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Who Is Hillary Clinton? | The Nation

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Who Is Hillary Clinton?

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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.

This article also appeared on Barbara Ehrenreich's blog.

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Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...

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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.

Now it was Hillary's turn to be the liability, rather than the super-ego, in the Billary team. Revelations about her involvement in an obscure land deal in Arkansas suggested a conflict of interest between her prior role as both first lady of that state and an attorney at Little Rock's Rose law firm. The real scandal is that she had worked for Rose at all, which represented the notorious anti-labor firms Tyson Poultry and Wal-Mart, but Bernstein makes nothing of that.

Soon Hillary, facing the possibility of a criminal indictment, was undertaking to recreate herself in a softer, cuddlier, mode. She wrote a book called It Takes a Village, on the importance of children, notable only for its sappiness and the spurious claim that her own family of origin had been idyllic. She wore pink for a defensive press conference held in the White House's Pink Library, where Bernstein politely describes her as "preternaturally calm," though the impression--with her eyelids drooping and her voice slowed, was of over-medication.

Having failed with her own hard-won health portfolio, and besieged now by the press for her sleazy deals in Arkansas, Hillary began to flail--reaching out for help from New Age healer Marianne Williamson. Compared to the Bush era White House scandals, the Whitewater land deal was microscopic--no one died or was tortured--and surely the "vast right-wing conspiracy" played a role in keeping it alive. But as Bernstein writes, what magnified it out of proportion was Hillary's own pattern of "Jesuitical lying, evasion, and ... stonewalling." She was not in the habit of being wrong--that was Bill's job--and admitting to wrong-doing was simply not in her repertoire.

It took Monica Lewinsky to restore Hillary's upper hand within her marriage and, with it, her self-confidence. Apparently believing her husband's protestations of innocence, she took over the management of his defense within the White House, and, disconcertingly, started exploring the possibility of running for the Senate from New York State at the very same moment the already-elected Senate was voting on Bill's impeachment. But even in this time of extreme crisis--for her marriage as well as the presidency--she could not resist asserting to a family adviser that "My husband may have his faults, but he has never lied to me." Bernstein, ever the gentleman, comments only that "that statement speaks for itself."

Most of the lies Bernstein documents along the way are, in the great scheme of things, inconsequential and well in the past. But Bernstein breaks off his biography somewhat abruptly after Hillary's election to the Senate, where she distinguished herself by helping push through a statute forbidding flag-burning. For a current and far more disturbing bit of mendacity, we have to turn to the another new Hillary book, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. As a presidential candidate, Hillary has repeatedly and confusingly claimed that she did not vote to authorize the war in Iraq, only to give Bush the authority to pursue a war if he should decide to. What she doesn't mention is that she voted against an amendment to the war resolution, proposed by Senator Carl Levin, that would have required the President to return to Congress for a war authorization if diplomatic efforts failed.

Worse, she has dodged the question of whether she ever actually read the full text of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, which was offered as a casus belli despite its equivocations on the subject of Saddam Hussein's purported WMD's. "If she did not bother to read the complete intelligence reports," Gerth and Van Natta observe, "then she did not do enough homework on the decision she has called the most important of her life. If she did read them, she chose to make statements to justify her vote for war that were not supported by the available intelligence." Since the start of her candidacy, antiwar Democrats have implored her to admit that she made a mistake on Iraq, which she stubbornly, even childishly, refuses to do.

In the end, the question of who Hillary is seems almost a bit anthropomorphic. Surely she has loved, laughed and suffered in the usual human ways, but what we are left with is a sleek, well-funded, power-seeking machine encased in a gleaming carapace of self-righteousness. She's already enjoyed considerable power, both as a Senator and a "co-president," and in the ways that counted, she blew it. What Americans need most, after fifteen years of presidential crimes high and low, is to wash their hands of all the sleaze, blood, and other bodily fluids, and find themselves a President who is neither a Clinton nor a Bush.

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