The Woman Who Would Be Senator

The Woman Who Would Be Senator

As you may have heard once or twice, we have a little Senate race going here in New York.


As you may have heard once or twice, we have a little Senate race going here in New York. The candidate on the Democratic side, by the middle of January, had subjected herself to many of the self-abasing rituals Democrats seeking statewide office in New York must submit to: The call on Al Sharpton; the obligatory trips upstate to prove that the aspirant is not merely the cat’s-paw of urban liberals; the appearance before a power-broking Orthodox Jewish group to pledge fealty to Israel, even though there’s no chance in hell that said group’s members will vote Democratic. And she has subjected herself to one ritual most candidates don’t have to submit to–moving here. The stage furniture, then, is set in place; the next nine months will bring character development, action, climax, coda.

Hillary’s Choice, Gail Sheehy’s new psychobiography of Hillary Clinton, was evidently intended by its author as an important piece of that stage furniture. It has not, of course, been received in quite so generous a spirit. You’ve probably read by now some of the sport the media have been making of the inaccuracies found within it. “The Reliable Source,” the gossip column in the Washington Post, kept a running tally for a time. The most famous of these errors sits down there on the bottom of page 209, where Sheehy writes that Al Haig sought to reassure America that he was “in charge” not after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, when he actually did it, but after the successful resignation of Nixon.

Before we push ahead, let’s note another mistake, one The Nation, of all journals, would have done poorly to miss. On May Day 1970, it seems, Yale students–Hillary Rodham would have been in her first year of law school; that much is accurate–held a huge rally on campus in support of the Black Panthers, where “ripe-bosomed coeds” (?) dished up “a soul picnic” (??) for the “incoming Bedouins of the Woodstock nation.” (???) Nine Panthers, Bobby Seale among them, were in jail in Connecticut, facing kidnapping charges. Jessica Mitford and husband Robert Truehaft came to town. So did 4,000 reservists from North Carolina, a presence made all the more ominous, Sheehy writes, by the fact that “the country had already witnessed unarmed college students being shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State University.” Hmmm. Unless those ripe-bosomed nymphs and invading Bedouins moved May Day, not possible. Kent State happened on May 4.

Let’s not make more of this error than we should. It symbolizes nothing and means only that the author doesn’t know either when May Day is or when the Kent State shootings occurred and, if ignorant of either or both, didn’t bother to look them up. These things happen, presumably even to the Washington Post‘s “Reliable Source” column from time to time. (Of course, to Sheehy, a lot of them seem to happen.)

I will say this, though: Factual particulars aside, the main arc of Sheehy’s story, and much of her conjecture about The Relationship, reads to me as though it’s pretty much spot-on. Hillary’s decision to move down to Arkansas to be with Bill–the synecdochic “choice,” it turns out, around which HRC’s other choices and the book itself are all framed–is described by Sheehy, either explicitly or implicitly, as a function of three things: first, Hillary’s ambition, and her belief that Bill would someday be the President of the United States, which she secretly wanted to be herself but knew, as a woman, she would not be; second, a rarely expressed desire on the part of the young-adult Hillary, finally out from under the control of her officious and right-wing father, to shock and dismay and do the unexpected, which she had so rarely had the courage to do; and third–hey, she loved the guy. This actually seemed to be true. And still seems to be.

Much is made, in the book and in reviews, of the possible life that awaited a hot young female Ivy League law school grad such as HRC, which the book’s narrative thread virtually forces us to envision: After her Watergate committee work, a job at a white-shoe Manhattan firm. Service on various boards. Groundbreaking legal scholarship of some sort or another. Books. One foot in reform politics. Maybe the city’s first female–what, comptroller or something?–with her hardheaded common sense. With any luck, this would happen during the fiscal crisis, when she would have won praise for being the sort of liberal who’s not afraid to make “the tough decisions” that the Times loves to adulate. And then, who knows, maybe a run for the Senate someday.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The “reality” is touchingly described by Sheehy on pages 109-10, where Hillary’s Watergate committee chum Sara Ehrman drives her from Washington to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Bill is teaching at the law school, so Hillary can be with him (but not, alas, live with him; local mores, don’t you know).

