Reviewed by Kevin Phillips
Sunday, June 10, 2007
A WOMAN IN CHARGE
By Carl Bernstein
Knopf. 630 pp. $27.95
The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton
By Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.
Little Brown. 438 pp. $29.99
Three decades have passed since Carl Bernstein wrote his last book on U.S. politics, The Final Days, co-authored with Bob Woodward. But he has not lost his reporter's touch, and his new book, A Woman in Charge, has already refocused serious questions -- and supplied new information -- about Hillary and Bill Clinton, their past behavior and their current ambitions to regain the White House.
In Her Way, New York Times reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth have painted the couple's unprecedented duality of skill and ambition even more boldly. The Clintons, they claim, sought and planned for sequential power: eight years in the White House for him, then eight years for her. Whether the authors' evidence holds up -- denials have already been reported -- remains to be seen. Taken together, however, these two volumes foreshadow what may well become a central issue of the 2008 presidential campaign: In light of the endless deceits, interest-group baggage, messianic overtones and shameless money politics of the two Bush dynasts (presidents number 41 and 43), do American voters want to empower yet another dubious dynasty (Clinton presidents number 42 and 44)?
Van Natta and Gerth, while displaying no election sympathies, note that "for decades, Hillary and Bill Clinton, along with a core group of friends and supporters, have told one story. Now it is time for another." Bernstein, on the other hand, salts his pages with anti-Republican asides, and seems to believe in much of the Clinton philosophy, if not methodology.
If a common theme exists, it is that Hillary Clinton, who has been "first partner" and then "first lady," and often the iron fist of their joint success, now aims, with her husband's collaboration, to become the ultimate "woman in charge." To Van Natta and Gerth, this long-term plan has actually been set down on paper and confirmed by a former senior Clinton administration official. If these allegations hold up, such a pursuit of family power is unlikely to further her White House prospects.
Bernstein, despite his pro-Clinton infusions, pursues a similar theme: Bill and Hillary's shared political "journey" since the 1970s. In 2000, "Hillary was seeking not just a seat in the Senate, but redemption: hers, her husband's, and the Clinton presidency's." By 2007, after the "co-presidency" of 1993-2000, "Bill Clinton had become her biggest booster as, roles now reversed, the gears of the Clinton apparat shifted and another Clinton sought the presidency. He was now a constant presence in the background as her counsel, consultant, strategist, and, finally, the elemental part of her process as a woman in charge."
To underscore the nature of the teamwork, he quotes a number of Clinton friends and advisers -- David Gergen, Stan Greenberg and Dick Morris, among others -- describing how their personalities and talents have combined so effectively. Bill is the charismatic politician with a mind like a smorgasbord -- wide-ranging but sometimes unfocused; she is the strategist, enforcer and hard-charging combat seeker. As Dick Morris puts it: "She has a quality of ruthlessness, a quality of aggressiveness and strength about her that he doesn't have. A killer instinct. Her genre of advocacy is always straight ahead--fight, battle, take the fight to the other side. There's no subtlety, there's none of the nuance that he has." But Bill Clinton seems more dependent on his wife than vice-versa, and may suffer from what his longtime chief of staff Betsey Wright calls his "ongoing inferiority complex. . . . Bill Clinton has spent his whole life scared that he's white trash, and doing whatever he could to try to prove to himself that he isn't."
Both books take notice of the many Clinton ethical transgressions, with Bernstein concentrating on the years up to 1999. Van Natta and Gerth, who covered some of these stories for the New York Times, do well in cataloguing the couple's legal gamesmanship (both Clintons, remember, are lawyers) in episodes like the Whitewater land deal, Hillary's profitable commodity straddles, conflicts of interest at Little Rock's Rose law firm and other episodes. Bernstein notes that one of the reasons that Vice President Al Gore distanced himself from Clinton is "that he disapproved of Clinton's conduct . . . and the Clintons' ethical lapses."
Sexual scandals, both acknowledged and alleged, pervade both books. In retrospect, conservative charges were often correct, even though their procedures and motives were frequently tainted. If Hillary Clinton did not know exactly what her husband was up to with Paula Corbin Jones and Monica Lewinsky, she was well-acquainted with his modus operandi, and in her role as chief family strategist had taken the lead in dealing with the Gennifer Flowers scandal.
Sometimes she even interviewed women to get them to sign denials of having had sex with her husband. And the American public saw her dissemble in television appearances in 1992 and 1998, denying her husband's culpability with respect to Flowers and Lewinsky. If you credit the thrust of these two volumes, she was defending not just his presidency in these appearances but the possibility of her own.
