Books: 'A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton'

Carl Bernstein
Author, "A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton"
Friday, June 8, 2007; 2:00 PM

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. -- Review by Kevin Phillips (Book World, June 10 - 16, 2007)

Carl Bernstein, who was one of The Washington Post's lead reporters on the Watergate scandal and who shared in the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for public service, was online Friday, June 8 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss "Woman in Charge," his new biography of former first lady and 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Books Paint Critical Portraits of Clinton (Post, May 25)

The transcript follows.

Bernstein, who left The Post in 1977, now is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. Bernstein co-wrote "All The President's Men" and "The Final Days" with fellow Post Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, and also co-wrote a biography of Pope John Paul II ("His Holiness") and a memoir of his parents' ordeal during the McCarthy era ("Loyalties").


Carl Bernstein: Good afternoon Washington Post readers; good to be back home and remember the D.C. humidity of my childhood (for those not in Washington, it is very very hot here today).


Philadelphia: What role has faith played in the life of Hillary Clinton?

Carl Bernstein: Religion is one of the fundaments of Hillary Clinton's character and politics. Her comments earlier this week that she does not wear her religion on her sleeve are true.

In the first month of the Clinton presidency she joined a women's prayer group whose members included Susan Baker, the wife of Reagan-Bush chief of staff/Secretary of State James Baker, as well as the wife of the Washington Redskins chaplain, who was also the minister of the McLean church where Kenneth Starr and other conservative Republican luminaries worship.

These women sent Hillary scripture readings, came to the White House to pray with and for her, and generally were a welcome source of strength and friendship for her throughout the White House years, and especially as the Lewinsky ugliness moved relentlessly through her life.

She was raised in the Methodist faith of her parents but became influenced by such twentieth century theologians as Tillich, Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, all of whom regarded Christian values and ethics as essential elements in the exercise of political power. From this heritage, and her continuing tutelage under a youth minister who came to her hometown in her high school years, Hillary became certain that those values demanded spiritually based intervention in the political system. She went to hear Martin Luther King speak as a teenager, and that too was a transforming event.

Methodism's "emphasis on personal salvation combined with active applied Christianity," she has said, is what she believes in. "As a Christian, part of my obligation is to alleviate suffering. Explicit recognition of that in the Methodist tradition is one reason I'm comfortable in this church."

White House aides found such statements sometimes to be uplifting, and at other times self-righteous.

One of Bill Clinton's deputies maintained she used religion to justify the failings of herself and her husband, and to excuse the character flaws of both. Others believed her faith gave a moral dimension to her determination and advocacy.

And there was also a view held by some White House aides that she developed an ends-justify-the-means philosophy that was excused by her religious beliefs.


McLean, Va.: I was surprised to learn that Hillary did not pass the D.C. bar exam. Did she retake and pass it later? I assume she passed the bar exam in Arkansas. And in New York?

Carl Bernstein: Her closest friends and associates -- including Webb Hubbell, her former law partner, Jim Blair, Betsey Wright, among others -- were flabbergasted to learn some 30 years after the fact, from a single line in Hillary's "autobiography," that she had failed the D.C. bar. I obtained the records of the Bar Association for the year she failed, and many more applicants passed than failed; few of those failing had attended law school at Yale, as Hillary had, or other Ivy League schools.

Never in her life had she so spectacularly failed, and -- as her closest friends told me -- it must have been a terrible and important experience. Thereafter she never took the D.C. bar exam again; she had passed the Arkansas bar, and decided to follow Bill Clinton to his home state, rather than seek employment with a high-powered law firm in Washington; nor did she take the New York or Illinois bar exam. She often talked about the offers she had had to join Washington law firms after her work with the Nixon impeachment inquiry, but never disclosed in those conversations that she had failed the bar -- something that, obviously, would have made going to work at those firms very unlikely unless she took the exam again and passed.

Many bright and successful lawyers, of course, have flunked bar exams on the first try.

_______________________ We've just posted this coming Sunday's review of the new Hillary Clinton books, including Bernstein's -- Book World: All in the Family (, June 8)


St. Louis: Hope you don't mind a timely but off-topic question. Your positive Washington Post review of the Sgt. Pepper's album at the time of its release was mentioned in a story in last Sunday's New York Times. A lot of people have lost their initial fondness for the album in the ensuing 40 years and I was just wondering if you had as well.

Carl Bernstein: I like this question a lot; and I still like the album.

Though I've retired as a rock critic, I still listen a good bit to rock, especially as my son Max is a rock musician.

His group -- The Actual, which just opened for Velvet Revolver on a cross-country tour -- has a new CD out this week, the same week my new book has been released, which is a nice coincidence and an opportunity to express fatherly pride.

The CD is called "In Stitches" and can be heard in part on MySpace by searching for the name of the band; the lead cut on the CD, "This Is the Worst Day of My Life," was song of the week on MySpace recently.

So, let us all praise the opportunities of product placement, the historic and enduring greatness of Sgt. Pepper, and great young musicians like Max (lead guitar, vocals, songwriter) and his talented bandmates. The CD is produced by Scott Weiland, the eminence of Velvet Revolver, and is on Softdrive records.

And now, back to work.


