Sally Bedell Smith
Author, "For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton"
Friday, November 2, 2007 1:30 PM
Biographer Sally Bedell Smith fields questions and comments about her new work, "For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton." Read the review: Votes and Vows, (Post, Nov. 1).
Sally Bedell Smith has authored several other biographies of newsmakers and celebrities, including William S. Paley, Pamela Harriman, Diana, Princess of Wales and John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy.
A transcript follows.
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Sally Bedell Smith: It's good to be here to talk about my new book. FOR LOVE OF POLITICS: BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS examines a compelling and unusual marriage that is also the most unique political partnership we have ever seen--two halves of a unique whole that Hillary Clinton's mother has called "a third kind of entity"--showing that it is impossible to understand one Clinton without factoring in the other.
This is the first book to give readers a portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton at the apex of power, to examine the role of politics as a sustaining force in their marriage, and to analyze the impact of the push and pull of that marriage on the decisions and events of the Clinton presidency.
Hillary Clinton says that her eight years as First Lady give her an edge over every other candidate. Yet she declines to offer much beyond generalities about that experience. Both she and her husband would prefer a past dimly and nostalgically remembered than one truly told. By bringing new information and insights, and by connecting the dots in new ways, I am offering readers the complete picture of what we could expect if we had two presidents married to each other and living in the White House.
Wyomissing, Pa.: What about Chelsea? What has been the effect of the Clinton unconventional relationship as well as the Monica fiasco on Chelsea's emotional well-being?
Sally Bedell Smith: In writing about the Clinton marriage, it was important to consider their only child who lived through all the strains and scandals of those eight years and had to endure her father's public betrayal. By interviewing her contemporaries and others who observed the Clintons as parents, I show for the first time what it was like for her to grow up in that situation, and how she was affected by turbulent events.
Chelsea has had a uniquely political upbringing. Her parents started role playing with her when she was six, an exercise Hillary was pleased with because she said it helped Chelsea "gain mastery over her emotions." Hillary herself had said once in college that "unthinking emotion is pitiful to me," and I was struck by how Chelsea internalized this lesson, telling her friends, "emotions aren't rational."
From childhood onward, Chelsea was trained to stay on message and preserve her image above all. Her parents shielded her, but they also made her a public figure when it was politically advantageous. She had a role in Bill's 1992 campaign film, and when the Clintons were concerned that voters thought they were childless, they put her on the cover of People magazine. Most memorably, she served as a bridge between them in August 1998 when they walked across the South Lawn after Bill had admitted he had lied for seven months about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Chelsea had a terrible time in the months after the Lewinsky story broke, and no one has previously told that story. She suffered headaches and took to her bed, but as one of her friends told me, she "didn't deal with issues. She talked about her problems in a very reserved calibrated way--not really what was going on inside her."
It was also fascinating for me to discover to what degree Chelsea reflects personality traits of each of her parents, and my book offers some fascinating insights from some of Chelsea's friends.
Alexandria, Va.: Aren't a lot of political "wives" really as political as their husbands? Why are people so surprised/disgusted/resentful that Hillary Clinton has a political career of her own? Most of the "first female -- insert elected position here -- politicians in history were political wives, including widows. Nobody questions whether Elizabeth Dole has a mind of her own, so why question whether Hillary Clinton is her own person?
Sally Bedell Smith: What is so striking about the Clinton marriage is the degree to which a passion for politics has kept Bill and Hillary together despite his years of womanizing. This is the crux of the book, and the evidence is on every page. It is also clear that Hillary would not be in her current position as a frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination if she had not ridden her husband's coattails since the early 1970s. When she decided to run for the Senate, she relied heavily on his advice, his experience, and his contacts, and in her race for the White House she continues to be heavily dependent on him.
Hardball: I wanted to tell you I thought you did a good job on trying to discuss your book even though your interviewer was Chris Matthews. His agenda is pretty obvious and was clearly trying to get you to agree with his opinions and you didn't take the bait.
Granted the Hillary/Bill marriage is nobody's business but the POTUS/First Lady dynamic is always interesting. Are you planning on tackling any other political marriages in the future.
Sally Bedell Smith: I have been exceedingly fortunate to write about the two most compelling political couples of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I don't think I want to press my luck. My next biographical subject will not likely be from the political world, although I continue to enjoy analyzing, understanding and explaining complicated relationships.
Sally Bedell Smith: Sally Bedell Smith: I have been exceedingly fortunate to write about the two most compelling political couples of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I don't think I want to press my luck. My next biographical subject will not likely be from the political world, although I continue to enjoy analyzing, understanding and explaining complicated relationships.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How would you compare and contrast the relationships between the Kennedys and the Clintons?