“He’s just a country lawyer,” Sheehy says Ehrman said. “Why are you doing this?” Hillary sat mute all the way, staring silently ahead. Finally, Fayetteville. A Saturday. Air filled “with the high-pitched sound of pigs in heat,” which “the initiated” recognize as the rallying cry of the Arkansas Razorbacks (“Woo, pig, Suey!”–I happen to know), who were that very day playing archrival Texas. This distillation of the beer-spittled life that awaited her dear friend was a little much for Ehrman, who began to cry. Funny thing, though; when Ehrman and Hillary left Washington, it was a “steamy…August evening” in 1974, just after Nixon’s resignation. Nine paragraphs later, two football archrivals are playing each other. That striking me as an autumn ritual, I checked. In 1974 Arkansas played Texas on October 19. Long drive. And oh, yeah–they must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, too, because the game was played at Texas.

I also bought–call me naïve–Sheehy’s conjecture about why Bill would do it, in the nonconjugal sense, with Monica. Sheehy describes three episodes–needless to say, she has to gussy them up by calling them three “major personal marker events”–that may have made old Bill feel…well, old. His mother’s (i.e., the most important woman in any man’s life) death. His tumble, toward the end of the affair, down a flight of stairs at golfer Greg Norman’s house and subsequent dependence on the “accoutrements of decay”–cane, wheelchair, “flaccid [hmmm!] muscles.” Third, and most crucially, Chelsea’s future departure for college. I’ve never really thought about this before, but it makes sense to me. It’s not hard to picture frustrated middle-aged men across America doing the same thing–watching the apples of their eyes (daughters) roll pretty far away from the tree and then acquiring a sexual surrogate as a way to keep dealing with the repressed father-daughter sexual tension that’s always floating around in the libidinal penumbra somewhere. This isn’t the sort of thing we talk about much, and it’s certainly not suitable for Meet the Press–one can imagine the New York Post headline: shrinks: bill wanted sex with chelsea!–but it strikes me as a plausible guess about contributing factors.

So you see, reading Hillary’s Choice is not a waste of time. You won’t find much about politics in it that’s interesting, though, if that’s your bag. I suppose from a Nation reader’s (and reviewer’s) perspective, the book’s aha! moment turns out to be the part where Dick Morris (good old Dick!) tells the author, apropos the early days in Arkansas, that Hillary “was more conservative than Clinton was…she was always pulling him back to the right.” (Sheehy leans quite heavily on Morris, who has been using his New York Post column to cuff his former client about the ears in every way he can imagine. Ditto Nancy Pietrefesa, the one old friend who’s been willing to dish some dirt.) Perspective is added by Don Jones, Hillary’s youth minister, the man who opened her eyes to the world beyond the fragrant azaleas and scraped Girl Scout knees of her childhood suburb. He took her to meet Martin Luther King Jr., took her into Chicago’s South Side to meet her poor, black coevals, strummed protest songs (inevitably!) on his guitar. Jones: “She definitely has a conservative streak…particularly on abortion, homosexuality, and capital punishment. Surely, she is for gay rights, there’s no question about that. But I think both she and Bill still think of heterosexuality as normative.” And so on.

This commences a discussion by Sheehy about teacher testing, a cause HRC took up with her usual earnest ardor, which had her reading the curriculums of pretty much every school in the state and which led one school librarian to call her “lower than a snake’s belly” (that’s how they talk down there in Arkansas, see?). Teacher testing is anathema to liberals. So it was an awkward moment, at Hillary’s pre-announcement announcement of her Senate candidacy, which was held in November at the Manhattan offices of the United Federation of Teachers, when someone from the press corps had the bad form to ask her about her old Arkansas enthusiasm for this bane of teachers’ unions everywhere. Hillary ducked, muttering something about circumstances being different then. Which of course is true: Then, she didn’t need the massive phone-bank operation of one of the most politically influential unions in New York to beat back a popular and well-financed conservative opponent. Now she does!

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–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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