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The Woman Who Would Be Senator | The Nation

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The Woman Who Would Be Senator

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I don't know what to make of all this. Whom to feel sorry for, which side to take. Hillary's? Ideologically, no; and yet, on the nonpolitical front, I do feel for her. She's been held to standards that the media wouldn't dare hold a man to and, from the right wing especially, has been the target of some unfair, not to say utterly insane, criticism. That's one thing about both Clintons that anyone with an eye for the offbeat has to admire, or at least admit: They send all their opponents into such a lurid state of dementia that no matter how cheesy or corner-cutting they are, they somehow end up looking better than their attackers.And yet, as soon as I write that, I think: Yes, but they've brought so much on themselves.

About the Author

Michael Tomasky
Michael Tomasky is the author, most recently, of Hillary's Turn: Inside Her Improbable, Victorious Senate Campaign (...

Also by the Author

Should we put government in the hands of a party determined to subvert it, or a party—however flawed—that believes it still has a role to play in securing the common good?

Quick, pinch me--am I still living in the same country? Reading and
watching the same media? This "Bob Woodward" fellow who co-wrote a tough
piece in the May 18 Washington Post demonstrating that the
now-famous August 6 presidential daily briefing, contrary to
Administration officials' claims about its contents, actually carried
the heading "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."--is this the same
Bob Woodward who co-wrote the Post's infamous "Ten Days in
September" series earlier this year, the ur-document of George W. Bush's
Churchillization? And this "Michael Isikoff," sharing a byline on the
eye-opening May 27 Newsweek cover story that shreds the
Administration's "we did everything we could" line of defense--is this
the Isikoff who four years ago defined national security in terms of
dress stains and cigar probes? One begins to suspect that unbeknownst to
all of us, the terrorists have indeed struck--the Washington, DC, water
supply.

An overstatement, to be sure. But it does seem to be the case that
wherever this potentially incendiary story leads, from fog of
unprovables to hot smoking gun, one change has already taken place
because of it that is well worth marking. For the first time since
September 11--or, arguably, since ever--the press corps appears ready to
expend more effort poking holes in the vaunted Bush Administration spin
operation than admiringly limning it. More to the point, Is a new
skepticism stirring around such heretofore Teflonized officials as
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice? Before her May 16
damage-control press conference, Rice was probably the Administration's
leading untouchable. After it ("I don't think anybody could have
predicted these people would...use an airplane as a missile," a
statement left bleeding on the floor after a pile of evidence came
forward showing plenty of people were predicting precisely that), her
status has taken a major hit. So, as Professor Harold Hill might put it,
certain wooorrrrdds are creeping into the media vocabulary--words
like "serious credibility gap," in the Newsweek piece.

It's been a long time coming. If anything "un-American" happened after
September 11, it was the triumph of the notion--propounded by the
Bushies, reinforced by the major media and far too readily accepted by
cowardly Democrats--that "patriotism" somehow equals "support the Bush
Administration." CBS's Dan Rather said it recently in an interview with
the BBC: "Patriotism became so strong in the United States after 11
September that it prevented US journalists from asking the toughest of
the tough questions about the war against terrorism," adding, "I do not
except myself from this criticism." The genuflection sometimes reached
levels that we might call comic, except that there's nothing comic about
a "free" press choosing to ape state-owned media, throwing rose petals
at the feet of officials from the most unilateral and secretive
Administration in modern American history ("sixty-nine years old, and
you're America's stud," Meet the Press's Tim Russert once said to
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld).

One is not quite ready to say, on the evidence of several days' worth of
stories, that this sorry era is over just yet. The New York Times
and the Washington Post both ran editorials on May 17 that were
something short of being full-throated calls for investigation; from the
right-wing papers, the predictable yelping about how it's really
Clinton's fault.

All this will probably continue, but at least now it appears that it
will be offset by some post-post-9/11 aggression. It will be interesting
to watch what leads the media now follow and how far they follow them.
For example, some reports--originating with the BBC but picked up in a
few minor US outlets--indicate that US intelligence agents were told to
back off the bin Laden family and the Saudi royals soon after Bush
became President. Reporters might also look into the way the
Administration declined to continue a process of tightening overseas and
offshore banking regulations begun by the Clinton Administration in an
effort to track down narcotics traffickers and terrorists. The Bush
people acted partly at the behest of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, which
means partly at the behest of Enron--and which may have ended up helping
terrorists.

"Connecting the dots" has become the operative cliché about
whether intelligence officials should have been able to put together the
various pre-9/11 clues they received. Now, maybe the media will start
connecting some dots of their own.

