The allusion to “her way” in this latest profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton conjures up images of the shrill, husband-shredding wife. That’s not entirely off the mark. But after reading this detailed book by two New York Times investigative reporters, one concludes that the title is also an apt description of Clinton’s career as a political operator.
Hillary Clinton has spent decades trying to gain traction with voters from both political parties. Conservatives fearful that Rodham-Clinton may carry her 60s era activism into the White House can rest assured that this onetime defender of the Black Panthers is as much a pragmatic “suit” as she is political radical. Clinton cannot be pigeonholed by ideology; she contains multitudes.
Drawing on Vince Foster’s notebooks -- a source never before used in studies of Clinton -- the authors show Hillary padding her fees like any Republican corporate lawyer in the 1980s ($4,000 an hour plus travel expenses for trips as meager as the three-hour drive from Little Rock to Fayetteville, Arkansas.) This was the same Clinton who, while stumping for her husband during his 1992 presidential campaign, would denounce the 90s as “the era of greed.” Such rhetorical flourishes occur whenever she and her husband are under attack. Recall the 2000 New York Senate race, when Clinton charged that her opponent, Rick Lazio, was closer to the putative extremism of Newt Gingrich than to the state’s voters.
If there is a thesis that weaves through this journey into Clinton’s stern upbringing by a military father, to her brief membership in the Barry Goldwater campaign, to her public stances as a sixties’ activist, and her political partnership with Bill, it is that she is obsessively devoted to her image. Throughout all the retreats from positions, such as her distancing from her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war, Clinton consistently displays what the authors call “an almost scientific devotion to self-creation.” Hence the authors uncover a $4 million-a-week “war room,” where acolytes work around the clock to refute charges lodged at Clinton and to cast back ripostes at her political opponents.
With her view of politics as a form of warfare, Clinton in this work recalls not Eleanor Roosevelt, her purported idol, but such political warriors as Joseph McCarthy staffer Roy Cohn and President Richard Nixon. “Fight me, I dare you, “Cohn was reported to have said to one of his former clients. Nixon once told wife that “everything is political” and “everyone is out to get you.” Such paranoia is exhibited by Clinton in these pages. Best known for her fears of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,“ Clinton’s list of enemies is far more extensive. It numbers not only Republicans but such apolitical people as Gennifer Flowers ("If I could get her on the stand," she told insiders when Flowers came forward about her and Bill's affair," "she'd be finished").
It includes, too, intraparty rivals like Al Gore. The authors examine the rivalry between Clinton and Gore in detail, demonstrating how Clinton diverted funds from Gore’s 2000 presidential to fund her own Senate race. Even with his minders always doing the dirty work of smearing his opponent, Gore could not overcome his resume as a rich snob. By contrast, Clinton in her victory showed that she had not only learned the lessons of the rough-and-tumble world of corporate legal work, but that she could successfully apply them to politics.
Her Way is written in an objective style to which one wishes more journalists would adhere. Far from attacking her from the Right, the writers simply reveal her many blemishes. It is interesting to contrast this work with Carl Bernstein’s recent, and far less impressive biography of Clinton.
Bernstein constructed his work on the basis of recollections from Clinton’s family and friends. Gerth and Van Natta, on the other hand, inconveniently allow Ken Starr and others from the Office of Independent Council to speak in their reporting.
The result is that while Bernstein’s account accepted at face-value the flattering judgments of Clinton’s allies, Gerth and Van Natta have produced a much meticulous work. Combing through financial records, they show a woman who learned early on that money is the lifeblood of politics. Against the radical icon of hopeful leftists, they reveal a candidate who lives in a $4-million dollar mansion in Washington. Digging deep into her past, they highlight the pact that she and husband Bill made on the eve of their marriage, in which they both pledged to both serve 8-year presidential terms.
Her Way is the most valuable account yet written about Hillary Clinton. If the authors don’t solve the great mystery surrounding her campaign for the presidency -- what will Clinton do if elected? -- they nevertheless know enough about her past peccadilloes to follow the money. Their illuminating findings are reason enough to worry about another Clinton presidency.