By Peter Baker and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2007
Two new books on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York offer fresh and often critical portraits of the Democratic presidential candidate that depict a tortured relationship with her husband and her past and challenge the image she has presented on the campaign trail.
The Hillary Clinton who emerges from the pages of the books comes across as a complicated, sometimes compromised figure who tolerated Bill Clinton's brazen infidelity, pursued her policy and political goals with methodical drive, and occasionally skirted along the edge of the truth along the way. The books portray her as alternately brilliant and controlling, ambitious and victimized.
The Clinton campaign has nervously awaited publication of the books for fear they would include a bombshell revelation or, at the very least, revive memories of less-savory moments in the couple's rise to power. The books, both by longtime journalists and both obtained by The Washington Post yesterday, include a number of assertions and anecdotes that could confront her campaign with unwelcome questions.
"A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Carl Bernstein, reports that Clinton as first lady was terrified she would be prosecuted, took over her own legal and political defense, and decided not to be forthcoming with investigators because she was convinced she was unfairly targeted. While in Arkansas, according to Bernstein, she personally interviewed one woman alleged to have had an affair with her husband, contemplated divorce and thought about running for governor out of anger at her husband's indiscretions.
"Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., reports that during her husband's 1992 campaign, a team she oversaw hired a private investigator to undermine Gennifer Flowers "until she is destroyed." Flowers had said publicly that she had an affair with Bill Clinton while he was governor of Arkansas.
The book also suggests that Hillary Clinton did not read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002 before voting to authorize war. And it includes a thirdhand report that the Clintons had a secret plan after the 1992 election in which he would have eight years as president and then she would have eight years, although last night a key source disavowed the story.
The Clinton camp hopes to brush off the books as mainly rehashing old news. "Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" asked Philippe Reines, her Senate spokesman. If past books on Clinton were "cash for trash," he added, "these books are nothing more than cash for rehash."
Howard Wolfson, a campaign spokesman, pointed to previous reports on some of the elements in the books to make the point that there was nothing new. "The news here is that it took three reporters nearly a decade to find no news," he said. He added: "Two overwhelming Senate victories in the toughest media market in the country demonstrated that voters have put these issues behind them."
Unlike many harsh books about Clinton written by ideological enemies, the two new volumes come from long-established writers backed by major publishing houses and could be harder to dismiss. Bernstein won national fame with partner Bob Woodward at The Post for breaking open the Watergate scandal, while Gerth and Van Natta have spent years as investigative reporters for the New York Times.
Their publishers have engaged in a race to the bookstores, moving up publication dates as the presidential campaign heats up. Alfred A. Knopf has printed 275,000 copies of Bernstein's "Woman in Charge," which will be available June 5; Little, Brown and Co. plans to put 175,000 copies of "Her Way" on sale June 8, after June 3 excerpts in the New York Times Magazine. The size of the print runs mean both publishers expect their books to be major bestsellers.
In the works for eight years, Bernstein's 640-page book is the more extensive biography and, while not unsympathetic, includes some damning observations from people once close to the senator.
Bob Boorstin, who worked for Clinton when she was pushing her plan to restructure the nation's health-care system in the early days of her husband's presidency, blamed her for its collapse. "I find her to be among the most self-righteous people I've ever known in my life," he told Bernstein. "And it's her great flaw, it's what killed health care," along with other factors.
Mark Fabiani, who as White House special counsel played a key role in defending the Clintons, said she was "so tortured by the way she's been treated that she would do anything to get out of the situation. . . . And if that involved not being fully forthcoming, she herself would say, 'I have a reason for not being forthcoming.' " Her logic, he said, was: "If we do this, they're going to do this to me. If we say this, then they're going to say this. You know, [expletive] 'em, let's just not do that."
Fabiani said Clinton personally directed the White House defense, telling Bernstein that private attorney David E. Kendall dealt mainly with the first lady and met only rarely with the president until the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. "He was easy to deal with compared to her," Fabiani said of the first couple. The only time he saw Bill Clinton lose his temper, Fabiani said, was when the president saw his Whitewater partner, Susan McDougal, taken to jail in an orange jumpsuit and shackles for refusing to testify.
At one point, Hillary Clinton was convinced she would be next, worried that Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr would indict her for perjury or obstruction of justice arising from statements she made under oath about her work for Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, the Whitewater investment or long-missing billing records. "When I say there was a serious fear she would be indicted, I can't overstate that," Fabiani told Bernstein.
Bernstein reexamines the most sensational aspects of Clinton's life -- and to his subject the most painful -- namely her decisions to marry and remain married to Bill Clinton. She waited two years before deciding to become his wife and move to Arkansas, and Bernstein points to a little-known factor that may have contributed. Hillary Clinton failed the D.C. bar exam after law school, something she hid from her best friends for 30 years until disclosing it in passing in her autobiography, "Living History." Bernstein suggests that blow to her ego may have played a role in her decision to move to Arkansas, where she had passed the bar.
The women who also figured in Bill Clinton's life in Arkansas make a return appearance in the book, most notably Marilyn Jo Jenkins, a power company executive he fell in love with and almost left his wife over, according to Bernstein. Jenkins has been linked to Clinton before -- she was spirited into the governor's mansion at 5:15 a.m. for a final, furtive meeting with him the day he left for Washington to assume the presidency -- but Bernstein's account makes clear her pivotal role.
