THE TRUTH ABOUT HILLARY
By Edward Klein
Sentinel. 305 pp. $24.95
Hillary Rodham Clinton should be elated by the content of Edward Klein's new book, The Truth About Hillary. The Drudge-fueled buzz that preceded the book's publication promised a juicy, scandal-mongering romp filled with dubious but still delicious rumors about Sen. Clinton's personal life, the sort of too-good-to-check gossip that could have kept blogs and talk radio chattering through the summer, if not beyond. Klein's book doesn't come close to justifying the hype. The Truth About Hillary is the Hudson Hawk of character assassination, a tedious, mind-numbing bomb. Klein, a former editor in chief of the New York Times magazine and assistant managing editor of Newsweek, doesn't meet even the low threshold of quality and reportorial diligence that would qualify his book as a guilty pleasure in the political gossip genre. Instead, he's written a guilty chore.
The Truth About Hillary resembles nothing so much as a bad college term paper, reliant on long quotes from secondary sources -- not to mention a big font and wide margins -- as the author strains to stretch thin material into a respectable page count. Both the text and the footnotes are larded with references to previous Hillary books by Dick Morris, Barbara Olson, Gail Sheehy, David Maraniss and David Brock, among others. Klein has compiled the most unflattering tales from these authors into a book-length digest, one that's more summary than it is original work. The Truth About Hillary is to anti-Hillary dirt what the National Journal's Hotline or ABC News's "The Note" is to the day's political news.
The best synthesizers use old information to provide a novel argument or a fresh take on a subject. Klein, however, doesn't present the reader with a new way of understanding his subject. He doesn't even bother with any sort of unifying argument, other than the tired theme that Hillary is, well, Clintonian: evasive, possibly sexually deviant, dishonest, unprincipled and obsessed with her "political viability" above all else.
The book's allegations are less shocking than they are ineffectual, such as when Klein digs into the circumstances of Hillary's defeat in her campaign to become president of her high school senior class. She becomes the first female student to run for the office and blames her loss on chauvinism. Klein suggests that the episode foreshadows Hillary's need to blame her enemies for her failings. But the male student who won the election tells Klein, "Normally, boys ran for president and girls ran for secretary. Rightly or wrongly, that was just the way it was done in those days." Mysteriously, Klein sees this as evidence that the race was "just a popularity contest" and that Hillary's gender wasn't a factor in the outcome.
The book's most telling mistake comes when Klein quotes an anonymous "Democratic political analyst" describing the expression "until the last dog dies" as "that famous line of hers from the New Hampshire primary of 1992." Actually, that was Bill Clinton's famous line.
But then Klein often has difficulty separating his subject from her husband. The book's first two words -- "Monica Lewinsky" -- foretell a book that is almost as interested in chronicling Bill's misdeeds as Hillary's.
The Truth About Hillary takes a Whitman-esque approach to contradictions: It contains multitudes. As long as an anecdote or an accusation portrays Hillary Clinton in an unfavorable light, Klein passes it along, without regard for how it fits into the bigger picture. Sometimes the Clintons' marriage is a loveless, calculated sham designed solely to promote the political interests of both parties. At other times, the reader is told that Hillary was angered by her husband's serial adultery and that both Bill and Hillary considered ending the relationship. Well, which is it? In Arkansas, Hillary wanted to move Bill "toward the center of the political spectrum," but in the White House she "urged her husband to govern from the political left." Both statements could be true, but Klein doesn't bother trying to reconcile the incongruity.
There is hardly a sympathetic sentence in the book. No insult is too picayune, and no two dots are too distant to connect. Klein repeatedly mocks Hillary's taste in art, home decor and fashion, and he delights in discussing her "onetime neglect of personal grooming." He calls her a "homely woman," albeit "the kind of homely woman whose features seemed to improve with age." He turns her childhood daydream of becoming the first woman astronaut into ominous evidence of her ambition: "A career as an astronaut greased the path to national power faster than any other approach, and Hillary was more than willing to risk life and limb for the prize." On one page, Klein cites Hillary's "carefully cultivated public image as a selfless, holier-than-thou person." Here he seems to have blended Hillary's preferred public image with the image preferred by her critics. Who wants to be perceived as holier-than-thou?
When Klein does present new information, it is almost always a source's opinion or conjecture. He uses journalistic hedges like "allegedly" and talks about Vince Foster's "apparent" suicide. And his sourcing is hilariously inconsistent. In one instance, he footnotes "an anonymous Wellesley College classmate who requested anonymity" when he relays the information that as a college student Hillary Rodham possessed "a tiny waist, slim legs and ankles, and small buttocks." Yet far more provocative (and critical) assertions go unsourced, such as his assertion that Hillary knew "everything" about Bill's affair with Monica Lewinsky, "and she knew it before anybody else" -- without even a reference to an anonymous informant. That standard may suffice for "Walter Scott's Personality Parade," a gossip column that Klein writes for Parade Magazine, but it's not enough to take down a senator.
Hillary Clinton has a fascinating story, and a good warts-and-all (or even just-warts) portrait would be welcome on the eve of her presumptive presidential campaign. Despite eight years as first lady, four as a U.S. senator, and a shelf of biographies, she remains an enigma. There's no need for every book to be evenhanded -- a smart polemic can teach readers a lot, too. But Klein's depiction of Hillary is so laughably broad that it's hard to imagine who would take it seriously.
The Truth About Hillary's most persuasive note comes in its concluding sentence, in a quote from Richard Nixon, who said before his death, "Hillary inspires fear." Edward Klein's book is certainly evidence of that. But Hillary herself has nothing to fear from Edward Klein. *
Chris Suellentrop, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., was Slate's 2004 campaign correspondent.