Hillary Clinton wasn’t looking forward to the publication of two new biographies, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, by former and present New York Timesmen Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., and A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, the lesser half of the Watergate team of Woodward and Bernstein. Senator Clinton is, of course, famously secretive — she probably wouldn’t be happy with any biography unless it were written by, say, Sidney Blumenthal — and she refused to cooperate with either Gerth/Van Natta or Bernstein. Even before publication, her spokesmen had their putdown lines ready. “Is it possible to be quoted yawning?” Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said to the Washington Post.
Now we have the books in hand, and in one sense it’s hard to see why Clinton and her flacks were so worried. Neither volume contains the kind of bombshell revelation that dominates the news for days at a time, and neither could qualify as a hit job. Bernstein, in particular, seems well disposed toward his subject, whom he describes as “an intelligent woman endowed with energy, enthusiasm, humor, tempestuousness, inner strength, [and] spontaneity in private.” Even accounting for a few unappealing attributes, such as her talent for retribution and her occasionally salty tongue, Bernstein concludes that Hillary Clinton is filled with “passion — which, down deep, is perhaps her most enduring and even endearing trait.” Not exactly the words of a hit man.
But there’s another sense in which Clinton was right to be concerned. Though bereft of headline-making disclosures, each book contains page after page of new details, some of them so far ignored in the press, that reveal Hillary Rodham Clinton to be even more secretive, even more politically tin-eared, and even more combative than previously known.
For example, we’ve all heard about the famous War Room of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. But Gerth and Van Natta reveal that across the alley from the War Room was a more secretive effort, headed by Hillary and known as the Defense Team, that really got into the down-and-dirty stuff. The Defense Team’s job was to knock down any allegation, no matter how well founded, about Bill Clinton’s girlfriends, his avoidance of the draft, Whitewater, Hillary Clinton’s legal work — anything that might hurt the campaign. And to do it by any means necessary, legal or not: Gerth and Van Natta report that on one occasion Mrs. Clinton listened to a “secretly recorded audiotape” of Clinton adversaries talking on the phone about the next possible bimbo eruption. “Bill’s supporters monitored frequencies used by cell phones,” Gerth and Van Natta add, “and the tape was made during one of those monitoring sessions.” Who knew that Mrs. Clinton was an early advocate of warrantless wiretapping?
Fast forward several years, and Gerth and Van Natta tell us about an organization called CREW, which stands for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. It’s a well-known group, a supposedly non-partisan watchdog organization that in fact spends most of its time attacking Republicans (just ask Tom DeLay). The news is that Hillary’s fingerprints are all over it. As described by Gerth and Van Natta, a Hillary operative named Jodi Sakol played a key role in setting up CREW. Sakol told the authors that Hillary was “proactive” and wanted to “beat the GOP at their own game” by setting up a group modeled on Judicial Watch, which had filed lawsuits against the Clintons in the 1990s. (Hillary seems to have forgotten that Judicial Watch did a turnaround and began attacking the Bush administration after the 2000 election.) Hillary helped line up donors for CREW, volunteered ideas, okayed the involvement of her top pollster, Mark Penn, and looked on as her “watchdogs” went out after DeLay and other GOP leaders. Somehow she managed to keep her name out of all this.
Gerth and Van Natta also show Clinton employing secret staffers, in the process sneaking around Senate rules that don’t suit her fancy. They show her threatening a staffer with “You’ll never work in Democratic politics again” if the staffer failed to cover up tax returns showing Clinton’s commodities-trading profits. And they show her directing the operation to stonewall the independent-counsel investigations of her husband.
Bernstein’s book doesn’t dwell on that kind of detail. But with a lot of prime sources in the Clinton camp, Bernstein goes much deeper than Gerth and Van Natta, portraying a Hillary Clinton who was even more closely involved in the running of her husband’s administration than we thought. And not only more closely involved — she was also even less competent and more politically maladroit than we thought.
In a scene from the frenzied Clinton transition after the 1992 election, Bernstein portrays Mrs. Clinton sitting down with top political adviser Dick Morris, musing over what position to take in the new administration. Hillary thought she might make a fine attorney general — until someone remembered the “Bobby Kennedy law” that forbade a president from making nepotism appointments to his cabinet. She thought about becoming White House chief of staff — Bernstein reports that Morris “was one of several people with whom Hillary discussed the question of being chief of staff.” Or perhaps she might be the chief domestic-policy adviser.
She wasn’t kidding. Bernstein also describes Mrs. Clinton’s putting dibs on the West Wing office space that had, in previous administrations, been occupied by the vice president. Roy Neel, Al Gore’s top aide, stood by astonished, finally complaining to Susan Thomases, one of Hillary’s closest operatives. In the end, Mrs. Clinton didn’t get the office, but she did take charge of her husband’s top priority, health-care reform, and made a terrible mess of it.
