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A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Vintage)by Carl Bernstein
Synopses & Reviews
Drawing from hundreds of interviews with colleagues, friends and with unique access to campaign records, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Carl Bernstein offers a complex and nuanced portrait of one of the most controversial figures of our time: Hillary Clinton.
He has given us a book that enables us, at last, to address the questions Americans are insistently — even obsessively — asking: What is her character? What is her political philosophy? Who is she? What can we expect from her?
"Which Hillary Clinton will prevail in this sprawling, muddled biography? Is she a 'messianic' idealist or a ruthless pragmatist given to negative ad campaigns and vilifying opponents? A liberal feminist firebrand or a closet traditionalist and Washington prayer-group fixture? A Lady Macbeth, a First Soul-mate, or a stand-by-your-man marital martyr? Bernstein (All the President's Men) gives us all these Hillary's, foggily uniting them by reference to her 'extraordinary capability for change and evolutionary development.' (Then again, the Senate candidate who 'told voters largely what they wanted to hear' seems much the same species as the Wellesley student-body president who 'was more interested in...achieving victory than in taking a philosophical position.') Bernstein's ill-balanced treatment puts 'the Journey'-Hillary's mystic term for her politico-conjugal relationship with Bill Clinton-at the center of the story, particularly her dominant, sometimes disastrous role in Bill's scandal-plagued administration. Ever the investigative reporter, the author serves up chapters of eye-glazing Whitewater arcana and probes Hillary's emotional turmoil as she defends Bill from bimbo eruptions, but flits through her entire post-impeachment career as a high-profile senator and leader of the Democratic party in a scant 19 pages. Bernstein provides a densely detailed road-map of Hillary's life, but we get little sense of where the Journey has taken her. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Three decades have passed since Carl Bernstein wrote his last book on U.S. politics, 'The Final Days,' co-authored with Bob Woodward. But he has not lost his reporter's touch, and his new book, 'A Woman in Charge,' has already refocused serious questions — and supplied new information — about Hillary and Bill Clinton, their past behavior and their current ambitions to regain the White House.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) In 'Her Way,' New York Times reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gersh have painted the couple's unprecedented duality of skill and ambition even more boldly. The Clintons, they claim, sought and planned for sequential power: eight years in the White House for him, then eight years for her. Whether the authors' evidence holds up — denials have already been reported — remains to be seen. Taken together, however, these two volumes foreshadow what may well become a central issue of the 2008 presidential campaign: In light of the endless deceits, interest-group baggage, messianic overtones and shameless money politics of the two Bush dynasts (presidents number 41 and 43), do American voters want to empower yet another dubious dynasty (Clinton presidents number 42 and 44)? Van Natta and Gersh, while displaying no election sympathies, note that 'for decades, Hillary and Bill Clinton, along with a core group of friends and supporters, have told one story. Now it is time for another.' Bernstein, on the other hand, salts his pages with anti-Republican asides, and seems to believe in much of the Clinton philosophy, if not methodology. If a common theme exists, it is that Hillary Clinton, who has been 'first partner' and then 'first lady,' and often the iron fist of their joint success, now aims, with her husband's collaboration, to become the ultimate 'woman in charge.' To Van Natta and Gersh, this long-term plan has actually been set down on paper and confirmed by a former senior Clinton administration official. If these allegations hold up, such a pursuit of family power is unlikely to further her White House prospects. Bernstein, despite his pro-Clinton infusions, pursues a similar theme: Bill and Hillary's shared political 'journey' since the 1970s. In 2000, 'Hillary was seeking not just a seat in the Senate, but redemption: hers, her husband's, and the Clinton presidency's.' By 2007, after the 'co-presidency' of 1993-2000, 'Bill Clinton had become her biggest booster as, roles now reversed, the gears of the Clinton apparat shifted and another Clinton sought the presidency. He was now a constant presence in the background as her counsel, consultant, strategist, and, finally, the elemental part of (BEG IAL)her process as a woman in charge.' To underscore the nature of the teamwork, he quotes a number of Clinton friends and advisers — David Gergen, Stan Greenberg and Dick Morris, among others — describing how their personalities and talents have combined so effectively. Bill is the charismatic politician with a mind like a smorgasbord — wide-ranging but sometimes unfocused; she is the strategist, enforcer and hard-charging combat seeker. As Dick Morris puts it: 'She has a quality of ruthlessness, a quality of aggressiveness and strength about her that he doesn't have. A killer instinct. Her