Because Bernstein's book is 200 pages longer than Van Natta and Gerth's, he gets into much more detail, some of which suggests how pervasive -- in politics, law and policy -- the effects of Bill Clinton's libidinous misadventures may have been. To begin with, Hillary's influence over policy and personnel peaked when her husband needed her to defend him from sex-related charges, especially in 1992, 1993, 1998 and 1999. Dick Morris and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin both confirm the chronology. This helps to explain how Ms. Clinton could race ahead, unbridled, in 1993-94 with her disastrous health reform program. As for the Paula Jones scandal and "Troopergate," the potential illegalities had multiple dimensions. Bernstein's pages include references to troopers alleging that White House staffers had "strong-armed" sources to keep their mouths shut about Gov. Clinton's profligacies, while ex-Clinton chief of staff Betsey Wright told Bernstein that "there was no question that troopers had pulled women out of crowds for the governor at Bill's direction." The author surmises that a file on these and other matters kept secret at the Clinton's law firm because of attorney-client privilege might, if released, have been enough to bring Clinton down. On top of which, there is the insistence by Republicans on Capitol Hill that Clinton's mid-December 1998 bombing of Iraq to destroy supposed "weapons of mass destruction" was also timed to divert the nation's attention from the impeachment debate moving toward its climax in the House of Representatives. This is serious stuff, far beyond the harmless Ozark Casanova jokes.
Because most of Bernstein's book -- aside from a short final chapter -- is set prior to 2001, Van Natta and Gerth have the edge in looking at the presidential campaign Hillary Clinton has been forging in the last several years. A chapter called "The Mysteries of Hillaryland" explains that Hillaryland is shorthand for the separate power center she began developing in 1992, and that by now it has "eclipsed the empire built by the Kennedy clan. Today, no active political organization can match its depth, discipline or devotion . . . " Elsewhere, they underscore how much of her organization is run by women, how women dominate her crowds, and how much of her focus is on women voters.
Ironically, over the last decade, Hillary Clinton has generally botched the key issue in U.S. politics from the women's point of view: the war in Iraq. Bernstein gives Iraq no more than a handful of pages, but concludes that she took too long to understand what happened, and that "in regard to the gravest issue of the era," it would be "harder than ever to discern some of her principles." In Iraq, say Van Natta and Gerth, "her way" has gotten her into something of a quagmire, based in no small part on advice from her husband and the positions she was locked into by the actions -- including bombing raids and credulous reliance on WMD intelligence by an administration of which she was, to some degree, co-president. Van Natta and Gerth appear to fault her for not reading the full 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, given to senators, which began to note some of the growing number of caveats and dissents on Iraqi capabilities.
If George W. Bush has amplified his Republican dynasty's past excessive focus on Iraq, Hillary Clinton's position has been warped by miscalculations and vested interests lingering from her husband's presidency. As a result, say Gerth and Van Natta, her voting record on Iraq is "the most dangerous" obstacle to her nomination; "she was betting that her opponents -- and the voters -- wouldn't check the fine print."
In the past, domestic issues have been her cause, and according to a fascinating aside in Bernstein's pages, this may be because of her deep religious beliefs, namely her Methodist-based social activism. Some friends or aides cite a faith verging on the Messianic -- a missionary zeal, sometimes shading into arrogance. Others feel that her religion allows her to elevate loyalty to sinner Bill to an act of biblical proportion and to evoke "Joan of Arc, a martyr in the religious sense," which enables her to be a laudable victim. Given the extent to which George W. Bush has come under fire for statements that God wanted him to be president or that he is carrying out God's plans in the Middle East, Hillary Clinton's messianism may not sit well with the voters. Nevertheless, Bernstein probes it at length, and extends the discussion by discussing her flirtation during her White House years with gurus and New Age theologians who even led her in something resembling séances with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi.
Many who immerse themselves in the two volumes may feel that, despite Hillary Clinton's personal skills, the United States does not need another dynasty fueled by big money and entrenched deceit. But voters tend to forget the problems they had with Dynasty A once they become disillusioned with Dynasty B. Who'd have thought in 1992, for example, when George H.W. Bush's bid for a second term was defeated amid a weak economy, scandals and a feeling that the war with Saddam had been ended too soon, that eight years later the public would be ready to vote for his minimally experienced, Bible-quoting son? But by 2000, two terms of Clinton's sexual trespasses had made the Bushes look like a traditional-values family. Now seven years of growing national disenchantment with George W. Bush, perhaps the least competent president in modern history, may well lull the U.S. electorate into forgetting the many problematic aspects of the 1993-2001 Clinton regime. One hopes these probing books will serve as wake-up calls. ·
Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush" and "American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century."