The following review was originally published on June 13, 2003.
AFTER their husbands leave the White House, First Ladies of the United States write bland, genial books about their swim in the shark-infested waters of Washington, DC. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s much-anticipated Living History follows that formula, but also breaks the mould, since its author is on an upward trajectory, her career waxing as her husband’s wanes. Hillary received a whopping $8 million (£4.8 million) advance for this book, a jackpot needed to defray the enormous legal fees incurred by the Clintons in defending themselves against a host of accusations and lawsuits. The buzzing question has been: would Hillary reveal enough about the sex scandals that led to Bill’s impeachment to justify that kind of money?
To satisfy expectations, Hillary offers a heavy-breathing, romance-novel scenario of the moment when — seven months after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke — shame-faced Bill woke her up to say that he had been lying to her and yes, indeed, he had invited the nubile young White House intern to service him during business hours in a suite off the august Oval Office.
Hillary’s overwrought account of her shock at this revelation has been rightly received with disbelief and scorn in the US. It has been widely reported that Hillary had for two decades acted as overseer and disciplinarian in stifling rumours about Bill’s “bimbo eruptions” — the inconvenient popping up of gal after gal claiming to have been wooed by the Arkansas Lothario. That Hillary was under few illusions about the Lewinsky affair from the start was suggested by her legalistic parsings in a notorious early interview where she blamed “a vast right-wing conspiracy” for the Clintons’ woes.
But not all readers of Living History will be looking for gossip. Many will be sceptically assessing Hillary Clinton as a possible prospect for the presidency. Despite its status as a crucible of feminism, the US has oddly lagged in producing viable female candidates for the top job — partly because American presidents are also commanders-in-chief and most women politicians (like Hillary) have been overly concerned with caretaking issues at the expense of military expertise.
Hillary’s memoir has a multiple purpose: it must dutifully chronicle her White House years while outlining her political credo and settling scores, and it must set the stage for any future ambitions. The book is targeted to readers around the world, where Hillary has been seen not as a controversial, sometimes capricious or vindictive backstage in-fighter, but as an outspoken defender of women’s rights.
Has it succeeded? Though Living History was, by Hillary’s explicit acknowledgement, ghost-written over several years by three aides and researched by a legion of assistants, it does indeed capture her sharp voice and establish her as a seasoned politician whose engagement with public issues began in her teen years. Hillary’s evolution in college from a Barry Goldwater conservative, modelled on her irascibly Republican father, to a flaming 1960s liberal is well known in the US, but will certainly interest readers abroad who are curious about contemporary American politics.
What is newly established here is Hillary’s youthful history of aggressive activism, which she attributes to the “sense of social responsibility” in Methodism: her ancestors in northern England and South Wales were converted in the 18th century by John Wesley. Professions of piety and prayer run throughout Living History. Hillary’s detractors will doubtless see these as a smokescreen for her questionable record in investments and her bare-knuckle, machine politics and interpret them as a cynical move to attract centrist and conservative voters.
But perhaps it is more troublesome for democracy (where religion should be kept distinct from government) if Hillary’s religiosity is genuine. It would certainly explain her air of smug moral superiority and her close to messianic view of her destiny as a reformer. The egotism of career humanitarians was dissected by William Blake and Charles Dickens and later satirised by Oscar Wilde, all of whom saw the nascent tyranny in fervent idealists with a masterplan for humanity.
On the evidence of this book, Hillary appears to believe that good intentions excuse all. Impediments to her lofty goals may have arisen partly through minor miscalculations on her part, she concedes, but most of the problems, in her view, have come from pigheaded reactionaries “who want to turn the clock back on many of the advances our country has made”, thanks to the Democratic Party, a congregation of the elect whose mission is the salvation of mankind.
The disaster of Hillary’s mismanagement of the 1993-94 campaign for desperately needed healthcare reform in the US is attributed simply to her and Bill having tried “too much, too fast”. Never mind the federal regulations about nepotism that were skirted, or the legitimate concerns even of fellow Democrats about potential invasions of privacy in a centralised medical system, or about the obsessively secretive way in which Hillary constructed exploratory committees and staffed her think tank with effete favourites.
Among other blind spots is the vexed issue of Bill’s alleged indiscretions, which Hillary dismisses as agitprop by diabolical foes jealous of her husband’s Christlike aspiration to transform earthly life. Hillary and her advisers have yet to realise that her indifference or malice towards aggrieved working women like Juanita Broaddrick (who claims to have been injured by Bill in an Arkansas hotel room) compromises her status as a proponent of women’s rights, as enunciated in her 1995 speech against sexual violence at the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. Hillary’s studied avoidance of Broaddrick’s allegations simply strengthens the Clintons’ myriad right-wing enemies, who have taken up Broaddrick’s cause.
But this is only one of many evasions and erasures in the book, which would need a line-by-line Talmudic commentary in the margins to supply all the needed corrections and amplifications. Numerous scandals are given short shrift or go unmentioned: we hear nothing, for example, of Bill’s end-of-office pardons (in which Hillary’s own brother was involved) or the flap over the Clintons’ trucking away of White House furniture, which had to be returned. When Hillary’s missing billing records from the Rose Law Firm, which were long sought by prosecutors, mysteriously turn up in an office near her White House bedroom, she vaguely blames it all on a hapless assistant.
Living History plainly attempts to regain the interest and support of liberal women who (like me) voted for Bill Clinton, but became bitterly disillusioned with him and his wife. Despite its many problems, the book does, in fact, achieve this. By taking us into the embattled mind of someone forced to undergo embarrassing emotional crises in the public eye, the book gradually induces sympathy for Hillary, who laments of her dizzy-making White House prominence: “Now I was a symbol.” In its unfolding of endless humiliations, we watch the heroine’s oblique discovery (as in a Jane Austen or George Eliot novel) of how the vaunting will can be defeated by cold social reality. And with its peripatetic travelogue, the book’s scale is vast: though both Clintons distastefully fawn over Hollywood celebrities, the glimpses of Hillary’s encounters with world leaders and their wives are revealing, if sometimes too rushed.
The book is at its best when Hillary is rueful or self-satirising. I was charmed by such amusing vignettes as the near-sighted young Hillary, swimming in a campus lake, having her clothing and aviator glasses confiscated by the college president, and stumbling her way to reclaim them. Or the moment when, on a golfing date, she pockets her eyeglasses out of vanity and mistakenly whacks a white mushroom instead of the ball.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the book’s omissions and shadings of fact, Hillary does emerge from it as a credible presidential candidate. Though she has matured as a public figure, she has yet to achieve anything of national note in her senatorial career, and without that she cannot hope to overcome her long list of past controversies. She has also disappointed her liberal base, as in her passive or cagey vote last year for the war resolution that sent US troops to Iraq.
But Living History demonstrates Hillary’s commitment to social policy as well as her intimacy with government structure, even if she failed to make effective or consistent use of it in the official commissions that she won as wife of a governor and president. Hillary also benefits from the depressing mediocrity in the current field of Democratic presidential candidates. Her hedging and waffling are authentic political skills, as is her ability to withstand punishing abuse in the public arena while plugging away at her agenda.
The Clintons’ squalid marital travails are insignificant compared with the larger issue of women’s advance to national leadership. At this point it seems unlikely that Hillary’s appeal could be wide enough to win voter support outside the liberal Northeast and West Coast. But by running, as I hope she does, she will lay the groundwork for other women, one of whom will some glorious day win the presidency.
The author is Professor of Humanities, University of the Arts, Philadelphia.