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For an invitation to the White House?

Living History is a mishmash of pious platitudes about policy (like those in the author?s earlier book It Takes a Village)

india Updated: Jun 18, 2003 10:22 IST
Michiko Kakutani
Michiko Kakutani

Living History
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster
Pages: 576
Price $28
ISBN: 0743222245

Two leitmotifs run through Hillary Clinton’s wildly hyped new memoir. One has to do with her changing hairstyles, which are discussed in detail at least a half dozen times, as they morphed with Madonna-like frequency from long to short, from frizzy to hair-banded to carefully coiffed. The other has to do with her penchant for blaming enemies, from political rivals to a “vast right-wing conspiracy”, for the Clintons’ failures and travails.

The first underscores the chameleonlike quality she’s always shared with her husband, the belief, as he once put it, that character “is a journey, not a destination”. The second underscores both the highly partisan atmosphere of the 1990s and the Clintons’ reluctance to assume full responsibility for their own mistakes and evasions.

Hillary, who has repeatedly invoked a “zone of privacy” around her family, talks in this book about noticing Clinton’s narrow wrists and tapered fingers when she first met him at Yale Law School in the early 1970s; about wanting “to wring Bill’s neck” after he admitted to her that he’d had “an inappropriate intimacy” with Monica Lewinsky; about subsequently going into “regular marital counselling to determine whether or not we were going to salvage our marriage”.

With the exception of such revelations (most of which were publicised in a leak to The Associated Press and in Hillary’s interview with Barbara Walters, which was broadcast on ABC), Living History is a mishmash of pious platitudes about policy (not unlike those found in the author’s earlier book It Takes a Village); robotic asides about her official duties in Washington (not unlike those found in her Martha Stewart-esque book An Invitation to the White House); and by now familiar accounts of her metamorphosis over the years from Goldwater girl to liberal student activist to high-powered lawyer to first lady to senator from New York.

Overall the book has the overprocessed taste of a stump speech, the calculated polish of a string of anecdotes to be delivered on a television chat show. Her book is in many ways an artefact of the curious age in which we live: an age in which confession and “sharing” have become talking points for public figures, and scandal translates instantly into celebrity. An age in which tough, talented women can ascend to high political office but often experience their greatest popularity when they are perceived as less-threatening victims.

The book struggles to turn the author’s many contradictions — the policy wonk who poses for Vogue; the self-righteous “politics of meaning” crusader who made a quick $100,000 in the commodities market; the big-picture reformer who has begun to position herself as a centrist — into a narrative of maturation and reconciliation.

It is a book that purports to deal with the many controversies in Clinton’s campaigns and presidency, presumably to get these issues behind her before she contemplates running for the White House herself. Yet the book skates over the problems the Clinton administration faced in its rocky debut and in the impeachment crisis and skims over details of matters like Whitewater and “travelgate” while expending a startling amount of space on her trips abroad and her personal appearance.

Some of her asides can be funny, like recounting how she and an aide worked out “a system of hand gestures, like those of a coach and a pitcher, so that I would know when to smooth my hair down or wipe the lipstick off my teeth”. Many, however, feel more like women’s magazine filler. We learn that Bill was flummoxed when Hillary had her hair permed in 1974, but we do not learn why billing records from the Rose Law Firm, included in the independent counsel’s subpoenas, mysteriously surfaced in the White House, after having been missing for months. We learn that Hillary and Chelsea wore long, flowing tunics over loose pants during a trip to India and Pakistan, but we never learn about President Clinton’s controversial last-minute pardons.

The Gennifer Flowers episode is dealt with in a highly cursory manner. Of a newspaper article in which Flowers claimed that she had had a 12-year affair with Bill Clinton, Hillary writes that her husband “told me it wasn’t true”. Later in the Lewinsky mess, before Clinton told his wife of his involvement with that intern, their adviser Robert S. Barnett tells Hillary that “you have to face the fact that something about this might be true”. She reports that her response was, “My husband may have his faults, but he has never lied to me.”

Hillary blames negative ads and a broken promise from the Carter White House for insuring her husband’s failure to recapture the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1980. She shrugs off travelgate as “the first manifestation of an obsession for investigation that persisted into the next millennium”. And she characterises Whitewater as “a limitless investigation of our lives” the purpose of which was “to discredit the president and the administration and slow down its momentum”.

Later Hillary’s anger at Kenneth W. Starr overrode her anger at her husband over Lewinsky. “And the more I believed Starr was abusing his power, the more I sympathised with Bill — at least politically.”

In these pages Hillary observes that it was she, not her husband, who decided not to turn over Whitewater documents to the press, and that it was she who strenuously argued against appointing an independent counsel. This book ratifies the dynamic between the Clintons depicted in the press and in memoirs by White House officials, that Clinton was the more indecisive, forgiving one, while Hillary was the more combative, organised one.

He was the optimist; she the worrier. The Lewinsky imbroglio made her feel more isolated: “I also worried,” she writes, “that the armour I had acquired might distance me from my true emotions, that I might turn into the brittle caricature some critics accused me of being.”

The least self-conscious portions deal with her childhood and her memories of her mother, a closet Democrat, and her father, a “rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican” who warned Hillary about the perils of waste. “To this day,” she writes, “I put uneaten olives back in the jar, wrap up the tiniest pieces of cheese.”

In the opening chapters she writes about growing up in a Chicago suburb where going to McDonald’s was reserved for “special occasions”, where neighbourhood kids thought it was fun to pedal through the haze of town trucks spraying DDT in the summer twilight, where she and her brothers spent more time playing board games and card games than watching TV.

These sections have a homey immediacy lacking in the rest of the book, which for all its roller-coaster drama — all the political scandals, marital woes and startling comebacks and reinventions — radiates the faintly stale air of being the carefully rehearsed and elided statements of a professional pol intent on turning a book tour into the first leg of another campaign.

The New York Times

First Published: Jun 16, 2003 13:10 IST