survived a Nazi death camp and Mandela survived 27 years of imprisonment for opposing an unjust, racist government. Hillary survived having her husband turned into a Jay Leno monologue because he received blowjobs from an intern and lied about it. It's all the same in Hillaryland--as her staffers called their workspace.
But a responsible reviewer wouldn't merely recount the fictionalized non-fiction, self-aggrandizement, and partisan myopia that plagues this book, though there's much to recount. He would tell the reader that the most important thing they need to know about "Living History" is not to buy it. The good parts have already been dribbled out all over the media, and in any case, they don't even come until page 440. Here, "good parts" is a relative term whenever Hillary's basement full of ghostwriters churns out campaign-brochure copy (one of her ghosts, interestingly enough, got a lot of practice being Hillary's brain when she co-wrote the appropriately named "Icebound").
To label "Living History" as being merely boring would be to owe a groveling apology to Bill Bradley. By the third time I read Hillary assert that she doesn't take herself too seriously, I knew that I was seriously in for it. By the tenth time I tripped over a paragraph that read like it had been wrenched from a bad alumni magazine ("What I valued most about Wellesley were the lifelong friends I made and the opportunity that a women's college offers us to stretch our wings and minds in the ongoing journey toward self-definition and identity"), I was praying to be struck with blindness. By the fiftieth description of a meaningless foreign trip that she took, such as the one to Dhaka, Bangladesh, a place she "long wanted to visit" because of attractions like the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research--I was begging for death. Just as you would be too, the seventieth time you read her introduce a person as if they were a State of the Union prop, a person like "Ryan Moore, a seven-year-old from South Sioux City, Nebraska, who had been born with a rare form of dwarfism," and whose story "kept our eyes on the prize throughout our struggle to bring health care coverage to all Americans."
Who talks like this, you ask? Hillary, that's who.
The conservative caricature of Hillary Clinton has always hinged on painting her as a bloodless, calculating shrew who pulled Bill's strings and regularly packed the dirty laundry off to the dry cleaners. But there is a much more prosaic explanation for why so many detractors find her even less appealing than her husband. He, for all his faults and nods to political expedience, exhibited an anti-political impulse: a scampish charm and an insatiable, often reckless appetite to live life for it's own pleasures, consequences be damned. While Bill's detractors would call this his hedonistic side and his boosters would call it his human one, Hillary, as revealed by her own ghostwriters' words, is pretty much a one-sided affair. "Living History" paints her as a purely political creature.
Everything she does--no matter how pedestrian--seems to contain some golden moral or noble expression, which almost always rings false. Since it's not officially a campaign book, and contains next to no policy prescriptions, one could reasonably expect her to throw open the window and let out some of the hot air. The memoir give the impression that you are never being allowed a glimpse into her true world. Or more troubling perhaps, that you are--that Hillary's artificial world is also her real one.
Consequently, you never get the sense that she is trying to seriously arrive at the truth, but rather, that she's merely shining up her resume. She is a joiner, and an apple-polisher, the teacher's pet and the queen of the spelling bee--every twit you knew in school that was begging to be taken behind the gym for a game of full-contact dodge ball. Thus, we learn that she was president of her high school fan club for Fabian, and served as well on the Cultural Values Committee. After running successfully for student council and junior class vice-president, she tried to join NASA's astronaut training program. At the time NASA wasn't accepting girls--and even though Hillary was still in high school and wore coke-bottle glasses, this "blanket rejection" made her "more sympathetic later to anyone confronted with discrimination of any kind."
It doesn't end there. There was also her distinguished service at her church's altar guild, as well as her unsuccessful campaign for student government president, after which she settled on helming the "Organizations Committee." She was also the president of her college's Young Republicans, worked on the Steering Committee for the League of Women Voters' national conference on youth and community development, and in Arkansas, chaired the Education Standards Committee and Rural Health Committee, setting her up later for her belly-flop off the high-dive as chair of the President's Task Force on National Health Care Reform. Lest I be accused of manipulating a few committee assignments to imply that her inner life and political life are indistinguishable, I'm implying no such thing: Who else could seriously write of her grade-school appointment as "co-captain of the safety patrol" "This was a big deal in our school. My new status provided me my first lesson in the strange ways some people respond to electoral politics."
But this trait isn't merely evidenced by her playing Quick Draw McGraw with her resume every few pages. Every detail of her life is wrapped in a tidy little pre-package--containing all sorts of do-goodnik asides ready for a campaign bio or a stump-speech moral. Conceiving Chelsea? "We weren't having any luck," she writes, "until we decided to take a vacation in Bermuda, proving once again the importance of regular time off." Most people would just be happy to be having sex in Bermuda. She has to prove the importance of taking regular time off. Her delivery of Chelsea? An excellent opportunity to work in the factlet that Bill accompanied her into the operating room for her C-section--an "unprecedented" move at Baptist Hospital, though "soon thereafter the policy was changed to permit fathers in the delivery room during cesarean operations."
A hike through Yellowstone with Chelsea and Bill? "America's national parks have provided a model and an inspiration for other nations to protect their national heritage," and oh, by the way, she almost forgot to mention: "Bill announced a historic agreement to stop a large, foreign-owned gold mine on the border of Yellowstone from threatening the pristine environment." Vince Foster, one of Hillary's best friends in the world, committing suicide? She interrupts news of his death to tell us that right before she was notified, she'd been on a trip to Japan, where she "met with a group of prominent Japanese women--the first of dozens of such meetings that I held around the world--to learn about the issues women were facing everywhere."
