The Scrapbook has its compassionate side, and confesses to feeling a twinge when it read the recent interview with Hillary Clinton in the New York Times Book Review. The NYTBR, it should be explained, interviews famous people about their reading habits—their recent dialogue with Lynne Cheney was surprisingly cordial—but Hillary Clinton’s interview, while certainly friendly in tone and intent, cannot have done her much good.
We say that not because of substance so much as tone: Mrs. Clinton is so clearly intent, so exhaustively determined, on checking the boxes and impressing the Times that she comes across as almost wholly artificial, as if some programmed machine had responded to the inquiries. As indeed may have happened: It is entirely possible that the answers were provided by some cog in the Clinton apparatus—an eager intern, say, or some blue-ribbon panel assigned to the task. They certainly sound like that.
When asked, for example, to reveal what she is “reading right now,” HRC doesn’t hesitate a moment: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou, and Missing You by Harlan Coben. This literary trio—all safe, middlebrow, bestselling titles—not only emphasizes Clinton’s status as an Average American, but with an eye to 2016, strategically waves at some demographic categories: middle-class white women, African Americans, thriller-reading males. When asked to name “favorite contemporary writers,” she reels off a similarly comprehensive list of Democratic presidential primary voters: Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carré, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker.
If any constituency is absent here, we cannot think what it is.
Indeed, this chameleon-like tendency is so patently ingrained that it ventures, at times, into self-parody. When asked to name “one book you wish all students would read,” she mentions Pride and Prejudice (middle-class white women again), Out of Africa (PBS subscribers), and Schindler’s List (Jewish Democrats). This member of the Wellesley class of 1969 lists The Brothers Karamazov as her “favorite novel,” and confesses to reading the poetry of e.e. cummings and T. S. Eliot. She tells us that, when traveling as secretary of state, “I’d read a novel or travelogue about the places I was visiting.” And lest we suspect she ever wastes a moment of time, describes her “guilty pleasures” as “cooking, decorating, diet/self-help, and gardening books.” Shame on you, Hillary!
To be sure, it’s the Democratic nomination she craves, so when asked to recommend books for “someone planning to move” to Washington, she chooses some contemporary left-liberal mush (Our Divided Political Heart by E.J. Dionne) and a defensive account of recent Democratic policy (After the Music Stopped by Alan Blinder). Nothing wrong here, of course; but the general tone of the response suggests that considerable thought was given to it. Or put another way, who among her friends would get the coveted plug?
Nor is Hillary Clinton anyone’s fool: “If you had to name one book that made you who you are today,” asks the Times, “what would it be?” To which she shrewdly replies, “At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking.” Translation: A Republican yahoo would instantly cite the Bible so I have to qualify my answer with mild sarcasm (“at the risk of appearing predictable”) while deftly reassuring Mr. and Mrs. Silent Majority that I’m just as pious as they are.
It’s a long way, alas, until the primary season, so The Scrapbook awaits comparable Q&As in Vogue, Essence, and Sports Illustrated.