If you’ve ever yearned for a hagiography of Hillary Clinton fit to read your kids at bedtime, you’re finally in luck: Earlier this year, HarperCollins Children’s Books released Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead, written by Michelle Martel and illustrated by LeUyen Pham.
It should be said off the bat that Pham’s illustrations are terrific. The problem with the Some Girls Are Born to Lead is its content. In order to work as a children’s book, the life story of Hillary Clinton has to be painfully shoehorned into a Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey, with a colorful, flawless heroine overcoming an endless parade of darkly nefarious foes. Those of us alive during these years will read the result and marvel at a joyous tale that bears little resemblance to the events it purports to recount.
When our story begins, “in the 1950s, it was a man’s world. Only boys could grow up to have powerful jobs. Only boys had no ceilings on their dreams.” The accompanying illustration holds up Jackie Robinson as the beneficiary of patriarchal privilege, which is surely a historical first:
Credit where it’s due: The Rose Law firm makes an appearance on one of the pages on Hillary’s early adult life, and that’s Vince Foster beside her. Sadly, in the illustration, the Clintons’ subpoenaed billing records are nowhere to be found — but that is at least accurate, since the real-life records were missing from 1994 to 1996.
On the campaign trail in 1992, Clinton gets criticized “in ways they’d never criticize a man.” Unless that man was Michael Dukakis, or Dan Quayle, or Barry Goldwater, or any one of 100 other politicians Republican and Democrat before her.
Yes, a closing footnote clarifies that’s David Brock depicted as one of the sinister reporters in the illustration above. (Tthe ‘AS’ on his hat is for The American Spectator.) But even the footnote gets its facts wrong. It describes “David Brock, who wrote the story about Troopergate, a scandal that greatly affected the campaign,” when in fact Brock’s Troopergate scoops came out in 1993, during Bill Clinton’s first year in office. Troopergate was about Bill’s bad behavior, including with a woman named “Paula,” later revealed to be Paula Jones, who reached a lucrative out-of-court settlement with the president over her sexual-harassment allegations in 1998. Of course, none of this belongs in a children’s book, but it is proof that the Clintons’ 90s scandals weren’t just a product of right-wing malice.
Republican parents will be surprised to see the New York Times depicted as a news entity being unfair to the first lady. “They said her headbands were too casual and her attitude was too feisty. An ex-president said a First Lady shouldn’t be too strong or too smart. Others called her ‘the Hillary problem’ and a lot worse that that,” Martel writes.
The “Hillary Problem” was the title of a 1992 column by William Safire, which offered a substantive critique of Clinton, arguing that she often defended herself by ridiculing women who had made other choices:
Clinton’s second outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease — “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” — betrayed ignorance of the fundamentals of campaigning: You do not defend yourself from a conflict-of-interest charge by insulting a large segment of the voting public.
The cookies-and-tea stereotype is elitism in action. Even the columnist Ellen Goodman, a grass-roots feminist, was moved to comment: “Ouch.”
You notice this recurring theme in the book: People keep picking on poor Hillary for no good reason. They just don’t want to see a woman succeed, like Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole and Albert Schweitzer didn’t want to see women succeed in the 1950s.
After Bill Clinton’s election, protests against Hillarycare appear, and credit Pham; the crowd protesting, to use a Clinton-era phrase, “looks like America.”
But then Martell steps in. “Hillary led a task force on health care so that all Americans could afford to see a doctor,” she writes. “Some people hated Hillary and her new ideas.” A child might wonder why all these people don’t want everyone to be able to see doctors. Why, it’s almost as if those nasty Republicans would rather Americans die in the street!
Of course no children’s book is going to address the Lewinsky scandal. But once you remove it from the story, you end up with an odd, sudden turn in Clinton’s motivations and goals: “At the end of Bill’s term, Hillary finally got the chance to run for office herself, to become a U.S. senator from New York.”
The page continues, “Though the odds were against her, she won the race.” This will come as a surprise to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the 2000 New York Senate race. For starters, Democratic representative Nita Lowey dropped out rather than face Hillary in the primary. The entire Democratic party in a heavily blue state cleared the field for Clinton, and she never trailed Rick Lazio in even a single general-election poll.
After one page on Hillary in the Senate, helping 9/11 responders, it’s 2008, and she’s running for president. A losing presidential campaign has never been portrayed more heroically, and yet it is odd that President Obama isn’t even mentioned: “She kept fighting — and though it was not enough to win, she earned a record-breaking 18 million votes.”
Obama appears a page later, making her secretary of state, a period of Hillary’s life that gets a page and a half, one of which is a picture of women around the world. I realize a part of Clinton’s record such as, say, Benghazi isn’t going to appear in a children’s book, but Born to Lead really leans hard on her meeting schedule as an accomplishment meant to inspire awe:
The book closes with Clinton taking her place among the world’s extraordinary women, a menagerie that includes Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Kagan . . .
. . . and Madonna.
It would be hard to write a fair and compelling children’s storybook about Hillary Clinton. Most of her many scandals are unfit for children. Her struggles are largely symbolic, against abstract obstacles such as expectations or criticism, and her actual accomplishments are few. We keep hearing that this woman is the most qualified presidential candidate of our lifetimes, and yet, try as it might, Some Girls Are Born to Lead can’t quite hide the fact that her life story isn’t much of a story at all.
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.