HILLARY'S CHOICE

By Gail Sheehy

Random House. 389 pp. $23.95.

Reviewed by Claire Douglas

Why would someone who had been subjected to the exhaustive public airing of unsavory facts and gossip about the Clintons want to read yet another book about either of them? Gail Sheehy, a bestselling author of books on adult life stages and a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, needed to address that concern in her new biography of the First Lady, Hillary's Choice. But a reader seeking a rationale, a strong, consistent voice, a trailblazing point of view, or recent and direct access to the Clintons -- will find these absent from her book.

Sheehy presents her readers with some interesting new material, especially about Hillary Rodham Clinton's college and law school years. Sheehy makes good use of the letters Hillary wrote during these years to a high school friend and the interviews she managed to get with Hillary's first love. It is the clearest picture of Hillary we get from Hillary's Choice. Sheehy reveals a headstrong yet dedicated young women who studied hard, was politically active in a time of great political unrest, had a developing social conscience, and lived out a passionate relationship with a "ruthlessly handsome black Irishman" who studied government at Georgetown and then moved to Vermont to work on Head Start.

The rest of the book, though, bases its plot on two questions never convincingly addressed: Why did Hillary marry Bill? And why did she stay married to him? Every chapter seems to come up with new answers, but none makes much more sense than the questions themselves. The result seems shopworn and, in spite of copious interviews and footnotes, surprisingly empty and unfocused.

Sheehy interviewed extensively, but much of her information comes from people who have been fired by the Clintons and clearly have axes to grind; less frequent but of equal concern are the unnamed "counsels," "government officials," "aides," "guests" and "knowledgeable sources."

Sheehy, well-known for her character studies of numerous politicians, has not conducted a single interview with either Hillary or Bill Clinton since the spring of 1992, when she published "What Hillary Wants" in Vanity Fair. Seven years of history thus rest on secondary sources that are often dubious at best. This leaves a very large gap in the center of the story. The subject herself is missing, as when Sheehy writes: "Hillary's feelings were too chaotic to be allowed to surface. Associates believed she was furious and devastated." There is no Hillary Clinton there reflecting on her feelings, only Sheehy and unnamed secondary sources deciding what Hillary experienced.

In place of Hillary Clinton, one is given a mixture of rather dated pop-psych interpretations of the couple as well as news of clothes and makeup presented in the edgy, brittle tone of a catty society dinner companion whose transient purpose is to titillate: "The staff was always wondering, `Do they do it? Only on her birthday?'"; "Who was that dazzling woman on the President's arm . . . A plunging neckline revealed the First Bosom in a most flattering way"; "Out flew Mary Lee Fray [a college friend] in bare feet, six months pregnant, wriggling and giggling in anticipation of meeting [Hillary]."

Apparently, Bill Clinton's mother liked to receive compliments, and so Sheehy concludes: "Thus did Bill learn how to flatter women and make them purr. From this home tutoring he developed the powers of alchemy that would allow him to be seductive to both men and women for the rest of his life."

Sheehy's list of diagnoses for the Clintons is neither clinically acute nor convincing. She calls the normal protean shifts of interest in a college-age student "Hillary's four year identity crisis," and throws around self-help buzz words as rationales, such as Hillary's "addiction" (to Bill), their addictive personalities, their being "in denial," their "compartmentalizations," his child-of-alcoholics or abused-child "syndromes," and their "enabling" behaviors. Sheehy at one point even suggests that the president has multiple personality (dissociative) disorder. She also makes an effort, not often successfully, to conform the Clintons' lives into the stages of adult life and mid-life crises as set out in Sheehy's series of books, Passages, The Silent Passage, and New Passages: "Hillary is one of those special women who feel a surge of postmenopausal zest and open up to their full power in their Flaming Fifties."

Sheehy's casual manipulation of psychological terms ungrounded in clinical experience or background reminds me of errors I observe when I am mentoring neophyte therapists or analysts. In an initial case presentation, they sometimes bombard me with a barrage of clinical terms (with which they seem more familiar than with their own patients). The enchantment with pathologizing words often represents a desire for mastery and can be a form of self-protection against the suffering an analyst witnesses. My task is to get my supervisees to see the human being first and form a tentative diagnosis only after deep exploration. Diagnosis belongs between a patient and his or her caregiver. It is an art hard-gained and comes secondary to an acute understanding of the human condition. It has no place in this book, in the hands of an amateur.

Amid Sheehy's many such attempts to psychoanalyze both Hillary and Bill and to pathologize their lives, Hillary's impressive accomplishments are given less than their due. Sheehy only notes that Hillary was student body president at Wellesley, where she stood out as a "superlative student" of political science who showed herself to be a pragmatic leader with charisma, focus and an ability to get things done. She was the first student speaker at a Wellesley graduation and received a seven-minute standing ovation for her oratory. Her adviser, Alan Schecter, wrote that "she is by far the most outstanding young woman I have taught in the past seven years at Wellesley College. . . . Her papers are brilliant. . . . She has the intellectual ability, personality, and character to make a remarkable contribution to American society." Her classmates thought she would be the first woman president of the United States.

While at Yale Law School, she was mentored by the civil rights lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she worked in Washington on organizing the Children's Defense Fund and helping poor families, issues with which Hillary remains deeply engaged. Shortly after graduation John Doar named her to work on Watergate for the House Judiciary Committee's inquiry on Nixon. In Arkansas, in 1975, she set up the state's first rape crisis phone service. In 1977, Sheehy reports, Hillary Clinton became "one of the first women in the state recruited by a mainline law practice" as a partner. That same year, she helped found Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and supervised their new child care programs. She was also a working mother, very attentive to her daughter. In 1979 Jimmy Carter appointed her to the board of the high-powered national Legal Services Corporation, which helped fund local services for the poor. She soon became its chairperson. By the mid '80s, Sheehy notes, Hillary was on five corporate boards and on the boards of a dozen or so educational and social justice organizations.

As both a governor's and a president's wife, Hillary was a key adviser, political strategist and campaigner. She became recognized as an excellent speech maker, knowledgeable, passionate and articulate, with an ability to connect with her audience and move them with her eloquence. She also wrote a book, It Takes a Village, and a weekly newspaper column, became an authority on the Gulf War Syndrome and traveled extensively and with great success as a roving unofficial ambassador and champion of women's and children's rights throughout the world.

Though she reveals Hillary's mounting volume of achievements and her growing popularity, Sheehy blasts her subject as an absolutist who won't compromise, a woman who is prudish, perfectionist, pugnacious, arrogant, compulsive, cold, removed, "nauseatingly" self-righteous, stubborn, unbending, paranoid and secretive, and the cause for many of the Clinton administration's mistakes.

No wonder, as Sheehy states, "Hillary has a horror of others telling her story." Maybe the only one to do so successfully will be Hillary Clinton herself or someone who has her confidence. Before that happens, however, Hillary needs to journey through the next big "passage" of her life, her Senate run in New York State, and whatever comes after that. Biographies in midlife can be dicey.

Claire Douglas, a Jungian analyst and clinical psychologist, is the author of "Translate This Darkness" and the editor of "The Visions Seminar," by C.G. Jung.