From the July 7 / July 14, 2003 issue: Senator Clinton's opus.
by Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 562 pp., $28
IF YOU PLAN not to read this summer, "Living History" is just the book. Hillary Clinton's new memoir is more than 100,000 pages long. At least I think it is. There are only 562 page numbers, but you know how those Clintons lie. A mere ream of paper could not contain the padding that has gone into this tome. Hillary--with the help of at least six ghostwriters--nails the goose of a manuscript to the barn floor and force-feeds it with lint.
We are informed, for instance, that Jackie Onassis was once, herself, a first lady and later married a Greek shipping magnate. We learn how a chief executive walks to the podium to deliver a State of the Union speech: "The president greets members of both parties who, by tradition, sit on opposite sides of the aisle." Even Hillary's grief over the death of her dad is padded: "My father would not be at the table vying with Hugh and Tony for one of the drumsticks or asking for more cranberries and water-melon pickle, two of his favorites from childhood." And then there are the fulsome tales of official junkets--unimportant, uninteresting, uneventful, and unending. "I had given a lot of thought to how Chelsea and I should dress on the trip. We wanted to be comfortable, and, under the sun's heat, I was glad for the hats and cotton clothes I had packed." And I was glad for the scopolamine transdermal patch.
Nausea, however, is interesting compared with the actual symptoms of going-through-the-motions sickness induced by "Living History." The book does not contain even a dog-worthy return to the vomit of the Lewinsky scandal. And the stingy-mama-bird regurgitations of Whitewater excuses and evasions will leave the most adoring Hillary chick wanting more worm. Hillary has spent forty years with the pros on the fairways of prevarication, yet her gimmes lack audacity, her mulligans do not astonish, and her foot-played "improvements of lie" are no more subtle than "Whitewater never seemed real because it wasn't."
Vituperation is supposed to be another of Hillary's salient features. But she spritzes, rather than splashes, acid and then only on the dead, the powerless, and Ken Starr. Hillary calls Bill's mother "Virginia Cassidy Blythe Clinton Dwire Kelley" and eulogizes her as "an American original--bighearted, good humored, fun-loving"--by which she means a drunk. "I didn't use makeup," declares Hillary, "and wore jeans and work shirts most of the time. I was no Miss Arkansas," but "no matter what else was going on in her life, Virginia got up early, glued on her false eyelashes and put on bright red lipstick, and sashayed out the door."
Damning stuff. But the junior senator's insults are preferable to her compliments. Hillary's friend Jean Houston "wraps herself up in brightly colored capes and caftans and dominates the room with her larger-than-life presence and crackling wit, . . . reciting poems, passages from great works of literature, historical facts and scientific data all in the same breath."
Let's take a deep one. Boring others is a form of aggression, and Hillary attacks her public with the weapon of brutal dullness. Ms. Clinton has led a busy, meddlesome life from an early age. "I was elected co-captain of the safety patrol. . . . This was a big deal at our school." But until page 440 of her memoir, nothing happens. You know the nothing I mean. Any number of Clinton friends and supporters told us it was nothing. And, as a result of nothing happening, nothing--as you may remember--happened. So, starting on page 440, that nothing happens, and by page 472 (that is to say immediately, given the high-speed laser-printing prolixity of "Living History"), Hillary is announcing, "Life moved on, and I moved with it."
UNLIKE ORDINARY HUMANS, Hillary had a choice about that move. After all, life revolves around Hillary. "In my own life I have been a wife, mother, daughter, sister, in-law, student, lawyer, children's rights activist, law professor, Methodist, political advisor, citizen and so much else." So very much else. "I was raised to love my God and my country, to help others, to protect and defend the democratic ideals that have inspired and guided free people for more than 200 years," a slap in the face to those of us who were raised to say please and thank you and not track mud into the house. Little wonder that when Hillary meets Queen Elizabeth, "She reminded me of my own mother."
