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

The Baltimore Sun

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.

Throughout Hillary Clinton's years in Arkansas (1974-1992) and the White House (1993-2001), Bernstein shows, the defining characteristic of her approach to public life was to view politics as war. (One aide in the 1992 presidential campaign told Bernstein, "She's happiest when she's fighting.") In contrast, her husband usually sought to convert opponents, or at least envelop them, by incorporating their priorities into his positions. Proving the adage that even paranoids have enemies, Hillary Clinton's attitude at times was not only justified but also shrewd: She quickly (and correctly) recognized special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr as a sanctimonious partisan who would use any means necessary to try to destroy her husband's presidency. But more often, her pugnacious instincts hurt her causes. Bernstein is especially good at demonstrating how her arrogance and reluctance to compromise doomed her universal health care plan in 1994. At one meeting with Democratic senators, she openly threatened to "demonize" any member of Congress who opposed her plan, which had the effect of compounding policy and political doubts about the proposal with personal animus toward its author. "That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton," former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey says in another unvarnished assessment.

Overall, as Bernstein tells it, Clinton in her initial years as first lady was less appealing than at any other point in her life - more rigid, secretive, combative, deceptive and angry. Those are hardly the qualities anyone would want in the next president. But it's not apparent that those clothes still fit her today. She found a more productive (and it appears emotionally satisfying) role later in her husband's presidency, when she emerged as a global ambassador focusing on the needs of women and children. And since her election to the Senate in 2000, she has scarcely resembled the dragon lady of health care when building legislative alliances with dozens of GOP senators and generally pursuing modest, consensus-oriented initiatives. If anything, the most persistent criticism she has faced in the Senate is that she learned the lessons of her health-care debacle too well - and has become too compromising, too unwilling to take political risks on such issues as the Iraq war and care for the uninsured. Still, she has demonstrated that she hasn't completely outgrown her instinct for political combat by letting her campaign aides exchange sharp jabs with her rivals, such as the dust-up that ensued when one of Sen. Barack Obama's most prominent supporters denounced her in unusually personal terms.

Bernstein can't shed much light on whether Hillary Clinton as president might resemble the warrior first lady, the conciliatory senator or something in between, because he brushes past her Senate career in a slapdash six pages. To their credit, Gerth and Van Natta, who both made their names at The New York Times, devote almost half their book to Clinton in the Senate. They unearth valuable new details, particularly on her maneuvering over Iraq. But their book - marred by pedestrian prose, insufficient analysis and excessive reliance on anonymous sources - fails to situate her Senate career in the context of her personal evolution or the Democratic Party's larger debates during George W. Bush's presidency. (At points, it feels as if the two not only miss the forest for the trees but also the trees for the branches.) Those seeking to understand Clinton's Senate years can learn more from Joshua Green's Atlantic Monthly article last November than from these biographies combined.

The evidence in both books provocatively suggests that Hillary Clinton has been most creative and balanced when she's operated with the most independence from Bill Clinton - at college and law school; as a global ambassador during his presidency; in the Senate; and as a presidential candidate. At his side, she has been a warrior. Alone, as a woman in charge, she's been something more complex: a committed but calculating activist whose ambition and religiously infused sense of mission contend with her innate political realism and a hard-won understanding of human imperfectability.

Hillary Clinton seems to function best when her idealism and pragmatism are in rough balance. (Too much of the former helped sink her health care plan; too much of the latter may explain her difficulties on Iraq.) But even she appears to recognize the difficulty of maintaining that equilibrium. Bernstein quotes a letter she wrote in college to the minister who most influenced her. In it she precociously asks, "Can one be a mind conservative and a heart liberal?" Hillary Clinton still appears to be pondering that mystery, and if she wins the White House, it may well loom as the pivotal question of her presidency.

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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