Anonymous: From the New York Times review of your book: "(Bernstein) argues that the couple were 'treated more harshly, and often pursued with different standards and more relentlessly -- during virtually the whole of their occupancy of the White House -- than any president and his wife of the 20th century.' He contends that many of the 'underlying assumptions' of the assertions that fueled the investigation into their lives 'were often contextually misleading, exaggerated in significance, and sometimes factually off-base.' "

Are these quotes accurate? If so, who was doing the pursuing, misleading, exaggerating and "off-basing"? If true, this topic might make an excellent book. Have you considered this?

Carl Bernstein: The quotes are accurate; both the press and the excesses of the Clintons' enemies and an out-of-control special prosecutor were responsible. The original New York Times story that began the so-called "Whitewater" investigations was hardly worthy of the subsequent attention and inflation
it was accorded, especially in the coverage of the Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

"A Woman in Charge" examines in considerable detail the question you raise, so I don't think a separate book is necessary; certainly not from me.

It also bears noting, that (as I report in the book) the Clintons' responses to the investigations and reporting was often self-defeating, trimmed the truth and elevated suspicion, especially about Hillary.


Alpharetta, Ga.: What picture do you get of Hilary Clinton's ideology? Is she a third-way moderate or more of a Great Society or '60s liberal?

Carl Bernstein: She has always avoided easy categorization in terms of ideology, and this seems to me to be one of her strengths. She borrows from different ideologies and traditions: some liberal, some harking back to her days as a "Goldwater girl," some as a "third-way moderate," as you put it. She also brushed up against radicalism in college and law school -- worked for a summer in the most prominent left-wing law firm on the West Coast, which defended the Black Panthers and members of the Communist Party, wrote her senior college thesis on radical Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky -- but always has rejected radicalism. More to the point, she stressed to friends in college the necessity of "winning" political fights to be effective, something radicals usually have not achieved, certainly not in the short term.

Perhaps more significant than her actual brushes with radicalism is the fact that she has omitted in her "autobiography" any mention of the nature of the law practice of Treuhaft Walker and Burnstein, where she worked.


Springfield, Ill.: Perhaps a little off topic but ... after your appearance on "The Colbert Report" what do you think of Steven Colbert as a journalist/entertainer? Do you think he is only contributing to America's "idiot culture" or do you think his show has a positive impact, by reaching out to an audience that otherwise would be largely unaware of what is happening in the news? Video: Stephen Colbert Interviews Carl Bernstein (The Colbert Report, June 6)

Carl Bernstein: I think he's brilliant; I think his address to the White House Correspondents' dinner, with President Bush in attendance, was an act of great political courage, and a much deserved commentary both about the Bush presidency and the press. I think political satire is a great form of expression, and yes -- agree or disagree -- it does help bring information about public affairs to some people who might otherwise be disinclined to get it. But I don't think that's the most important point.


Polson, Mont.: Please describe specifically how is Hillary more "unauthentic" and more "calculating" than the members of the current administration's inner circle.

Carl Bernstein: I wouldn't judge her more "unauthentic" or "calculating" than the current inner-circle. I have written (see the Vanity Fair Web site) at length about the mendacity, incompetence, and tragic arrogance of President Bush and some members of his inner circle.

What I have written about Hillary in the last chapter of "A Woman in Charge" is that: "Increasingly, what Hillary serves up for public consumption, especially since setting her sights on the Senate and the presidency, is usually elaborately prepared or relatively soulless.. This is the true shame.

"Hillary is neither the demon of the right's perception, nor a feminist saint, nor is she particularly emblematic of her time -- perhaps more old-fashioned than modern. Hers is a story of strength and vulnerability, a woman's story. She is a woman endowed with energy, enthusiasm, humor, tempestuousness, inner strength, spontaneity in private, lethal (almost) powers of retribution, real-life lines that come from deep wounds, and the language skills of a sailor (and of a minister), all evidence of her passion -- which down deep, is perhaps her most enduring and even endearing trait.

"As Hillary has continued to speak from the protective shell of her own making, and packaged herself for the widest possible consumption, she has misrepresented not just facts but often her essential self."


Washington, D.C.: Dick Morris referred to your book as a "puff piece." Do you agree, and was that your intention?

Carl Bernstein: Hardly a puff piece, to judge from the reaction of the Clinton apparat or the reviewers. Ron Brownstein in his review in the LA Times called the book "a model of contemporary political biography ... thorough, balanced, judicious and deeply reported..."

That was my objective, and though I'm sure some reviewers won't agree, I've striven to do what real reporting aspires to: the best obtainable version of the truth, the same objective as good biography.

I think Dick Morris' comment is more reflective of the cultural warfare that, sadly, attends our political process in this country, in which intolerance and vitriol is too often the staple of our political debate. This book will not satisfy either the committed Clinton-haters, nor the Clintons' blindly following acolytes; neither group seems very interested in nuance, context or a genuine attempt (whether by me or any other journalist) to present a detailed, realistic, truthful picture of the remarkable woman Hillary Rodham Clinton is.

A final note about biography: If we had had real biography about George W. Bush at the time of the 2000 election, I doubt that his catastrophic presidency would have been possible; voters would have had far more information -- contextual, accurate, fair, judicious -- with which to make their decision.

In this 2008 presidential election we need real biography about all the candidates who are most likely to become the next president. ... The price of misinformation, disinformation and journalistic laziness has become all too apparent.

_______________________ 'A Woman in Charge' and 'Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton' (Los Angeles Times, June 4)


Carl Bernstein: Thanks so much. I hope you enjoy the book. It's not meant to be hard work, and might even be fun on the beach. Certainly talking with you has been fun, and your questions were really thoughtful.


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