Underneath her appointment to the health-care initiative was the suspicion, held both inside and outside the White House, that Bill Clinton had to give his wife something pretty big because he owed her so much for the work she did knocking down those bimbo eruptions. She put her own credibility on the line, and under her supervision the Defense Team had procured false affidavits, kept up with that anonymous domestic spying, and crafted denial after denial. Without her work, Bill Clinton might not have been president. Even if he felt his ambitious wife wasn’t up to the health-care job, he couldn’t just give her nothing.
What Bernstein reveals, better than anyone else has so far, is how much Hillary Clinton’s grab for power disturbed top White House and administration aides — not Republicans in opposition, but the very Democrats who were trying to make the Clinton administration work. Lloyd Bentsen, Donna Shalala, Leon Panetta, Alice Rivlin — all opposed the choice of Hillary to head the health-care task force. “Mostly, [these] people thought the idea — the whole system Hillary was setting up — was crazy,” Shalala told Bernstein.
Democrats outside the administration were unhappy, too. Bernstein describes a meeting in April 1993 at which Hillary briefed top party leaders on the health-care task force’s progress. When then-senator Bill Bradley suggested that some changes might be required, she told him to forget it; if any lawmakers even tried, she said, the White House would “demonize” them. Bradley later unloaded on Bernstein. “That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton,” he said. “You don’t tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them. It was obviously so basic to who she is. The arrogance. The assumption that people with questions are enemies. The disdain. The hypocrisy.”
And then there was the rest of Washington. During Hillary’s early days in the White House, Washington journalist and social fixture Sally Quinn wrote a much-noted column saying Hillary should remember that she wasn’t elected president. Quinn’s impudence angered Bill Clinton, who raged against Quinn in a conversation with advisers James Carville and Rahm Emanuel. But years later Emanuel told Bernstein, “James and I had the same take on it, which was, ‘God bless Sally for being honest.’ She was f — ing honest.”
And those, as they say, were her friends.
Reading Bernstein’s account, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mrs. Clinton benefited greatly, both in Arkansas and the White House, from the eagerness of her husband’s supporters to overrate her. “There was too much mythology about Hillary that stretched the facts,” Donna Shalala told Bernstein. Shalala, Bernstein writes, “had always been made uncomfortable by hyperbolic statements from friends and acolytes of Hillary…who put forth the notion that had she pursued her own political career and not deferred to Bill Clinton’s she would have been a governor or a senator in her own right by 1992.” Mrs. Clinton’s fans, Shalala continued, “assume that [just] being smart is enough. And it’s not enough. It’s judgment. It’s experience. It’s being strategic at the right points.” Not Mrs. Clinton’s strong points.
But the hype was at times nearly overwhelming. To take just one example, it was often said that Mrs. Clinton had been judged one of the top lawyers in America. But both books point out that she failed the District of Columbia bar exam when she took it fresh out of Yale Law School. (Bernstein’s recounting of her years at Yale give the impression that she trained as much to be a social worker as a lawyer.) Of the 817 people who took the exam with Mrs. Clinton, Bernstein tells us, 551 — that’s 67 percent — passed, “most from law schools less prestigious than Yale.” The fact that Mrs. Clinton failed is not a scoop — after keeping it a secret for many years, she revealed it in a little-noticed passage of her memoir, Living History — but it will receive new attention now. (She was also, by the way, unimpressive in the courtroom, and Bernstein reports that her worried Rose Law Firm partners “began steering her practice toward nonjury work.”)
In the end, the impression that both books leave is that Mrs. Clinton has had two crowning achievements in her career. One was in 1992, when she fought off allegations about her husband’s womanizing and helped him win the presidency. The other was in 1998, when she fought off allegations about her husband’s womanizing and helped him stay in office. The rest? It’s a mixed bag at best.
Well, maybe not even that. “With the notable exception of her husband’s libidinous carelessness,” Bernstein writes, “the most egregious errors, strategic and tactical, of the Bill Clinton presidency, particularly in its infancy, were traceable to Hillary.” The Hillary Clinton of A Woman in Charge and Her Way is a woman who would do almost anything to gain power but didn’t know what to do with it once she got it, beyond battling her enemies and alienating her friends. Sometimes it seems there’s not much more we can learn about Hillary. Bernstein, Gerth, and Van Natta have shown us that’s not true.
Portions of this article appeared originally in the June 25, 2007, issue of National Review and also in the Wall Street Journal.