A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein
Reviewed by Caitlin Flanagan
The Atlantic Monthly
[Ed. Note. This review discusses the contents and context of four books: A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton; Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets; It Takes a Village; and Living History.]
When I first heard, during the strange final days of Bill Clinton's presidency, that the first couple were going to jettison Socks, the family cat, I assumed that it was one of those weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, in this case one easily dispelled: a single photograph of the kitty happily curled up on a window seat in his new home, and that would be the end of it. But then, as so often happens with weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, the story turned out to be 100 percent true. Reporters asked Bill about it during a press conference, and he hemmed and hawed. As the final days passed by -- which, as you may recall, included a newsy sluice of pardons and outrages, hardly a time when journalists had to invest minor incidents with greater importance -- reporters couldn't quite get their heads around the business with the cat.
In this hour of crisis, the official Socks the Cat Fan Club sent an inquiry to its namesake's most stalwart champion. Hillary's Senate office replied with a note -- at once chilly and patronizing -- suggesting, more or less, that they butt out.
In the annals of human evil, off-loading a pet is nowhere near the top of the list. But neither is it dead last, and it is especially galling when said pet had been deployed for years as an all-purpose character reference. All presidential pets become famous, but the national affection for Socks during his time in the White House was unexpected and politically miraculous. He did the impossible: He humanized the Clintons. Socks stood for Chelsea (whose cloistering lent her allure) and for something Hillary desperately wanted us to understand about herself: that no matter how powerful or successful she becomes, first and foremost, she's a mom; that no matter how incomprehensible her marriage may appear to outsiders, at its deep center is the only imperishable bond a man and a woman can share -- a child. Conveying these two simple facts during the long and punishing 1992 campaign had eluded Hillary, and by the time the family was crating up its belongings to move to the White House, even those of us who had helped punch their ticket thought they were odd ducks.
But then a group of photographers baited Socks with catnip outside the governor's mansion in Little Rock, and the rest is history. They shot some adorable pictures, and by the next day Socks was a front-page cat. The vast group of Americans (schoolchildren, mothers, teachers, old folk, simpletons) who share a good-natured, apolitical enthusiasm for the particulars of White House domestic life -- and who were suddenly high and dry with a first lady who didn't bake cookies, a president with a trail of girlfriends, and a daughter who was rightly shielded from a vicious press -- had finally, finally been given something to work with.
Hillary started taking Socks with her on personal appearances, and a cartoon version of him was installed on the White House Web site, so that children could take virtual tours of the building with Socks as their guide. And then, of course, there was Hillary's crowd-pleaser, Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids' Letters to the First Pets. The book showcases the way Hillary wanted to be seen as a first lady: not an aesthete like Jackie, not a shopaholic like Nancy, not a country-club dowager like Bar. Hillary wanted to be seen as warm, spontaneous to the point of being a little bit silly sometimes; someone who always has a twinkle in her eye whenever children are around. The book is, perforce, cloying, super-cute, and pun-riddled, and it would stand today merely as a curio if Hillary had -- for once in her life -- avoided her characteristic flaw. If only she had resisted the urge to drift past the homey anecdotes and family photographs, everything would have been fine. But, Hillary being Hillary, she had to turn the book into a lecture on pet care, and the person whose shining example we should all follow was none other than Hillary herself.
In Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, we are hectored never to give away a pet, always to regard one as an "adoption instead of an acquisition," and to be forever on guard for its physical safety (cold comfort to Buddy, who had barely sniffed his first Chappaqua crotch before the poor beast ran off and got killed by a car, as had the Clintons' previous dog, the much-loved but equally ill-tended Zeke). Hillary tells us that the Clintons "didn't take on the responsibility of our pets lightly," and more than anything, the reader is left with a vivid impression of Socks's central position in the heart of the Clinton family: When they arrived in Washington, they brought with them from Little Rock their "family traditions, favorite pictures, and personal mementos to make the White House feel more comfortable." But it was only when Socks appeared on the scene -- bringing with him his "toy mouse" -- that "this house became a home." (Hillary's literary exploitation of Socks continued long after she discarded him. On the second-to-last page of her memoir Living History, she offers a dreamy, after-the-ball portrait of her family savoring their last days in the White House: wandering down to the Children's Garden one last time, Chelsea and Hillary admiring the handprints of former presidents' grandchildren, Bill tossing the ball for Buddy, while Socks..."kept his distance.")
