Of the making of books about the lives and loves of the 42nd president of the United States and his first lady there seems to be no end. Why this should be the case is not quite so easy to answer as some might think. True, Clinton's presidency has been dogged by scandal -- sexual, financial, and political -- and scandal is fast becoming the great profit center of the American publishing industry. On the other hand, as the present quadrennial silly season nears its end, there is good reason to believe that large numbers of the consumers of these books will be quite prepared to cast their ballots without reference to any of the misbehavior that they have with such voracious appetite been reading about. They will have gobbled up the stories of Bill Clinton's sexual frivolities and all-around light-mindedness along with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton's heedless and aggressive campaign to hold herself above the law, and yet they will march themselves to the polling place and cheerfully vote to keep the Clintons in the White House. In short, they may be licking their chops as readers, but as citizens they seem to be unmoved.
The latest contribution to this general puzzlement is David Brock's long and at times wearyingly detailed portrait of Mrs. Clinton, The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (Free Press, 422 pages, $ 26). Unexpectedly, for those familiar with Brock as the man who authored a book exposing the lies of Anita Hill as well as a famous article in the American Spectator bringing to light some of the less appetizing aspects of President Clinton's compulsive womanizing back in Arkansas, this book turns out to be not an expos but rather a gentlemanly defense of a lady Brock believes has been too much maligned.
The story, as Brock tells it, goes roughly like this. Hillary Rodham, highly earnest and socially conscious midwestern Methodist girl, attends Wellesley in the '60s, where she proves to be not only brilliant but a leader and where she finds her true radical calling. From there she goes to -- where else? -- Yale Law School. At Yale, she acquires the necessary professional standing with which to express her now more mature and even more heated passion for social justice. She also meets and settles down to keep house with a young man who harbors in his breast the very highest of political ambitions. He has the charm and originality she lacks, while she has the dedication and organizing drive he lacks. (In the metaphor offered to Brock by Guido Calabresi, who taught them, he was "a hot bath" and she was "a cold shower.")
When the time comes for the two new-minted lawyers to go out into the world, he heads home to Arkansas to set upon the course that will one day bring him the highest prize in the land. She, however -- so David Brock tells us -- is torn. On the one hand, there is her already highly burnished love of social activism, which she will express through her work for the Watergate committee in an effort to impeach Richard Nixon, not to mention her eventual chairmanship of both the Children's Defense Fund and the Legal Services Corporation. On the other hand, there is the deep temptation to her soul involved in the recognition that she is indispensable to Bill Clinton's political career.
Plagued by ambivalence, she consults friends about whether she should actually marry Clinton and risk burying herself in the alien wasteland of Arkansas. Some, staunch feminists like her, predictably say no. But to make the author's long, indeed needlessly long, story short, she follows her heart in both directions. While continuing to look out for the welfare of the poor and the children on the national scene, she marries him and takes over the management of his political career, which from time to time, whenever deprived of her special determination, threatens to falter.
She also goes to work in a Little Rock law firm in order to support the family, the governorship of Arkansas being a job that pays only $ 38,000 per year. She does not actually seem to work very hard at lawyering, there being so many works for the social good on her plate. But little by little she does manage to see to it at least that the Clintons are not hard up.
Now, after serving his first term as governor, Bill -- who only a short time before has been known to the citizens of Arkansas as "Wonder Boy" -- loses a reelection bid. This induces in him a terrible funk, while she merely rolls up her sleeves and sets about organizing his comeback. Two years later he is governor again, and thanks to her successful guidance remains so until he and she are ready to turn their attention -- aided both by his widening circle of buddies and her so carefully amassed Rolodex -- to his future presidency.
In telling his tale, David Brock is not so loyal to his purpose as to hide from us the fact that Hillary had also played a considerable part in Bill's failure to be reelected in 1980. For one thing, she refused to allow him to do what traditionally helped all politicians in Arkansas to win elections: namely, buy black votes. But far more important, while the Arkansans seemed to have made their peace with Bill's ill-concealed sexual improprieties, they were not feeling at all kindly to their young governor's wife, who in their view both dressed like a slob and behaved like a snob. It may have been all right up north at Yale to be a "hippie" walking around in sloppy long skirts and flat sandals with no stockings and using truck-drivers' language, but it was far from all right for the lady to whom they had extended the courtesy of making her husband governor. And it was exceedingly troublesome to them that she had married him but continued to use her maiden name.
Part of Bill's comeback, then, involved the imposition on Hillary of a marked change of style. (How the lady's history does seem to repeat itself!) She was required, for instance, to take his name, to trim and style her hair and tint it an attractive color, to lose weight, to exchange her heavy eyeglasses for contact lenses -- and, perhaps, to be a little more guarded with her tongue. All of which, as with everything else in her life up to that point, she seems to have accomplished with determination and dispatch.
Once Bill is securely in the governor's mansion, the story continues, his career goes from strength to strength, particularly among the leadership of the national Democratic party, while his private life goes from weakness to weakness. Along the way, "I'll just ask Hillary; Hillary knows more about it than I do," becomes his constant refrain. (Or so, at least, Brock would have us believe. That some of these hot-bath public acknowledgments of his wife might have been offerings to her in compensation for his sexual misconduct has evidently not occurred to Brock.)
