"I wasn't born a First Lady or a senator," is the first sentence in Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoir, "Living History." The rest of the story is about how she became both.
In the book, which will be officially released tomorrow, Clinton writes of her suburban, middle-class Chicago upbringing. Her mother, Dorothy, was a saint; her father, Hugh, a fiscally tight-fisted taskmaster.
If Hillary or one of her brothers left the cap off the toothpaste, for instance, her father would throw the cap out the window and make the children search for it, "even in the snow." This was his way of "reminding us not to waste anything." She writes that "to this day, I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese and feel guilty when I throw anything away."
The underlying presumption is that we care about every facet of Hillary Clinton: her childhood, education, romance, political life, family, future, delights, disappointments. Judging from the pre-publication fanfare and reader interest in the book -- it is No. 2 at both Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's online stores -- that presumption may be correct.
As she writes her life in a then-this-happened way, she hardly ever lets a slight or a failure go by without remarking on it. She speaks of her husband adoringly, protectively and, occasionally, chidingly.
She is often asked, she writes, why they have stayed together despite reports of his transgressions, especially with Monica Lewinsky. As an answer, she lists some of their shared experiences and interests.
"All I know is that no one understands me better and no one can make me laugh the way Bill does. Even after all these years, he is still the most interesting, energizing and fully alive person I have ever met."
Clinton attributes her political beliefs to the "push and tug of my parents' values." Her mother was a secret Democrat, who admitted to her daughter, on the day John F. Kennedy was shot, that she had voted for him. Clinton says she parroted the politics of her father, a conservative Republican, even while developing her own liberal philosophies.
Clinton also wrestles with sex stereotypes.
She recounts the first time she felt "devalued" because she is a woman. During the 1960s, when President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon, Clinton dashed off a letter to NASA volunteering for astronaut training. "I received a letter back informing me that they were not accepting girls in the program," she writes. "It was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn't overcome with hard work and determination, and I was outraged."
Her first interview as first lady was with the New York Times; it was about her first White House dinner party. In the accompanying photo, she wore a black, bare-shoulder Donna Karan dress. Some critics accused her of trying to soften her image. Even her friends bristled at the interview because it didn't portray Clinton in a serious enough light. "It was becoming clear to me," she writes, "that people who wanted me to fit into a certain box, traditionalist or feminist, would never be entirely satisfied with me as me -- which is to say, with my many different, and sometimes paradoxical, roles."
Another theme: Hillary Clinton, Esq.
Clinton as lawyer appears frequently throughout her writing, peppering the chronological account of the White House years with point-by-point rebuttals of every charge levied against the Clintons and the administration. "[Special prosecutor Kenneth] Starr recommended that the House Judiciary Committee consider eleven possible grounds of impeachment. I was convinced that he had overstepped his legal authority."
And she proceeds to give us a short lesson in constitutional law.
She makes reference to the Whitewater investigation, then flows into analytic Clintonese: "We were being swept up in what legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin later described as the politicization of the criminal system and the criminalization of the political system."
There are near-vulnerable moments, like when she gets caught in the dreaded Washington traffic snarl and she jumps out of the car and dashes toward Blair House, "darting between cars, wearing heels and a snug gray flannel dress, with my alarmed Secret Service detail scrambling behind."
She also writes of throwing up in the back of a limousine in Moscow on her way to meet Naina Yeltsin.
Just as Clinton is able to separate the man who is her husband from the man who was the president, she does the same for herself, moving -- paragraph by paragraph -- from the mother to the wife to the lawyer to the first lady to the adept politician. She describes her life as detached observer. The few wistful moments are devoted to her first years with Bill, their courtship and romantic times living in Berkeley, Calif., and traveling in England. She waxes with wonderment about his hands, concluding, "they are, like their owner, weathered but still expressive, attractive and resilient."
She writes that as an infant, Chelsea "taught her father a lesson in the perils of multitasking." Bill was watching basketball and holding his daughter. When she couldn't get his attention, she bit him on the nose.
The book is of interest not only for what and whom it dwells on, but also for those it doesn't. Attorney General Janet Reno is mentioned a handful of times, but only in passing.
Al Gore does not play a prominent role in these memoirs. She describes the campaigning Gore: "Loose and relaxed, Al was quick with one-liners and deadpan comments."
At times, the book is livid history. When talking about certain episodes, she bristles. "No matter what he had done," she writes of her husband, "I did not think any person deserved the abusive treatment he had received. His privacy, my privacy, Monica Lewinsky's privacy and the privacy of our families had been invaded in a cruel and gratuitous manner."
Near the end, she plots her run for the U.S. Senate. On February 12, 1999, Clinton meets with Harold Ickes, an old friend and political adviser, to ask his advice about the New York terrain. This was the same day that the Senate was voting on her husband's impeachment.
The book ends as the Clintons are leaving the White House. She is dancing with the White House butler. "My husband cuts in," she writes, "taking me in his arms as we waltzed together down the long hall.
"Then I said goodbye to the house where I had spent eight years living history."