Sally Bedell Smith: The Kennedys were a far more traditional couple, and Jackie had little interest in political life or policy questions. She was mostly interested in bringing her sense of style and keen intelligence to create a glamorous White House not unlike an 18th century French court. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it their "casual sort of grandeur."
Hillary was indifferent to traditional First Lady duties. I was struck that Ann Stock, her first social secretary, told me that when Hillary interviewed her for the job she said she considered it "one of the most political jobs...like running a small advertising agency, and taking the day's message and translating it into events for the President and First Lady." Jackie Kennedy's social secretary, Tish Baldrige, would probably have fainted at such a prospect.
Access to Clinton's documents: Ms. Smith: In this week's debate, Sen. Clinton seemed to place the blame on lack of access to her communications with her husband during the White House years on the Archives system. Based on your experience in writing this book, is that true? Thank you.
Sally Bedell Smith: Since Bill and Hillary Clinton have a long history of collaborating closely on every issue and crisis confronting them, she certainly must have had a role in deciding to keep her vital documents off-bounds for as long as possible. Thankfully, I was able to talk to lots of people who were in the room with the Clintons during crucial moments, so I could describe the quality of Hillary's decision-making during the White House years as her husband's most influential consultant.
Washington, D.C.: What did you think of the review of your book that ran the Post?
washingtonpost.com: Votes and Vows: The Marriage Of Bill and Hillary Clinton ( Post, Nov. 1)
Sally Bedell Smith: I as quite stunned that the Post assigned someone to review my book who had so discredited herself when it comes to the Clintons. Nearly a decade ago Nina Burleigh wrote that while she was a reporter for TIME magazine in the early 90s she had been sexually aroused by what she described as Bill Clinton's ogling of her during a game of cards. She said that if he had asked her to his motel room she would have been "quite willing to let myself be ravished by the President." She followed up that unprofessional confession by telling a reporter that she would be "happy to give [Bill Clinton oral sex] just to thank him for keeping abortion legal." Her comments were the talk of Washington, and one of her sharpest critics was my friend, the late Marjorie Williams, to whom I dedicated my book. As Marjorie wrote in Slate, "It's one thing to use your sex, as female journalists are wise to do in covering the heavily male culture of politics. It's another to try to have sex with your subjects."
In her review Burleigh didn't even come to grips with the enormous consequences of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. As one close friend of the Clintons' described it to me, "It was the [oral sex] that changed history...It is like a very very bright light you can't look at. There is no doubt that if Bill Clinton had kept his zipper up north instead of down south, Al Gore would have been elected president. That is a big deal."
Burleigh offers no basis for her opinions about Hillary's love for Bill, or for her dismissal of the fact, repeated over and over to me by those close to the Clintons, that a love of politics has been the essential glue keeping their turbulent marriage together. As Senator Pat Moynihan used to say, "you are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your o wn facts." My book is a textured portrait of the Clintons strengthened by the cumulative power of facts.
Annapolis, Md.: In your opinion, when did Hillary first contemplate a presidential bid? Is this a culmination of a years-old "plan" or a recent development stemming from Bill's infidelity with Monica?
Sally Bedell Smith: Friends around the Clintons began talking about a Hillary succession back in the 1970s.For years their close friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, has been fond of saying that when the Clintons are dead and gone, each of them will be buried next to a president of the United States. In a 1992 interview during his own presidential campaign, Bill said, "Eight years of Hillary Clinton. Why not?" A senior Clinton administration official told me that it was an "open secret" that some of Hillary's advisors "nurtured dreams that Hillary, not Gore, would follow Bill in the presidency." Bill's Arkansas chief of staff said during the first year of his presidency that there were "a great many people talking very seriously about her succeeding him. Friends, Democrats, people out across the country think it is a very viable plan of action."
"Hillary Clinton says that her eight years as First Lady give her an edge over every other candidate. Yet she declines to offer much beyond generalities about that experience.": This, to me, is an even bigger dilemma for Sen. Clinton than her inability to give clear answers on her future policies. In your book, do you cite any specific instances where the then-First Lady was actively involved in shaping policy that became law or official action by the government at that time? Thanks.
Sally Bedell Smith: There are countless examples throughout the book. Although she held no official position of executive leadership, Hillary had a role in crucial domestic and foreign policy decisions. To name just a few: in 1993 she talked her husband out of getting involved in the war in Bosnia because she thought it would be like Vietnam and would harm the chances for her health care plan. Two years later, after being secretly tutored by a State Department official, she became an advocate for the use of force in Bosnia because she feared Bill's inaction was harming him politically. In the summer of 1993 she tried to scuttle NAFTA and had to be dissuaded by Mickey Kantor, the trade representative and a longtime Clinton friend, who told her that Bill needed a bipartisan political victory.
The key questions are accountability and transparency, which came up in the Democratic debate the other night. Hillary has always liked to operate as a "hidden hand," and one of her confidantes told me that during the Clinton presidency when Hillary gave instructions she would often say, "don't leave any fingerprints."
