The Making of the Front-Runner
As the serious stage of the presidential campaign begins this fall, Hillary Rodham Clinton has clearly established herself in the lead of the race for the Democratic nomination. That makes her the most worthy subject for examination among all the White House prospects.
I have been thinking a lot about Sen. Clinton because part of my vacation reading was Carl Bernstein's fine political biography of her, " A Woman in Charge," published earlier this year. Its 600 pages, carefully reported and written with a commendable evenness of tone, offer perhaps the fullest portrait of this potential president.
The single strongest impression it leaves is that this is a complex, talented person who has lived -- and survived -- a really hard life. As she nears her 60th birthday and the largest challenge of her career, the scars of those earlier experiences are plainly visible. What lies underneath the scar tissue is harder to discern.
This is a woman whose mother was abandoned as a child by her own mother and endured a difficult marriage to a domineering man. Hillary adored her father as a child but later struggled to come to terms with his opposition to her drive for independence.
This was a family almost as dysfunctional in its own way as Bill Clinton's, but one that clearly steeled Hillary for the challenges of a marriage that her closest female friends warned her could be a disaster. As a talented young lawyer, with every prospect of reaching the top herself, her decision to go off to Arkansas and marry that womanizing guy was beyond their comprehension. But she was smitten, and she saw in him the qualities of idealism and imagination that would in time make him president.
Her life as the wife of the governor of Arkansas was difficult. At one point, he asked for a divorce. But she hung in there and, after a perilous campaign in 1992, became first lady -- only to find even more controversy and tragedy in those eight White House years.
The health-care fiasco was a public humiliation. The suicide of her dear friend and law partner, Vince Foster, added to her sense of guilt. The trail of investigations began and led ultimately to Monica and impeachment. The upshot of all of it was that a woman who had always been aggressive in her approach to politics -- quick to classify people as friends or enemies -- came to despise much of official Washington and the news media.
In the first week of Bill Clinton's first term, Hillary Clinton addressed the Cabinet members and senior White House staff at Camp David. Her message was that her husband had failed in his first two years as governor and lost his first race for reelection because he tried to do too much too soon. But he came back in the next election because he gave his constituents a scapegoat -- the teachers union -- and he rallied them against his enemies. The enemies now, she said in that first week, are the Republicans, the special interests and the press -- so go after them.
Later, the enemy became Ken Starr and the special prosecutor's office, but the tactic was the same. No one who reads Bernstein's account can doubt that the lessons of this lifetime of struggle -- and the wounds it has left -- still mark Hillary Clinton. If other Democratic challengers come after her, she will be ready. If the Republicans want a piece of her, she is ready for a fight.
But the book ends too soon. As careful as the author is in tracing Hillary's history, he gives short shrift to her post-White House years, including her campaigns in New York and her service in the Senate, where she has been collegial, effective and highly disciplined.
Readers -- and voters -- are left to wonder how she has processed all of this experience herself, what scores she still needs to settle and what lessons she takes from it.
But one thing is absolutely clear. Her marriage is the central fact in her life, and this partnership of Bill and Hillary Clinton is indissoluble. She cannot function without him, and he would not have been president without her. If she becomes president, he will play as central a role in her presidency as she did in his. And that is something the country will have to ponder.