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A Search for Character
on 19 June 2007
What do you most want to know about Hillary Clinton? If it's why she stayed in her marriage to the wandering Bill, you'll probably find A Woman in Charge will satisfy your curiosity.
If your question is what kind of a president she might make, you could feel pretty clueless after reading this book. The only substantive issue since 1994 that's addressed here is her thinking about voting for the Iraq War. Democrats will probably draw the happy conclusion from A Woman in Charge that she's learned from all of her mistakes and will be virtually perfect in staying in tune with the voters and Congress. Republicans will be concerned that she will be the aggressive opponent who successfully fought off an impeachment vote and spend all of her time painting Republicans as the enemy. Both views are probably off the mark, but you won't know that from reading this book.
Carl Bernstein's view of Hillary Clinton is that her faith, her father, and her husband shaped her more than she shaped herself. A Woman in Charge portrays a sincere Methodist who feels called to make a public contribution, a docile daughter who was mistreated by her father, and a woman who put her commitment to her husband, her marriage, and her child above her self interest. Mr. Bernstein sees Hillary as a woman who would have become the best of her generation if she had stuck to hanging out with good role models and well-behaving people. He seems vaguely annoyed that falling in love with Bill Clinton caused Hillary's pathway to veer into Arkansas and highly partisan sniping. Her career since 2000 is briefly described as going back to learning the ropes the right way after having lost her original sense of purpose . . . in other words, she's running her life based on old habits and a desire to win rather than bright-eyed idealism. In a sense, you might say that this biography casts her life as a sort of tragedy for her and the nation.
Mr. Bernstein also wants to inflate her story to a bigger size than it is. Rather than seeing the defeat of health care reform as yet another Democratic failure in a series of many failures over decades, Mr. Bernstein transforms the defeat into the end of the Democratic Party and almost seems to hint that she single-handedly created the George W. Bush presidency through her efforts to defend Bill while he was president. I think his sense of drama is misplaced. Hillary Clinton was an activist First Lady, but she certainly wasn't the wheel around which all politics rotated from 1993-2000.
What does the title of the book refer to? After Bill was no longer president, Mr. Bernstein argues that Hillary could set her own course without being limited by directions and issues that Bill creates.
It's a curious choice of titles given that the book devotes almost no attention to her post White House life. You could almost argue that the title is a spin tactic of the sort that politicians and their handlers are so fond of using with journalists.
Although I haven't read any other biographies of Hillary Clinton, I suspect that this book will be far from the definitive story. I suspect that a trained historian could do a better job than a journalist could. Hillary Clinton is too polarizing a figure for a journalist to perceive from an objective distance.