The Woman Who Would Be Senator
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.
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.