genre of advocacy is always straight ahead — fight, battle, take the fight to the other side. There's no subtlety, there's none of the nuance that he has.' But Bill Clinton seems more dependent on his wife than vice versa, and may suffer from what his longtime chief of staff Betsey Wright calls his 'ongoing inferiority complex. ... Bill Clinton has spent his whole life scared that he's white trash, and doing whatever he could to try to prove to himself that he isn't.' Both books take notice of the many Clinton ethical transgressions, with Bernstein concentrating on the years up to 1999. Van Natta and Gersh, who covered some of these stories for the New York Times, do well in cataloging the couple's legal gamesmanship (both Clintons, remember, are lawyers) in episodes like the Whitewater land deal, Hillary's profitable commodity straddles, conflicts of interest at Little Rock's Rose law firm and other episodes. Bernstein notes that one of the reasons that Vice President Al Gore distanced himself from Clinton is 'that he disapproved of Clinton's conduct ... and the Clintons' ethical lapses.' Sexual scandals, both acknowledged and alleged, pervade both books. In retrospect, conservative charges were often correct, even though their procedures and motives were frequently tainted. If Hillary Clinton did not know exactly what her husband was up to with Paula Corbin Jones and Monica Lewinsky, she was well-acquainted with his modus operandi, and in her role as chief family strategist had taken the lead in dealing with the Gennifer Flowers scandal. Sometimes she even interviewed women to get them to sign denials of having had sex with her husband. And the American public saw her dissemble in television appearances in 1992 and 1998, denying her husband's culpability with respect to Flowers and Lewinsky. If you credit the thrust of these two volumes, she was defending not just his presidency in these appearances but the possibility of her own. Because Bernstein's book is 200 pages longer than Van Natta and Gersh's, he gets into much more detail, some of which suggests how pervasive — in politics, law and policy — the effects of Bill Clinton's libidinous misadventures may have been. To begin with, Hillary's influence over policy and personnel peaked when her husband needed her to defend him from sex-related charges, especially in 1992, 1993, 1998 and 1999. Dick Morris and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin both confirm the chronology. This helps to explain how Ms. Clinton could race ahead, unbridled, in 1993-94 with her disastrous health reform program. As for the Paula Jones scandal and 'Troopergate,' the potential illegalities had multiple dimensions. Bernstein's pages include references to troopers alleging that White House staffers had 'strong-armed' sources to keep their mouths shut about Gov. Clinton's profligacies, while ex-Clinton chief of staff Betsey Wright told Bernstein that 'there was no question that troopers had pulled women out of crowds for the governor at Bill's direction.' The author surmises that a file on these and other matters kept secret at the Clinton's law firm because of attorney-client privilege might, if released, have been enough to bring Clinton down. On top of which, there is the insistence by Republicans on Capitol Hill that Clinton's mid-December 1998 bombing of Iraq to destroy supposed 'weapons of mass destruction' was also timed to divert the nation's attention from the impeachment debate moving toward its climax in the House of Representatives. This is serious stuff, far beyond the harmless Ozark Casanova jokes. Because most of Bernstein's book — aside from a short final chapter — is set prior to 2001, Van Natta and Gersh have the edge in looking at the presidential campaign Hillary Clinton has been forging in the last several years. A chapter called 'The Mysteries of Hillaryland' explains that Hillaryland is shorthand for the separate power center she began developing in 1992, and that by now it has 'eclipsed the empire built by the Kennedy clan. Today, no active political organization can match its depth, discipline or devotion ... 'Elsewhere, they underscore how much of her organization is run by women, how women dominate her crowds, and how much of her focus is on women voters. Ironically, over the last decade, Hillary Clinton has generally botched the key issue in U.S. politics from the women's point of view: the war in Iraq. Bernstein gives Iraq no more than a handful of pages, but concludes that she took too long to understand what happened, and that 'in regard to the gravest issue of the era,' it would be 'harder than ever to discern some of her principles.' In Iraq, say Van Natta and Gersh, 'her way' has gotten her into something of a quagmire, based in no small part on advice from her husband and the positions she was locked into by the actions — including bombing raids and credulous reliance on WMD intelligence by an administration of which she was, to some degree, co-president. Van Natta and Gersh appear to fault her for not reading the full 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, given to senators, which began to note some of the growing number of caveats and dissents on Iraqi capabilities. If George W. Bush has amplified his Republican dynasty's past excessive focus on Iraq, Hillary Clinton's position has been warped by miscalculations and vested interests lingering from her husband's presidency. As