These questions of accountability and transparency would be significantly magnified if Bill--a self-described "secret keeper"--were to return to the White House as a co-president. Bill and Hillary's long history of political collaboration, much of it private, could end up distorting the way the Executive Branch is supposed to function--regardless of the talents each of them might bring to the White House. This is an issue that is only going to grow, and Hillary Clinton will need to address it in some fashion.
What will Bill do?: Ms. Smith: One of the many areas where Sen. Clinton fails to provide a clear answer is the role of her husband in her administration. What role do you think he will play and will that role come close to violating the Constitutional term limits for Presidents? Thanks.
Sally Bedell Smith: This is crucial issue, and if one believes in past as prologue, there are many clues in my book. The 22nd amendment was designed to limit a president to two terms in office, and the anti nepotism law signed in December 1967 prohibits any official in the three branches of government, including the president, from appointing any relative to a job over which the official has authority or control. That would include any staff job in the White House, any cabinet post, or any job as ambassador. The notion of two presidents--married to each other--in the White House is not something envisioned by the founders.
There are extra constitutional implications and endless questions raised by the prospect of a former president who might have duties overlapping with every top official of a Hillary Clinton White House from the vice president on down. Just as in 1992 Hillary insisted on having a key role in her husband's presidency because she had been instrumental in his victory, if HIllary wins in 2008 Bill will have helped her earn it and will want to be in the engine room of the West Wing, shaping policy for the new administration. Many voters would say that such experience would be a great asset. But what would the balance of power be, and how would people know which president was in charge? How would the dynamics of their marriage affect Hillary's judgment? The list goes on and on.
Wilmington, N.C.: Aren't a lot of political biographers just interested in cashing in on the heightened interest of a presidential campaign by writing highly speculative polemics aimed at gullible book buyers looking to have their worst suspicions confirmed in print by a mind reading author? I am so glad you are not one of those. How do you manage to report so much insight into the very inner workings of the Clintons' minds that no one has credibly reported before?
Sally Bedell Smith: My goal with all of my biographies has been to understand and explain, and to that end I do exhaustive research. For this book I analyzed some 7,000 pages of newspaper and magazine articles about the Clintons, along with academic journals, hundreds of speeches by Bill and Hillary, and 65 books--memoirs written by key figures in the Clinton Administration as well as other biographies and books on foreign and domestic policy. I also interviewed some 160 people with first-hand knowledge--close friends, cabinet officers, and members of Bill and Hillary's staffs in the White House. From the array of sources I wove together the most illuminating insights and best information to create a well rounded and even-handed portrait of the Clintons in power.
Washington, D.C.: Why put their joint love of politics in such a negative light? Lots of couples have joint interests that keep them together through good and bad times. They love politics, and that's a major reason that they love each other, because they have a fantastic joint interest...
Sally Bedell Smith: I think if you read my book you will find it to be a dispassionate portrait of the Clintons that brings new insight to them individually and as a couple. People read books in different ways, and come away with different conclusions. There is no doubt that Bill and Hillary Clinton together are "force multipliers." As their friend Susan Thomases told me, "She has always had enormous respect and affection for him in the political context. He was always the strategist for himself and for her."
In American political life, the dynamics of the Clinton marriage are rather unconventional, more along the lines of a European marriage.
Re: What will Bill do?: I can only say, "Thank you." I have yet to see a journalist or pundit seriously address the issues that you raised in the answer to this question (yes, it was my question). I hope many soon will, without getting mired into the trap of "you're a sexist pig because you don't think she can run the country by herself." It's really important.
Sally Bedell Smith: Thank you. Since I began talking about my book in the past couple of weeks, I have been pleased to see that political analysts from the "Horserace" blogger for CBS News to Charles Krauthammer in today's Washington Post, have picked up on the issue, and it has begun to enter the national conversation. The "Horserace" blogger even suggested that Hillary should make a speech stipulating Bill's duties.
Anonymous: Did the process of researching and writing this book change your opinion of Hillary? What was your biggest surprise?
Sally Bedell Smith: My biggest surprise was the extent of her role in the White House after the Democrats lost control of the House and Senate in 1994 and publicly Hillary assumed more traditional First Lady duties. But Bill continued to have her in the room for major decisions (so much so that the staff called her The Supreme Court because she was the last person he consulted), she served as a back channel for people inside and outside the government who wanted to influence or put pressure on her meetings, she had a say in screening nominees for the federal judiciary and US attorneys, and she pushed her husband to appoint her friend Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State. WE all know about Hillary's leading role in health care reform in 1993 and 1994, but many of these other roles were behind the scenes, and she wasn't accountable for them.
washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Sally Bedell Smith. Thank you for joining in.
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