Hillary's insistence that we follow her example in pet ownership, when she should really be on Cat Fancy's Most Wanted list, makes her a tiresome bore. But exploiting the emotions of good-natured people (including "many of the retired servicemen and women who live at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C.," whose bravery and patriotism she honored by having them send out kitty-cat "greetings" to Socks's correspondents) -- well, that's just another example of her three-decade-long drift from the girl she once was to the woman that circumstance and ambition have made her.
Although I have little interest in national politics, I've long been attracted to Hillary, because the issues that most move me are those that have most moved her. I even wrote her a fan letter in the early 1990s, when I was a court-appointed special advocate in the Children's Dependency Court in Los Angeles, working in the field that had been her first calling. To read Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge is to be struck by the depth of this woman's early commitment to poor children and her willingness to devote herself, body and mind, to their plight. She is not a person who stumbled upon the cause of "social justice," as the Methodist Church of her childhood would have understood it, as a means of political gain, or as a fashionable response to the social upheaval of the '60s. She got involved because she was a particularly earnest young person, whose moral sensibility was shaped by a religion that called for its believers to put their faith into action.
Today we are overly familiar with the self-serving, Ivy League-bound youngster's frantic eagerness to insinuate herself into the lives of poor folk ("Hang in there, La'Shelle -- I'm applying Early Action!") so that she will have something to write on the community-service section of her application. But two generations ago, the sorts of things that Hillary did as a teenager -- volunteering to babysit the children of migrant workers, traveling to a Chicago slum to check for voter-registration fraud, trekking to a 1961 sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. -- were the purview, not of the résumé-padding smart set, but rather of a small army of very square white kids, from mainline Protestant churches. The Methodism of Hillary's youth went hand in hand with the civil-rights doctrine of King, and the two are largely responsible for the shape of her early career, which is one of breathtaking accomplishment and purpose.
If you want to have a sense of what Hillary was like when she was interested in policy, rather than electoral politics, take a look at her seminal 1973 essay for the Harvard Educational Review, "Children Under the Law," in which she argued that children should receive legal representation as a means of guaranteeing that their best interests would truly be the aim of any court case, including those involving abuse or neglect. Unlike her more recent literary efforts, this, far from being a vehicle through which to present the most advantageous image of its author, is the work of a shrewd, lawyerly mind grappling with a thorny problem and nudging a workable -- and humane -- solution through the thickets and deadwood of constitutional law. True, as I can testify, the solution that Hillary proposed here and that the dependency-court system largely adopted replaced a huge mess with another huge mess: The massive legal system now overseeing the fate of children who have been removed from their parents' care is a slow-moving beast that channels lawyers and legal briefs -- and a panicky, cover-your-ass devotion to documentation and paperwork -- into dicey situations that often get dicier the longer they stay in court.
What's more, her engagement with the issue bears all the markings of Hillary projects as we have come to know them: She saw a great wrong, and she wanted to right it; she was terrific on the details but blind to human weakness; and so the elegance of her reasoning was undone by the mess and squalor of the world as it actually exists.
A combination of strengths and weaknesses like this makes for someone I would consider highly admirable and human; someone, in fact, who once so dazzled me that when I was teaching in Los Angeles, I managed to get the single ticket my school received to a speech that Hillary gave at Scripps College. Though I arrived bonded to Hillary by our passion for children's welfare, and though the fact that the president of Scripps had been a friend of Hillary's in law school seemed to promise the sort of woman-to-woman conversation I'm a sucker for, the afternoon was a bust. Hillary did try to be warm and chatty. The subject of panty hose, I seem to recall, was discussed in the banter preceding her formal address. But something freakish in her voice or inflection -- you know what I mean -- made me want to flee. Hillary can't talk about panty hose. It's cringe-inducing to watch her try to talk about any of the subjects that normally would cement a bond between women, because there's nothing more uncomfortable than witnessing someone straining to be natural. On paper she's equally off-putting, lapsing into the didactic and the sanctimonious when presenting material meant to be personal, as in Dear Socks, Dear Buddy; It Takes a Village; and Living History. (For some mystifying reason, Hillary is determined, in the face of every ghastly bit of evidence to the contrary, to present her private life as an example for the rest of us. It's like watching someone get up every day and try to drive a Hummer across a balsa-wood bridge.)
