Who is Sen. Hillary Clinton? 2 books delve into her past to try to answer

June 10, 2007|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,Los Angeles Times

Her Way

The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton

By Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.

Little, Brown and Co. / 448 pages / $29.99

Every biography of a presidential candidate implicitly poses the same question: Is the past prologue? Biographers comb through the contenders' lives trying to find signs of the president they might become in the decisions they've made and the experiences they've accumulated. They seek hints of the future by examining shards of the past.

Any biographer undertaking that effort with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic U.S. senator from New York and former first lady now seeking her party's presidential nomination, faces two unusually large hurdles. One is the volume of words already written about her, a melange of fact, fantasy and ideological projection across the spectrum in nearly four dozen books and countless newspaper and magazine profiles. The other is more fundamental. In Clinton's case, it's not clear whether the past really is prologue to a possible presidency - or, more precisely, in a life marked by distinct phases, it's not clear which past might be the prologue.

Two new biographies navigate these challenges with widely varying degrees of skill and success. Of the two, A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, is by far the more engaging and illuminating; it stands as a model of contemporary political biography. But Her Way from two accomplished investigative reporters, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., though not as sophisticated or revealing, helps plug the one major gap in Bernstein's book by exploring Clinton's Senate career, which he inexplicably glosses over in a few perfunctory pages.

Despite that notable flaw of omission, Bernstein has produced an excellent book: thorough, balanced, judicious and deeply reported. In unmannered and accessible prose, he offers a three-dimensional portrait of a person with enduring strengths (discipline, tenacity, a sustaining religious faith) and weaknesses (excessive secrecy, a tendency to self-righteousness and a habit of nursing grudges); he could have easily called his study A Woman in Full. After Bernstein, it is difficult to imagine the need for another book on the first five decades of Clinton's life.

Gerth and Van Natta, for instance, add little to Clinton's self-portrait (in her memoirs and elsewhere) of her youthful home life in what they call the "pleasant and secure environment" of Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb. But Bernstein shows how much airbrushing was required to paint that Norman Rockwell picture. Bernstein is withering in his portrayal of Clinton's father, Hugh Rodham, "a sour, unfulfilled man whose children suffered his relentless, demeaning sarcasm ... endured his embarrassing parsimony, and silently accepted his humiliation and verbal abuse of their mother."

Bernstein both challenges prevailing assumptions about Clinton and fills out familiar aspects of her story. He flips on its head the argument that she married and remained with Bill Clinton to advance politically and obtain power. When the two were dating at Yale Law School, Bernstein shows, she was more mature in her personal relationships, more diverse in her experiences (with a resume that ranged from a stint gutting fish in Alaska to summer jobs with a leftist California law firm and the House Republican Conference) and more worldly in her forays into political activism. Bill Clinton, a political natural, would later prove a far more skilled strategist and campaigner. But at the time, Bernstein argues, Hillary seemed more firmly on a fast track to influence and power - perhaps as an elected official - before redirecting her life by marrying Bill and moving to Arkansas so he could run for office. Rather than sublimate love to influence, as her critics insist, Bernstein maintains that she did precisely the opposite, shelving her ambitions to support the man she loved and to seek the nurturing family life her father had denied her mother.

Bernstein returns to more familiar ground in treating Hillary Clinton's role as her husband's political partner, and in recounting these years dwells too long on too many familiar tales. Yet even on this well-trod terrain, Bernstein almost always finds new facts and telling details, from her refusal to read newspapers during the White House years (a trait she apparently shares with the job's current occupant) to the depth of Bill Clinton's relationship with an Arkansas woman, which apparently led him to consider a divorce in the months after he decided not to seek the presidency in 1988. On such issues, Bernstein's account benefits enormously from remarkably candid on-the-record assessments of both Clintons by intimates such as close friend Jim Blair and Betsey Wright, Bill Clinton's gubernatorial chief of staff in Arkansas.

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