Compared with Hillary Clinton, Bill is a big pile of humility. "While Bill talked about social change," says Hillary, "I embodied it," to loud hosannas and wild exaltations. In China, at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, "The serious and stony-faced delegates suddenly leaped from their seats to give me a standing ovation. Delegates rushed to touch me, shout words of appreciation and thank me for coming." In Chicago, at the 1996 Democratic Convention, "The crowd erupted into a frenzy of clapping, chanting, and foot-stomping. . . . My motions to urge the crowd to sit down were futile, so I just waved and let the cheers wash over me."
"Living History" traps us in the heated daydream of an earnest and lofty-minded high school student--the kind who belonged to the Methodist youth group, sat on the student council, was elected junior-class vice president, got appointed to the principal's Cultural Values Committee "to promote tolerance," and would go on to become president of student government at some college for girls. As Hillary did. With a wonderful young person like that, well, some people are bound to be jealous and just act mean. Hillary points out that, during the Whitewater investigations, "public discourse was increasingly dominated by reactionary pundits and TV and radio personalities." You remember how the popular kids at summer camp got together and made sure we had acne.
But it's beyond me how those reactionary pundits concluded that Hillary is representative of the 1960s generation. Hillary's countercultural experience seems to have consisted of one visit, with another suburban girl, to Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic convention. "In the crowd behind us, someone screamed profanities and threw a rock, which just missed us." Heavy.
IN FACT, Hillary and her husband aren't representative of much of anything American. Neither can drive a car. Hillary hasn't been behind the wheel since 1996. ("I cajoled my lead [Secret Service] agent, Don Flynn, into sitting beside me. . . . Don's knuckles were white as dice by the time we arrived.") And Bill should never try. ("He has so much information running through his head at any given moment that he doesn't always notice where he's going.") In nearly twenty years of family life, the Clintons did not own a home or go to the mall without armed guards. And when they had a cat and dog, "I had to set up a separate correspondence unit . . . to answer their mail."
One senses profound superficialities here. Plumbing the shallows of Hillary is no easy matter, even for Hillary. She tries to give us the genesis of her worldview, but the anecdote runs out of control:
One snowy night during my freshman year, Margaret Clapp, then President of the college, arrived unexpectedly at my dorm. . . . She came into the dining room and asked for volunteers to help her gently shake the snow off the branches of the surrounding trees so that they wouldn't break under the weight. We walked from tree to tree through knee-high snow under a clear sky filled with stars, led by a strong, intelligent woman alert to the surprises and vulnerabilities of nature. . . . I decided that night that I had found the place where I belonged.
No fair consulting Freud. We need to work from primary sources. We must listen to Hillary's insights. About Princess Di and Mother Teresa, for example: "Aside from the obvious differences, each of these women had a talent for spotlighting the most vulnerable and neglected people and using her celebrity in calculated ways to help others." Aside from the obvious differences.
We must watch Hillary learn: "I always knew that America matters to the rest of the world; my travels taught me how the rest of the world matters to America."
We must recognize Hillary's principled outspoken feminism as elucidated in her U.N. Conference on Women speech: "It is a violation of human rights when women are doused with gasoline, set on fire and burned to death because their marriage dowries are deemed too small."
We must understand her ability to commune with the strong, intelligent women of past generations: "So, what would Mrs. Roosevelt have to say about my present predicament? Not much, I thought."
We must understand her sense of humor: "No one can make me laugh the way Bill does."
And understand her hair: "Thus began my lifelong hair struggles." "That was when my hair got me in more trouble." "It was another hair crisis."
And understand her stupidity. Now, Hillary's stupidity is of a Monday's-homework-done-on-Friday-night, 1,400 on her SATs kind, but nonetheless stupid for all that. She has lunch with Jackie Onassis, who "cautioned me that Bill, like President Kennedy, had a personal magnetism that inspired strong feelings in people. She never came out and said it, but she meant that he might be a target." Was Jackie talking about the grassy knoll or about a different kind of mons?