a result, say Gerth and Van Natta, her voting record on Iraq is 'the most dangerous' obstacle to her nomination; 'she was betting that her opponents — and the voters — wouldn't check the fine print.' In the past, domestic issues have been her cause, and according to a fascinating aside in Bernstein's pages, this may be because of her deep religious beliefs, namely her Methodist-based social activism. Some friends or aides cite a faith verging on the Messianic — a missionary zeal, sometimes shading into arrogance. Others feel that her religion allows her to elevate loyalty to sinner Bill to an act of biblical proportion and to evoke 'Joan of Arc, a martyr in the religious sense,' which enables her to be a laudable victim. Given the extent to which George W. Bush has come under fire for statements that God wanted him to be president or that he is carrying out God's plans in the Middle East, Hillary Clinton's messianism may not sit well with the voters. Nevertheless, Bernstein probes it at length, and extends the discussion by discussing her flirtation during her White House years with gurus and New Age theologians who even led her in something resembling siances with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mahatma Gandhi. Many who immerse themselves in the two volumes may feel that, despite Hillary Clinton's personal skills, the United States does not need another dynasty fueled by big money and entrenched deceit. But voters tend to forget the problems they had with Dynasty A once they become disillusioned with Dynasty B. Who'd have thought in 1992, for example, when George H.W. Bush's bid for a second term was defeated amid a weak economy, scandals and a feeling that the war with Saddam had been ended too soon, that eight years later the public would be ready to vote for his minimally experienced, Bible-quoting son? But by 2000, two terms of Clinton's sexual trespasses had made the Bushes look like a traditional-values family. Now seven years of growing national disenchantment with George W. Bush, perhaps the least competent president in modern history, may well lull the U.S. electorate into forgetting the many problematic aspects of the 1993-2001 Clinton regime. One hopes these probing books will serve as wake-up calls. Kevin Phillips is the author, most recently, of 'American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush' and 'American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.'" Reviewed by Kevin Phillips, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[T]he most reliable Hillary Clinton biography to date, a must-read for anybody closely following the 2008 campaign. I seriously doubt it will be superseded." Douglas Brinkley, The Boston Globe
"A remarkably revealing portrait." The Wall Street Journal
"A full-scale biography of the former first lady and possible future president....A considerable achievement." The Christian Science Monitor
"Sprightly written....Insightful in its judgments, and studded with factual nuggets that enhance the Hillary saga." Salon
"Carl Bernstein...refuses to sacrifice his scruples....A balanced, thoughtful, convincing biography of an influential modern figure." The News and Observer
"[Bernstein's] book holds together as a piece of writing, and he keeps the psychobabble to a merciful minimum. He also attempts to write a genuine biography, describing and interpreting the life Hillary has led and the varieties of forces that shaped her." Jennifer Senior, The New York Times Book Review
"Fresh, complete and detailed, it offers a welcome chance to recalibrate our gauges on her. You already know it's quite a story, but Bernstein fleshes it out as never before....The book may be lengthy...but it's never a trudge." Chicago Sun-Times
"In the end this reader was left wishing she could sit down with the senator and get an unencumbered sense of what Hillary Clinton is really like." The Oregonian
"It turns out that Carl Bernstein, investigative reporting icon and not-so-successful biographer in the past, has written one of the best unauthorized biographies I've ever read about a living person." Dallas Morning News
Chapter One: Formation
I adored [my father] when I was a little girl. I would eagerly watch for him from a window and run down the street to meet him on his way home after work. With his encouragement and coaching, I played baseball, football and basketball. I tried to bring home good grades to win his approval.
Hillary Rodhams childhood was not the suburban idyll suggested by the shaded front porch and gently sloping lawn of what was once the family home at 235 Wisner Street in Park Ridge, Illinois. In this leafy environment of postwar promise and prosperity, the Rodhams were distinctly a family of odd ducks, isolated from their neighbors by the difficult character of her father, Hugh Rodham, a sour, unfulfilled man whose children suffered his relentless, demeaning sarcasm and misanthropic inclination, endured his embarrassing parsimony, and silently accepted his humiliation and verbal abuse of their mother.
Yet as harsh, provocative, and abusive as Rodham was, he and his wife, the former Dorothy Howell, imparted to their children a pervasive sense of family and love for one another that in Hillarys case is of singular importance. When Bill Clinton and Hillary honeymooned in Acapulco in 1975, her parents and her two brothers, Hughie (Hugh Jr.) and Tony, stayed in the same hotel as the bride and groom.
