When news broke this spring about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s appetite for other people’s money and their indifference to other people’s rules, I was rereading my way through a shelf of old Hillary biographies. My memory thus was doubly stimulated. In the fresh revelations, as in the books, the traits of the Clintons were spread out for a new generation to marvel at: the furtiveness, the shifting accounts of hazy events, the parsing of language, the bald and unnecessary denial of often trivial facts (did she have two phones or one?). Her admirers, old and young, veteran and novice alike, were faced with the Hillary Paradox.
The paradox is a problem only for her admirers, and as it happens I read only books about the Clintons that are written by their admirers, on the general principle that you can learn more about someone from his friends than from his enemies. Besides, with a few notable exceptions—most recently, Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash and Daniel Halper’s Clinton, Inc.—books written by skeptics and detractors are almost psychotically hostile to Mrs. Clinton. I don’t need any encouragement.
The Hillary Paradox consists of two perceptions that are irreconcilable. The first is that Hillary Clinton is a person of uncommon decency, compassionate and deeply committed to justice. The second is that many of her actions over many years are the work of a person who couldn’t possibly be uncommonly decent. How could someone with a wonderful reputation so often behave disreputably?
Of all the biographers whose books are on my shelf, none wrestles with the paradox more painfully than Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter and author of A Woman in Charge. Bernstein likes Mrs. Clinton a lot, and her husband too. He considers them emblems of their generation, which Bernstein also lavishly admires. (It might be boomer envy: He was born two years too early to be a baby boomer himself.) How much does he like the Clintons? Enough to write this, when Hillary and Bill go sightseeing in Europe:
They were still idealistic young thinkers and doers who wanted to influence their own time for the better. But there was something different (though not necessarily unique) about them: . . . a powerful connection to the threads of the history of the century and their country, a deep feel for what had gone before, intimate knowledge of the conflicting currents that had defined the generation of their parents and the places of their own past. Their uniqueness, however, was in the intertwining of their dreams . . .
As if you couldn’t tell, Bernstein has a weakness for the Big Picture. He takes as his biography’s theme a grandiose line from Living History, Mrs. Clinton’s 2003 autobiography: “While Bill talked about social change, I embodied it.” And it is important to understand how firmly Hillary’s fans believe this. It’s what they mean when they call her “iconic.” And as Bernstein traces her life story you begin to see the point: She really is large, she really does contain multitudes.
Politically she rang all the changes of her generation. She was a Goldwater girl at 17, following her father’s Republicanism. At Wellesley in the mid-1960s she evolved from a can-do leader of student government her freshman year—her signal accomplishment was a new system for returning books to the campus library—into a counterculture tribune by graduation day, when she gave a commencement address attacking “our acquisitive and competitive corporate life” and received a seven-minute standing ovation. She moved further left in law school, editing a radical law review at Yale and working summers at a Bay Area law firm whose clients included the Black Panthers. A few years later she followed her husband to Arkansas and became a southern moderate, a proponent of back-to-basics education, and a partner in a law firm whose clients included Walmart, Tyson’s Foods, and the largest brokerage firm west of Wall Street.
After a lightning strike as a health care reformer in her husband’s first two years as president, she settled back into the role of a traditional first lady, content with uncontroversial appearances on the public stage and bloody, Nancy Reagan-like maneuvering behind the scenes. Since the turn of the century, as senator and secretary of state, she has managed to be a warhawk, a populist, a champion of finance capitalism, a regretful dove, and most recently, for as long as it lasts, a “fighter” for redistributionist economics.