Hillary serves roasted eggplant soup and sweet potato puree to Jacques Chirac and doesn't get the joke when Chirac says, "Of course, I love many things American, including the food. You know, I used to work in a Howard Johnson's restaurant." After listening to Jiang Zemin explain that the Tibetans had been liberated by the Chinese, Hillary concludes, "I don't think Jiang . . . was being quite straight with me on Tibet."
Hillary failed the District of Columbia bar examination, but she passed in Arkansas--and "in the first jury trial I handled on my own, I defended a canning company against a plaintiff who found the rear end of a rat in the can of pork and beans he opened for dinner one night."
HAS "LIVING HISTORY" been dumbed down for its intended reader? Yes, assuming its author read it. I don't doubt that she wrote part of it, but no one seems to have read the final text. Otherwise, how to explain such sentences as, "The dominant architecture was Soviet-style socialist realism," or "Tom and I spent late nights wrestling over the fine points of legal interpretation" (a euphemism sure to be taken up by the British tabloid press), or this description of a 1992 bus trip campaigning: "Bill, Al, Tipper and I spent hours talking, eating, waving out the window." Which must have been a sight, though nothing compared with the trip to Russia when Hillary and Mrs. Boris Yeltsin "laughed our way through a day of public appearances and private meals with local dignitaries." I hesitate to think there was a logical explanation, but Hillary does say, "Ireland invigorated and inspired me, and I wished we could bottle up the good feelings and take them back home." It's been done before.
"Living History" arrived from the publisher with a seven-page executive summary (itself ferociously tedious) that indicates no one is intended to read this book. Of course, a couple of people had to. There is the junior associate--doubtless a strong, intelligent woman--at the law firm of Bland and Blander who slogged through every word to make sure nothing was actionable. And then there's me. Poor me. But, except for us, "Living History" suffers the fate of modern poetry, with an authorship of many and an audience of none.
Not that the book isn't supposed to sell. And I understand it's selling nicely. I do not begrudge Hillary and her publisher their profits. The money will allow them, per Dante, to visit the fifth cornice of purgatory, where avarice is atoned, whenever they can get family leave from the ninth circle of hell where they'll be eternally tortured for spreading false doctrine. The free market is a good thing.
The purchasers of "Living History" can count themselves benefited, also. They could have had Hillary as their legal aid defender instead of merely their senator. Her argument to the jury that "rodent parts which had been sterilized might be considered edible in certain parts of the world" would not be of much use in a felony narcotics trial, despite the admirable multiculturalism of the sentiment.
However, it says something unflattering about our era that prominent political figures--who used to write declarations of independence, preambles to constitutions, Gettysburg addresses, and such--now use the alphabet only to make primitive artifacts, like the letter-inscribed tablet that Charlemagne is said to have put under his pillow each night, in the hope he'd wake up literate. Conservatives, including most of the Founding Fathers, have always worried that the price of a democratic system would be a mediocre nation. But George Washington and William F. Buckley Jr. put together could not have foreseen, in their gloomiest moments, the rise of Clinton-style über-mediocrity--with its soaring commonplaces, its pumped trifling, its platinum-grade triviality. The Alpha-dork husband, the super-twerp wife, and the hyper-wonk vice president--together with all their mega-weenie water carriers, such as vicious pit gerbil George Stephanopoulos and Eastern diamondback rattleworm Sidney Blumenthal--spent eight years trying to make America nothing to brag about.
They failed. And that is, ultimately, what makes "Living History" such a good nonread. If they're going to throw the book at us, and the book is by Hillary, the republic will endure (and the Republicans will prevail). Plus, there's a bonus. "Living History" contains a surprise unmentioned, I believe, by other reviewers. On page 402 we are presented with a rare, possibly unique, portrait of the likeable side of Robert Mugabe: "President Mugabe said little during my courtesy visit with him in the presidential residence in the capital, Harare. He paid close attention to his young wife, Grace, while I made conversation with her, and he periodically broke into giggles for no apparent reason."
P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.