Dorothy and Hugh Rodham, despite the debilitating pathology and undertow of tension in their marriage (discerned readily by visitors to their home), were assertive parents who, at mid-century, intended to convey to their children an inheritance secured by old-fashioned values and verities. They believed (and preached, in their different traditions) that with discipline, hard work, encouragement (often delivered in an unconventional manner), and enough education at home, school, and church, a child could pursue almost any dream. In the case of their only daughter, Hillary Diane, born October 26, 1947, this would pay enormous dividends, sending her into the world beyond Park Ridge with a steadiness and sense of purpose that eluded her two younger brothers. But it came at a price: Hugh imposed a patriarchal unpleasantness and ritual authoritarianism on his household, mitigated only by the distinctly modern notion that Hillary would not be limited in opportunity or skills by the fact that she was a girl.
Hugh Rodham, the son of Welsh immigrants, was sullen, tight-fisted, contrarian, and given to exaggeration about his own accomplishments. Appearances of a sort were important to him: he always drove a new Lincoln or Cadillac. But he wouldnt hesitate to spit tobacco juice through an open window. He chewed his cud habitually, voted a straight Republican ticket, and was infuriatingly slow to praise his children. “He was rougher than a corncob and gruff as could be,” an acquaintance once said. Nurturance and praise were left largely to his wife, whose intelligence and abilities he mocked and whose gentler nature he often trampled. “Dont let the doorknob hit you in the ass on your way out,” he frequently said at the dinner table when shed get angry and threaten to leave. She never left, but some friends and relatives were perplexed at Dorothys decision to stay married when her husbands abuse seemed so unbearable.
“She would never say, Thats it. Ive had it,” said Betsy Ebeling,* Hillarys closest childhood friend, who witnessed many contentious scenes at the Rodham dinner table. Sometimes the doorknob remark would break the tension and everybody would laugh. But not always. By the time Hillary had reached her teens, her father seemed defined by his mean edges-he had almost no recognizable enthusiasms or pretense to lightness as he descended into continuous bullying, ill-humor, complaint, and dejection.
In fact, depression seemed to haunt the Rodham men. Hughs younger brother, Russell, a physician, was the “golden boy” of the three children of Hannah and Hugh Rodham Sr. of Scranton, Pennsylvania. When Russell sank into depression in 1948, his parents asked Hugh to return to Scranton to help. Only hours after his arrival, Russell tried to hang himself in the attic, and Hugh had to cut him down. Afterward, Russell went to Chicago to stay with Hugh, Dorothy, and their baby daughter in their already overcrowded one-bedroom apartment. For months, Russell received psychiatric treatment at the local Veterans Administration hospital. Eventually he moved to a dilapidated walk-up in downtown Chicago, worked as a bartender, and declined into alcoholism and deeper depression until he died, in 1962, in a fire that was caused by a lit cigarette. Hillary deeply felt her fathers pain over the tragedy, she wrote.
Hughs older brother, Willard, regarded as the most gregarious and fun-loving of the three, never left home or married, and was employed in a patronage job for the Scranton public works department. He resolved after his mothers death to take care of his father. He dedicated himself completely to the task for the next thirteen years, and when his father died at age eighty-six in 1965, Willard was overwhelmed by despair. He died five weeks later of a coronary thrombosis, according to the coroners report, though Hillarys brother Tony said, “He died of loneliness. When my grandfather died, Uncle Willard was lost.”
Hugh Rodham, himself broken of spirit, his brothers and parents dead, soon thereafter shut his business and retired. Not yet fifty-five, he continued to withdraw. Later, both of Hillarys brothers, to varying degrees, seemed to push through adulthood in a fog of melancholia.
In 1993, after Hillarys law partner, close friend, and deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide, she approached William Styron, who had chronicled his own struggles with depression in his acclaimed book Darkness Visible. The conversation was not only about Fosters suicide, but also touched on the depression that seemed to afflict members of Hillarys family.
Hillarys mother, a resilient woman whose early childhood was a horror of abandonment and cruelty, was able to overcome adversity, as would her daughter. Dorothy persevered through five years of dating Hugh Rodham-during which time she worked as his secretary and suspected he was continuing a relationship with another woman-before she agreed to marry him, according to family members. She and Hugh waited another five years to have their first child. (Chelsea Clinton, too, was born in the fifth year of her parents marriage.)