As has Sheehy. And yet, exactly why the viciousness of the attacks on her? In the immediate wake of the book's publication Sheehy blamed the White House spin machine. She charged that Hillary's spokespersons, Marsha Berry in the White House and Howard Wolfson on the campaign trail, purposely did not return her calls so that her fact-checkers couldn't verify information, which would then result in inaccuracies that the First Lady's henchpersons could blast. This is clever; a line that Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News Channel would gladly parrot and Washington would in general terms accept prima facie.

But I doubt it's true; one mistake Clinton haters have always made is to underestimate the White House's disorganization. I imagine Sheehy's fact-checkers' calls weren't returned because no one worked up the gumption to deal with the questions and Hillary's reputed wrath or, even more simply, because each side thought the other side was taking care of the problem.

But the blame-the-spin-machine defense doesn't account for the merciless reviews of the book virtually everywhere. The literary and political worlds were predetermined to hate Hillary's Choice and to judge it harshly. I think, and I hope you'll agree, that we can rule out defense of the Clintons as a motive. The political world surely is no collective defender of the Clintons, and the literary world, though more liberal than the political world, finds them a bit déclassé. Besides, Hillary's Choice is not an attack piece. Neither is it a panegyric, but any traffic in psychological explanation tends toward empathy, so the book is more sympathetic than not to its subject. (It was interesting to browse through readers' reviews of the book on Amazon.com--the favorable reviews mostly came from the pro-Hillary community, while the one-stars were mainly delivered by Hillary haters who seemed to want evidence of outright pelf or the college lesbian affair they are convinced that she and surely all sixties Wellesley girls had.)

I suspect the reaction to the book has little to do with the Clintons and far more to do with what I've found to be one of the most important, and I'd say distressing, or at least confusing, literary--or more precisely, polemical--developments of the Clinton era. In a word: motive. That is to say, we've had intense partisan battles in the recent past over Nixon, over Reagan, over civil rights, what have you. Naturally, in the course of carrying out those arguments we--left and right; society, if you will--have constantly questioned one another's arguments, facts, assumptions and sometimes intentions. But I don't recall people ever questioning others' motives quite the way we do now. If you defend Clinton, you must be hustling invites to the Lincoln Bedroom, trying to wire a gas-pipeline deal for Turkmenistan, seeking soft treatment from the White House or at the very least angling for a regular cable television slot. If you hate Clinton, you're a right-wing nutcase, a left-wing loser who can't stand actually winning elections for a change, lining up a fat book deal or something. It's become commonplace, in other words, to pick apart not just a person's position but the motives the person has for taking that position.

What's Sheehy's motive? I don't know. To make money, I guess, for starters. (I'm sure she made quite a lot, though I'm not so sure Random House did: It costs a lot of dough to sign a Gail Sheehy book, and Hillary's Choice made the Times bestseller list for one week only.) To be kinder, Sheehy may indeed find Hillary one of the most fascinating women of our time. And speaking of motive, we might reasonably inquire about Hillary's. For the Senate race, that is. Sheehy quotes HRC pal Harold Ickes as saying it's about "redemption," a characterization neither new (Ickes has been quoted previously, by me among others, saying the same thing) nor terribly interesting. Nor is it likely to prove terribly useful on the campaign trail. Can redemption get a candidate on a shaky little airplane to go up to Plattsburg on a snowy February Friday to attend a town hall meeting? Beating Rudy Giuliani will require a deeper, not to say more public-spirited, motive than redemption. But I shouldn't play this game, having put myself on record denouncing it. I suppose it's to be expected, in a world in which postmodern irony reigns alongside overwhelming hucksterism, that nothing anybody says can be accepted straightforwardly anymore. This is certainly true in the realms of politics and political commentary, where most people are indeed either lying, speaking on the basis of the wisdom shown them by the latest poll or saying what they believe will get them on television. And--here's another problem with Clinton-era political analysis--it's not just politics. Pundits love to write about the Clintons as if the collapse of public trust is entirely a function of their double talk. Meanwhile, here come Time Warner (where some of those very pundits hold forth) and AOL to tell us how wonderful their merger will be for all of us, which you don't have to have left politics to know is just a screenful of e-shit. This is the proper context, I think, in which to think of Hillary's Choice. A book like this is exactly the sort of white noise, like interactive chat rooms and cable talk shows, to which the current Information Age has given birth: It's alternately annoying and engaging; it's, every once in a while, insightful; it's far from all true; it's undemanding; it's of the moment, i.e., synergy-friendly; it's quickly disposable; and it's fundamentally without purpose. And that pretty much describes where we find ourselves these days.

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