Even when Hillary is going through her lowest moments, she manages to find a sanctimonious silver lining. Troopergate breaking? "It was too much," writes Hillary. "I wondered if what Bill was trying to do for the country was worth the pain and humiliation our families and friends were about to suffer." Remember the Rose law firm billing records that turned up in a White House closet months after they were subpoenaed by prosecutors? They got lost in the shuffle when "we found ourselves in the midst of a major renovation of the heating and air-conditioning systems to bring the White House up to environmental energy standards."
Even the failure to stop genocide can be turned to political advantage. The death of one million Rwandans which the administration did nothing to stop? "It would have been difficult for the United States to send troops so soon after the loss of American soldiers in Somalia and when the Administration was trying to end ethnic cleansing in Bosnia," she explains. "But Bill publicly expressed regret that our country and the international community had not done more to stop the horror." Public regret? How do you say "thanks for nothing" in Tutsi?
"Living History" isn't all such tough sledding. There are moments of (unintentional) hilarity, such as when Hillary recounts the first words she overheard Bill utter when encountering him at Yale Law School: ". . . and not only that, we grow the biggest watermelons in the world." A friend explained to her that melons were all Clinton "ever talks about." That obsession that would haunt him throughout his presidency.
Speaking of melons, there is precious little discussion of what Clinton aide Betsey Wright famously called "bimbo eruptions." Various news outlets have already raked Hillary for her timeline stating that she believed her husband's claim that he'd had no sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky up until August, months after it was already divulged that prosecutors had seized the Gap dress with the DNA stain. (In fairness to Hillary, Monica had allowed that the stain could also be "spinach dip," a claim which immediately undermined her credibility since it's hard to imagine Lewinsky eating spinach, even in dip form.)
But while her publisher paid Hillary $8 million to come clean on her husband's infidelities, she does precious little of it. Hillary lumps the Paula Jones incident in with "the other phony scandals," without ever disclosing whether, harassment charges aside, she disbelieved that her husband had any romantic designs on Jones. Her treatment of Gennifer Flowers is even more problematic. Barely bothering to dismiss, over the course of a few paragraphs, Flowers' allegations of conducting a 12-year affair with her husband, Hillary calls it a "whale of a tale" and claims Bill told her "it wasn't true."
This is problematic for Hillary, since when Lewinsky comes around, she expects us to believe that her husband had never lied to her before. And what she fails to mention is that when her husband was deposed in the Paula Jones lawsuit, he admitted an affair with Flowers. Meaning that either Bill lied to Hillary (in which case Hillary is lying about Bill never having lied to her), or he told the truth to Hillary, and Hillary is complicit in his lying to us about Flowers.
And the Flowers episode, of course, represents just a tiny fraction of Bill's reportedly consensual alleged affairs. Marginally non-consensual brushes, such as the one Clinton was alleged to have had with Kathleen Willey, are not even mentioned. And if you're looking forward to even a cursory discussion of Juanita Broaddrick's rape charges--charges, which were feebly denied by Bill's attorney, but which have been reported by numerous reputable news organizations (and the details of which have yet to be even partially discredited)--then you'll have to read another book.
Which brings us to Monica. While it's completely believable that Hillary was angry, distraught, depressed, etc, it's a little less so when, by her own account, she was able to stand her political ground so fiercely. She concedes that her husband was guilty of "misleading the American people" and that his behavior was "morally wrong"--a major concession in a book with almost none. But she heaps double scorn on prosecutors, claiming the release of the Starr report, a report nearly pornographic precisely because it detailed the extramarital behavior of her husband, was a "low moment in American history."
While psychoanalyzing Hillary should be left to God and Gail Sheehy, one can't help but wonder how somebody so supposedly wounded could convincingly fulfill her duties both as First Lady and party-shill during impeachment. For the sake of argument, let's pretend that a president shouldn't be impeached for perjury about an extramarital affair in a civil suit and that such private misbehavior shouldn't be thrown open to public scrutiny. Even still, what shouldn't matter to us about our president, should matter to his wife. Unless the Clinton's have the sort of cynical marital arrangement that some suspect. In which case, Hillary isn't being forthright about the nature of their union--which has yielded as many political benefits as it has public humiliations.
Indeed, the notion that the political trumps the personal in the Clinton marriage is hard to dispute. Hillary herself writes that at her lowest personal point, when she most wanted to throttle Bill, "I hadn't decided whether to fight for my husband and my marriage, but I was resolved to fight for my President." This, mind you, two weeks after she supposedly found out that not only had Clinton had this disastrous affair, but that he'd lied to her and made a liar of her by extension.
What keeps Hillary married to Bill is anyone's guess, even after 534 pages. At one point, she says he has nice hands--"expressive, attractive and resilient." Her explanation: "All I know is that no one understands me better and no one can make me laugh the way Bill does. Even after all these years, he is still the most interesting, energizing and fully alive person I have ever met. Bill Clinton and I started a conversation in the spring of 1971, and more than thirty years later we're still talking." It sounds convincing, less animatronic and more flesh-and-blood. Until you realize that most of their conversations today must take place over the phone, what with them living in different states.
She tells us that the real thaw in their post-Lewinsky relationship seemed to come while she was deciding to run for Senate: "One benefit of my decision-making process was that Bill and I were talking again about matters other than the future of our relationship. Over time, we both began to relax. He was anxious to be helpful, and I welcomed his expertise."
Imagine that--Bill and Hillary talking politics when all else fails.
Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.