Not long ago, Hillary appeared at a La Raza conference, and once onstage in front of a huge crowd, she told her interviewer that they should talk like "two girlfriends." This tack seems to be the latest in Hillary's ongoing effort to humanize herself. In the campaign, she clearly believes that her automatic advantage with the female half of the electorate is best pressed by forging this type of personal connection, commiserating with us in our lots as wives and mothers. This type of intimacy requires a brand of vulnerability, and as a woman who has seen her share of glass ceilings, who has struggled to balance career and family, and who has known the complex humiliations of marital infidelity, Hillary is not without relevant material. But it's in these matters, the intimate matters most likely to be both fascinating and helpful to other women, that she finds she can't outrun her past.
Hillary's girlfriend-to-girlfriend moment was awkward because if she wanted to talk that way she would have to be willing to let us women in on the big, underlying struggle of her life that is front and center in our understanding of who she is as a woman. Her husband's sexual behavior, quite apart from the private pain that it has caused her, has also sullied her deepest -- and most womanly -- ideals and convictions, for the Clintons' political partnership has demanded that she defend actions she knows to be indefensible. To call her husband a philanderer is almost to whitewash him, for he's used women far less sophisticated, educated, and powerful than he -- women particularly susceptible to the rake's characteristic blend of cajolery and deceit -- for his sexual gratification. In glossing over her husband's actions and abetting his efforts to squirm away from the scrutiny and judgment they provoke, Hillary has too often lapsed into her customary hauteur and self-righteousness, and added to the pain delivered upon these women.
I'm 45 years old -- not young, but hardly old, either. Yet I can vividly recall being informed by more than one schoolteacher that the reason America was a great country was that any boy, even one of the unprepossessing ones in our own classroom, could grow up to be president. It never occurred to me to think of that as an unfair supposition. Obviously, there were certain things a woman simply couldn't be: She couldn't be a king, or an astronaut, or the American president. That we could move, in the space of a few decades, from a civic life in which women's exclusion from national political office was an absolute article of faith, unthinkingly promulgated by female schoolteachers, to one in which we may very well have a female president in two years, is an astonishing and marvelous thing.
Recently, on David Letterman, Hillary said that she has been touched by the number of parents across the country who bring their young daughters out to see her, and it was an image that caught me off guard with its loveliness. Clearly, in some authentic corner of her soul, Hillary does care a great deal about girls, and clearly to her and to many women of her generation, this is almost the point of the entire campaign: to break through, to win the final battle of a war that has been so hard-fought, so grim, so difficult.
Why, then, are so many of the most liberal and educated women ambivalent about Hillary? Perhaps it's because when they get excited about the notion of a woman president, it's not because they merely want to settle an old score. It's because, to them, to imagine a superpower that is shaped not around men's values but around women's -- a superpower that puts caring for the weak and the vulnerable above everything else -- is to imagine a world that is much better than the current one. But because Hillary long ago attached her ideals and political destiny to Bill Clinton's, she has of necessity made herself complicit -- in ways that go far beyond the traditional role of first lady and candidate's wife -- in all sorts of unsavory actions, including the way he treated vulnerable women.
What remains of the old Hillary, the one I would have followed anywhere, are the worst of the traits that often mark idealists (humorlessness, sanctimoniousness) combined with the worst expediency and hypocrisy of her husband. In short, to get excited about Hillary is not to get excited about how a woman can change the world, but rather to endorse the way a certain kind of man -- over time, and holding her hostage not only by her ambition but by the love she has for a child whose home she desperately didn't want to destroy -- can diminish the very best of a woman.
Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on "Girl Land," a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls.