I have a terrible confession to make: I couldn’t get through either of the two new biographical tomes about Hillary Clinton.
I really did try. And I’m sure it’s all good stuff if you’re into hearing the same old stories about the Vince Foster suicide, the commodities trade, the health-care debacle, and so on, torturously replayed for pages on end.
But I, for one, just can’t take it anymore.
The reaction of one Hillary spokesperson (she has many) to the two books was, “Is it possible to be quoted yawning?” And he’s right, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Part of the problem with these new biographies is that they were scripted by investigative reporters: Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. (New York Times), authors of Hillary Clinton: Her Way, and the legendary Carl Bernstein (Washington Post), who wrote A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. These journalists are trained, so to speak, to lose the forest for the trees. That makes for good reporting, but lousy biography.
The main problem, however, is the subject itself. To continue the cliché metaphor, with Hillary, there is no forest. Or, as Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, “there’s no there there.”
The press’s assumption about Hillary has always been that she’s the power behind the throne: the smart, savvy one at Yale Law School, who got better grades but postponed her own political career for the benefit of her husband. David Brock wrote an earlier biography, The Education of Hillary Rodham, that advanced this thesis, making the claim that Hillary, not Bill, was the leading light of the twosome.
There’s only one problem with this theory: there isn’t evidence to support it. Love him or hate him, Bill is a political phenomenon.
Hillary’s real claim to fame is that she married a political star. And, because of that, any biography that tells the truth about her essentially amounts to hundreds of pages relaying, well, not that much of anything. You can’t write a good life story about a rather boring and unlikable personage who’s never done enough to merit a lengthy biography in her own right, even if she is married to someone as interesting as Bill.
It’s true that, according to the Hillary myth, Hillary’s classmates were wowed by her at Wellesley and that she gave what they considered to be a stirring graduation address when she left. But giving a great graduation address is not a qualification for the presidency. And, even if it were, it would have to be a lot better speech than Hillary’s, which, to be kind, has not stood the test of time as well as, say, the Gettysburg Address.
“We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty,” she said that day. “But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.”
Hillary Clinton: Her Way | by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. | Little Brown & Company | 438 pages
A Woman In Charge: The Life Of Hillary Rodham Clinton | by Carl Bernstein | Alfred A. Knopf | 628 pages
“I Have a Dream,” it’s not.
It’s also true that Hillary was an outstanding student at Yale Law School. But so was everyone else — that’s what Yale Law School attracts. (Okay, I’m bragging; I went there, too.) As with almost everyone else who went to Yale Law, she’s smart and quick on her feet, which is why she does well in debates. Again, that’s not a qualification for the presidency (or if it is, I have about 5000 classmates and alumni I’d like to recommend ahead of her).
Since then, Hillary has been one of Bill’s closest advisers. But if that, too, were a presidential qualification, we could elect Dick Morris or James Carville (no thanks).
Granted, she got elected to the Senate in 2000. But if her name were Hillary Rodham, with no connection to a certain “Bill,” how viable would that campaign have been?
The truth is that whenever Hillary has tried to do something important on her own — and it hasn’t been very often — she’s botched it rather spectacularly. The health-care “debacle” she managed during her husband’s first term was rightly named. And, not only did she get it wrong initially on Iraq — her most important vote in a fairly undistinguished Senate career to date — she refuses, to this day, to apologize for it, thereby confirming the suspicion that she is unpleasantly imperious.
Barack Obama doesn’t exactly have a lengthy résumé, either. But he differs from Hillary in two key ways. First, if you’ve read his book, you know he’s genuinely interesting, with a set of thoughtful and original political ideas, forged in a rather unconventional background. It’s fun to read his autobiography — though it remains to be seen if this intriguing persona translates into presidential material.