Bill Clinton wanted to divorce his wife to be with Jenkins in 1989, Bernstein reports, but Hillary Clinton refused. "There are worse things than infidelity," she told Betsey Wright, the governor's chief of staff. The crisis frayed Wright's relationship with Bill Clinton too, and she told Bernstein that she arranged for the two of them, Wright and Clinton, to see a therapist together.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, turned to her best friend, Diane Blair, obliquely raising the prospect of divorce during a long walk. "She was thinking that they had not made much money," Blair told Bernstein before her death in 2000, and she was concerned about her daughter. "Chelsea was there now. What if she were on her own? She didn't own a house. She was concerned that if she were to become a single parent, how would she make it work in a way that would be good for Chelsea."
The Clintons stayed together, but out of "anger and hurt" she considered running for governor in 1990, when he presumably would step down to prepare his 1992 presidential campaign. The idea ended after consultant Dick Morris conducted two polls showing she had no independent identity with Arkansas voters and compared her to George Wallace's wife, who ran to succeed him in Alabama -- an analogy that offended her.
By the time Bill Clinton was running for president, Hillary Clinton suggested to Blair that victory would be good for the marriage because her husband's sexual compulsions would be tempered by the White House and the ever-present press corps, Bernstein reports -- a flawed assumption, as it would turn out.
In Bernstein's account, both Clintons went to great lengths to keep the lid on his infidelities. At the behest of Wright and Hillary Clinton, two partners with Hillary Clinton at the Rose Law Firm, Webster L. Hubbell and Vincent W. Foster Jr., were hired to represent women named in a lawsuit as having secret affairs with the governor. Hubbell and Foster questioned the women, then obtained signed statements that they never had sex with Bill Clinton. On one occasion, Bernstein reports, Hillary Clinton was present for the questioning.
Bernstein also reports that Bill Clinton, with Morris's help, pressured Wright to issue a false statement denying comments she had made to David Maraniss, a Post reporter, for his book "First in His Class," in which she said Arkansas state troopers had procured women for the governor.
Gerth and Van Natta's 416-page book covers much of the same ground, but it explores Clinton's time in the Senate in greater depth and portrays her legislative career and her presidential campaign as parts of a broad, long-term plan for power that has its roots in the early 1970s.
According to Gerth and Van Natta, even before the Clintons were married they formulated a "secret pact of ambition" aimed at reinventing the Democratic Party and getting to the White House. The authors cite a former Bill Clinton girlfriend, Marla Crider, who said she saw a letter on his desk written by Hillary Clinton, outlining the couple's long-term ambitions, which they called their "twenty-year project."
Crider was first quoted about the letter in a book by a former National Enquirer reporter in 2000, at the time describing it as more about Bill Clinton's infidelities and the "little girls" he had. Gerth and Van Natta, however, report that they re-interviewed Crider and that she said the earlier book's account was "not totally accurate." In this telling, Crider described the note as being more about the couple's political plans, with little discussion of their personal relationship.
The authors report that the Clintons updated their plan after the 1992 election, determining that Hillary would run when Bill left office. They cite two people, Ann Crittenden and John Henry, who said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and close Clinton friend, told them that the Clintons "still planned two terms in the White House for Bill and, later, two for Hillary." Contacted last night, Branch said that "the story is preposterous" and that "I never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president."
The book looks in detail at Hillary Clinton's Senate vote in support of the Iraq war, suggesting she may have been motivated by a desire to not abandon her husband's tough-on-Iraq policy and a need "to prove that she was tough enough" as a woman. But Gerth and Van Natta suggest that she did not read the National Intelligence Estimate, which included caveats and dissents about reports of Iraq's weapons program.
Reines, Clinton's Senate spokesman, seemed to confirm last night that she did not read the NIE, saying by e-mail that she was "briefed multiple times by several members of the administration on their intelligence regarding Iraq, including being briefed on the NIE."
Gerth and Van Natta portray Clinton as fixated on secrecy and loyalty. She has used her Washington house as a staging ground for her presidential campaign, holding strategy meetings and fundraisers under strict confidentiality. "Visitors are asked to check their bags, cameras and cell phones at the door, pictures are taken by an authorized photographer," they write.
The authors assert that Clinton did not properly file paperwork with the Senate ethics committee to document many congressional fellows borrowed from universities to beef up her expertise on various issues. The ethics committee therefore could not determine if the free service, underwritten by university funds, created any conflicts, Gerth and Van Natta write.
The book portrays Clinton as constantly seeking the spotlight, pushing her way into Senate discussions without invitation. As Senate Democrats were wrestling with their approach to the Iraq war in mid-2006, for example, Clinton is described as inserting her name into a piece of legislation calling for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops. Although she was not originally a co-sponsor of the bill, she said she was, and after storming the floor of the Senate before her turn, she shifted her rationale for her original war vote, the authors write. Her behavior amazed Senate colleagues, they write.
As part of her presidential ambitions, they write, the Clintons plotted to steal some of the thunder of former vice president Al Gore on climate change, creating tension between the onetime partners. They recount how Bill Clinton filmed ads for a California ballot initiative that overshadowed a Gore ad.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.