In any case, it is thus that the legend of the coming Clinton "copresidency" moves into the public domain. And before long, her decision to give up some of her true identity -- which requires her to appear on 60 Minutes in response to the tabloid exposure of her husband's 12-year affair with one Gennifer Flowers and profess her wifely loyalty and understanding -- finds its proper reward in the corridors of the highest power in the land.
Given the nature of such an account of Hillary's marriage and career, it is hardly surprising that a goodly part of what David Brock calls her "seduction" turns on the idea that Mrs. Clinton unwittingly permitted herself to be drawn into that widely entailed mess called "Whitewater" for her husband's sake. Thus many, many pages in the book are devoted to detailing what Hillary might or might not have known, might or might not have paid sufficient attention to, might or might not have been intentionally concealing, with respect to the scandal that nearly sank her husband's presidency (and that may yet do so).
This part of The Seduction of Hillary Rodham seems intended to be exculpatory, but as is unfortunately the case with most carefully detailed summaries of Whitewater, by the time one reaches the end of the welter one has lost one's grasp of the central point. A terrible boredom sets in.
The question of whether Hillary Clinton is as much implicated in Whitewater as her detractors like to think is not nearly as important an issue as the one that David Brock manages to stand squarely on its head: how she came to be canonized as a feminist saint. Ought it not seem strange that a woman who knowingly set out to play a big role in the world by sitting on the shoulders of a husband she had so much reason to despise has been taken by the sisterhood of strivers to be their major "role model"?
Did such women march through the streets, and teach and preach and legislate the rights of women to achieve and be recognized on their own, for this? If it was the ability to change society that Hillary was after, shouldn't she have run for office herself?.
The answer is, of course, that the ladies from Time and Newsweek and the major newspapers, the vast majority of women's studies professors, the members of NOW and NARAL along with their fellow travelers among the women's organizations and foundations -- not to overlook all those conscience- tortured grandes dames from Hollywood -- came to sing Hillary's praises not for her achievements as a woman but for the reliability of her leftist sympathies.
Most of her ardent admirers probably do not know that she did such things as: apprentice herself to the radical community organizer Saul Alinsky; work as a summer intern in a notorious Communist law firm; serve on the board of the New World Foundation, which distributed most of its money to groups on the hard left; fight Ronald Reagan as chairman of the Legal Services Corporation and win. But no matter how vague a knowledge her admirers have had of her pre-presidential career, they could have had no doubt on which side of the political divide her heart could be counted on to lie. It was simply a matter of deep calling unto deep, and the fact that she was actually playing the most traditional "woman's role" in politics be damned.
Nor is it likely that the Hillary fan club will be distressed to learn from Brock's book that it was she who first invited Dick Morris into her husband's career to coach him for a move rightward. They would take such cynicism only as another sign of her savvy as well as her indispensability to Bill. For a similar reason, the very same women who have righteously taken to ruining lives and livelihoods by claiming "sexual harassment" will cheer at the reelection of Hillary's compulsively sexually misbehaving husband. Because first things come first: in this case, the conviction that his last years in the White House will be spent back on the left where he belongs. Hillary has as much as told them so.
And as for David Brock, it is interesting and no doubt valuable to have a detailed account of Hillary's earlier life all in one place. But it is not at all hard to understand what really drove Hillary, and Brock need not have gone to so much effort to find justification for her behavior. For what seduced Hillary, hardly either unique or especially interesting, was her own terrible itch for power.
Clearly whatever power and glory she was able to garner for herself as an activist -- and after all, especially given her age, she had been showered with considerable amounts of both -- was not enough. Imagine being able to run the whole country. Now there's seduction for you. Especially if you yourself don't have to go through the altogether grueling and disagreeable process of asking a lot of tiresome people to vote you in.
Hillary may be a hard worker, but she is not willing to put up with disagreeableness; that's why she gets testy, instead of conveniently shifty, when she feels that her privacy is being violated. Moreover, if you know exactly what is needed in the way of new programs and legislation -- as every leftist does with certainty -- what right has anyone to question either your behavior or your motives?
Which brings us to the main source of the book's characteristic obtuseness. Bill Clinton may sometimes be unmanageably undisciplined, and he may lack deep and steady principle, but he is very clever. Not too many people, among them his wife, know when -- and how -- to please multitudes. He may need advice, but there are certain qualities that go into success as a politician, and they cannot be acquired from the outside. They are not so easy to define, but certainly among them is a gift for bonhomie. It is a gift that happens not to be found in Hillary Rodham Clinton's personal armamentarium, and all the restylings and retoolings in the world can't provide her with it. It should never be forgotten that it was he, not she, who brought the Clintons to Washington. And if they are to stay in place for the next four years, it is he, and doubly not she, who will have been responsible for it. Given the fiascoes of the first two years of the so-called "co-presidency," brought about in considerable part by her heedless certainties and her basic lack of respect for the processes called democratic government -- again, a leftist tic -- even Brock should have diffculty sustaining the foolish notion that she is the brains of the family.
Perhaps one day, when some woman makes her own way into the White House, Hillary's portrait in the feminist pantheon will be quietly stowed away in welldeserved obscurity. And David Brock will return to his proper calling, the unearthing of dark secrets.
Midge Decter is the author of three books and hundreds of essays.