As intellectually broad-minded as her husband was incurious and uninterested, as inclined to reflection as he was to outburst, she fulfilled her lifelong goal of attending college in her late sixties (majoring in psychology), after she and her husband moved to Little Rock in 1987 to be near their daughter and grandchild. Constantly evolving and changing (like her daughter), she managed almost invariably to find a focus for her energy and satisfaction despite the dissonance of a difficult life at home. As her husband descended, she even became something of a free spirit, at turns sentimental, analytical, spiritual, and adventurous. (Her favorite movies were not those of her childhood, but The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert-an Australian drag queen romp-and the bloody classic Pulp Fiction.) Dorothy taught classes at Sunday school (as would her daughter); Hugh didnt go to church on Sundays, saying hed rather pray at home.
Life in the Rodham household resembled a kind of boot camp, presided over by a belittling, impossible-to-satisfy drill instructor. During World War II, as a chief petty officer in the Navy, Rodham had trained young recruits in the U.S. militarys Gene Tunney Program, a rigorous phys-ed regime based on the champion boxers training and self-defense techniques, and on the traditional skills of a drill sergeant. After the war, in which Hugh had been spared overseas duty and was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station because of a bad knee, he replicated the barracks experience in his own home, commanding loudly from his living room lounge chair (from which he rarely rose, except for dinner), barking orders, denigrating, minimizing achievements, ignoring accomplishments, raising the bar constantly for his frustrated children-“character building,” he called it.
His control over the household was meant to be absolute; confronted with resistance, he turned fierce. If Hillary or one of her brothers had left the cap off a toothpaste tube, he threw it out the bathroom window and told the offending child to fetch it from the front yard evergreens, even in snow. Regardless of how windy and cold the Chicago winter night, he insisted when the family went to bed that the heat be turned off until morning. At dinner, he growled his opinions, indulged few challenges to his provocations, and rarely acknowledged the possibility of being proved wrong. Still, Hillary would argue back if the subject was substantive and she thought she was right. If Dorothy attempted to bring a conflicting set of facts into the discussion, she was typically ridiculed by her husband: “How would you know?” “Where did you ever come up with such a stupid idea?” “Miss Smarty Pants.”
“My father was confrontational, completely and utterly so,” Hugh Jr. said. Decades later, Hillary and her brothers suggested this was part of a grander scheme to ensure that his children were “competitive, scrappy fighters,” to “empower” them, to foster “pragmatic competitiveness” without putting them down, to induce elements of “realism” into the privileged lifestyle of Park Ridge. Her father would tepidly acknowledge her good work, but tell her she could do better, Hillary said. But there is little to suggest that she or her brothers interpreted such encouragement so benignly at the time. When Hillary came home with all As except for one B on her report card, her father suggested that perhaps her school was too easy, and wondered half-seriously why she hadnt gotten straight As. Hillary tried mightily to extract some unequivocal declaration of approval from her father, but he had tremendous difficulty in expressing pride or affection.
At the dinner table, Betsy Ebeling recalled, “Hillarys mom would have cooked something good, and her dad would throw out a conversation topic, almost like a glove on the table, and he would always say something the opposite of what I thought he really believed-because it was so completely provocative and outrageous. It was just his way. He was opinionated, and he could be loud, and what better place to [be that way] than in his own home?”
Unleashed, his rage was frightening, and the household sometimes seemed on the verge of imploding. Betsy and the few other girlfriends whom Hillary brought home could see that life with Hugh Rodham was painfully demeaning for her mother, and that Hillary winced at her fathers distemper and chafed under his miserliness. Money was always a contentious issue, ultimately the way in which he could exercise undisputed control, especially in response to Hillarys and Dorothys instinctive rebelliousness and the wicked sense of humor they shared.
Sometimes his tirades would begin in the kitchen and continue into her parents bedroom. Hillary would put her hands over her ears. But the experience of standing up to her father also prepared her for the intellectual rough-and-tumble that honed Hillary and Bill Clintons marital partnership, and helped inure her in the arena of political combat.
“I could go home to two parents who adored everything I did,” said Betsy. “Hillary had a different kind of love; you had to earn it.”
* Ebeling is Betsys married name. Her maiden name was Johnson.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Carl Bernstein, with Bob Woodward, shared a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post. He is the author, with Woodward, of All the President's Men and The Final Days, and, with Marco Politi, of His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time. He is also the author of Loyalties, a memoir about his parents during McCarthy-era Washington. He has written for Vanity Fair (he is also a contributing editor), Time, USA Today, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic. He was a Washington bureau chief and correspondent for ABC News. He lives with his wife, Christine, in New York.
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