One theory, which functions as a kind of cargo cult among some American liberals, is that behind the bland, smiling, exterior and the thick gauze of platitudes, crouches a fiery liberal feminist, ready, when she has finally amassed enough power–say in her second term as President–to spring forth and save the world.
If Carl Bernstein’s exhausting 600-page biography, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, accomplishes anything, it should be to euthanize this touching hope. Hillary Rodham Clinton was always a moderate, given to centrist, technocratic. In her lifetime, she has glided effortlessly from one side to another on key issues–the death penalty, for example, or entitlements for poor women and children–all the while maintaining the self-righteousness granted, supposedly, by her Methodist God.
In Bernstein’s account the mystery of Hillary is largely explained by her fraught relationship with Bill. She was pretty enough, but an awkward, wonky, young woman; he was a brilliant, ambitious, sexually magnetic stud; and in following him to Arkansas she seemed to have thrown her future as, say, a high-profile Washington public interest lawyer. “My friends and family thought I had lost my mind,” Bernstein quotes her as saying. He insists that theirs is, or sometimes was, a deep connection–sexual, intellectual and committed to their joint political “journey.”
But it was a relationship irreparably twisted by Bill’s compulsive priapism, which seems to have put the young Hillary into a permanent rage, but, perversely, also bound them ever more tightly together. In the unstable molecule we used to call “Billary,” he was the id and she was the super-ego, a role she clearly relished even as it poisoned her with resentment. As Bernstein argues, Bill’s dalliances only increased her power in the relationship, since, as a rising political star, he needed a smart, loyal wife to fend off the press and publicly stand by her man. When they entered the White House in 1993 on the heels of the Gennifer Flowers scandal, the outwardly forgiving Hillary was at the height of her power, eager to assume the “co-presidency.”
In Bernstein’s account, which strives nobly for fairness, Hillary’s early behavior as First Lady was stunningly arrogant. She disdained the press, alienated the White House staff, turned on her close friend Vince Foster (who responded by committing suicide) and appalled Al Gore by trying to claim the West Wing office suite traditionally reserved for the Vice President. She demanded a cabinet position, and when that was overruled, insisted on leading Clinton’s efforts at health reform, despite the objections of Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala, who was no less a feminist than Hillary.
Hillary’s attempt to create a national health insurance system–which she will have to undertake a second time as a presidential candidate–was a disaster in every way. Procedurally, she screwed up by conducting the planning under conditions of extreme secrecy, not even bothering to reach out to potentially supportive members of Congress, never mind the usual populist trimming of few televised town meetings. What Bernstein omits is her out-of-hand dismissal of the kind of single-payer system the Canadians have, which led to a tortured, 1300-page piece of legislation that almost no one could comprehend. The bottom line, unnoted by Bernstein, is that, despite the right’s charges of “socialized medicine,” her plan would have maintained the nation’s largest private insurance companies’ death grip on American health care.