Living History

by Hillary Rodham Clinton
562 pages,
ISBN: 0743222245

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Lady at the Top
by Joan Givner

Hillary Clinton's extraordinary career as First Lady, Senator, and as the first plausible female candidate for the presidency of the United States makes her autobiography worthy of serious analysis. Not everyone agrees with that proposition. Clearly, the book review editor who assigned the book to a columnist known for derisive one-liners did not, and the result is more wisecrack than insight: "At her best, she seems like Sarah Brown, the mission doll in 'Guys and Dolls'." Bill Clinton is "like Ethan Frome, who ends up in a cramped cabin with the wife he betrayed and his now irritating and ubiquitous former dalliance." "She thinks of herself as an Episcopal bishop who deserves to live at the level of her wealthy parishioners, in return for devoting her life to God and good works." And, lest anyone should assume that the myth of the brainy, castrating female belongs to another era: "She has a 100-pound fishing wire round a delicate part of her husband's anatomy." The last two quotations, by the way, are attributed by the columnist to "one of Hillary's top health care deputies," and "a top Clinton aide" respectively.
More judicious critics have claimed that the book is merely a political manifesto in preparation for a run at the presidency; that it is evasive; that it is a series of self-justifications. There is truth in the last two charges: but surely it would be nanve to expect otherwise from a politician in mid-career. Hence Clinton skips lightly over her husband's philandering, adds little to the Lewinsky affair, and rebuts criticism on such issues as Whitewater, her failed health care plan, and her embrace of Suha Arafat after Mrs. Arafat's outrageous statement that Israel used poisoned gas on the Palestinians. Clinton also returns tediously to trivial matters, such as criticisms of her cloths, hairstyles, and her imagined "conversations" with Eleanor Roosevelt.
These weaknesses are not only predictable, they are inherent in the genre itself, and students of autobiography have long since stopped deploring omissions, and concentrated instead on strategies to interpret what remains. And, in spite of the team of writers involved in producing this book, personal revelations and illuminating incidents emerge.
One telling incident occurs at a party hosted by Jacqueline Kennedy, when a chorus of voices urges Clinton to jump from a yacht's 40-ft diving board into the water. Never one to refuse challenges, she is reluctant to back off from doing "what I was most afraid to do." Jackie, however, sensing Clinton's trepidation, calls out, "Don't let them talk you into it, Hillary." Thus encouraged, Clinton finally gives herself permission to beat a retreat.
But the main key to Clinton's character is to be found in her mother's early life. Dorothy Howells was born in Chicago in 1919 to a 15-year-old mother and a 17-year-old father; she was eight years old when her parents divorced and abandoned her. She was dispatched to California by train, in charge of her three-year-old sister, and into the unwelcoming care of her paternal grandparents. She left what had become an unbearably miserable home at 14, putting herself through high school by caring for a family's children in return for room and board. After high school, she returned to Chicago, and worked as a secretary until she met and married Hugh Rodham.
Being robbed of her childhood left Dorothy Rodham with a profound sympathy for the dispossessed, especially for children. Early abandonment and vulnerability also gave her a strong instinct for self-protective camouflage. Parental divorce was a source of shame, and she was married to a parsimonious, irascible husband whose right-wing opinions she did not share. In the staunchly Republican Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, she was a closet Democrat who voted for Kennedy. Clinton notes, "I am not the sort of person who routinely pours out her deepest feelings, even to my closest friends. My mother is the same way. We have a tendency to keep our own counselÓ." The danger here is that habitual camouflage can easily morph into self-deception.
Dorothy Rodham apparently passed on another trait: Clinton's book is rife with evidence of her unrelieved intensity and earnestness. There is unintended humour in the descriptions of social occasions generally calling for small talk and persiflage. The cumulative impression is of a series gala dinners, gaiety reigning around the table, while Clinton's unfortunate neighbour is having his ears bent by an intense Boswell at his elbow.
During a 1989 dinner at Monticello for state governors and their wives, she seizes the opportunity to inform an incredulous George Bush that the infant mortality rate in the U.S. lags behind that of eighteen other industrialized nations. During a state visit by the Blairs, she discusses NATO expansion, Bosnia, and Iraq with Tony Blair. At Bill's 47th birthday party, seated at dinner beside William Styron, the topic is depression and suicide.
Of course, earnestness even at its deadliest is not a vicious trait, but it often implies self-righteousness, literal-mindedness, and lack of perspective. It accounts for the embarrassingly saccharine and platitudinous It Takes a Village, with its myriad proverbs and inspirational quotations. The present volume is vastly superior to that book, but it contains many false notes. There are nods to family values, pieties about prayer breakfasts and family prayers, empty compliments handed out like bouquets to nice people like Lady Bird Johnson, Aline Chretien, and the Queen. This earnestness is Clinton's least endearing trait, bringing to mind those girls of excessive rectitude and good works who were programmed to become "leaders", i.e. brownie, girl scout, prefect, head girl, Rhodes scholar. It is also disturbingly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher.
Yet for all the pieties, there is a great deal to admire in Clinton's character. Many episodes provide true testimony to her courage in overcoming the obstacles that still face intelligent and achieving women. One is the account of her graduation from Wellesley in the turbulent 60s. The commencement speaker, Republican senator Edward Brooke disappointed the graduates by giving a speech criticizing anti-war protests. As president of student government, Clinton was chosen as Wellesley's first student speaker. She followed Brooke's talk by addressing crucial issues, and stressing the need for political involvement. Her speech so infuriated the president of Wellesley that when Clinton went for a celebratory swim afterwards (swimming often carries metaphorical weight with her) in an unauthorized area of the campus lake, the president ordered a security guard to confiscate her clothes and glasses; she was forced to reclaim them in humiliation, dripping wet and unable to see.
After Wellesley came law school, where Clinton was one of 27 women in a class of 235. Torn between Harvard and Yale (she was accepted by both) she chose Yale after a Harvard professor, hearing that she was considering Harvard's "close competitor", opined, "Well, first of all, we don't have any close competitors. Secondly, we don't need any more women at Harvard."
Next she became "a lady law professor" and legal aid lawyer in Arkansas, where a judge asked her to leave the courtroom in a rape case, because he couldn't talk about blood and semen "in front of a lady." She was the first woman associate at the Rose Law Firm, taking on child advocacy cases pro bono. Her concern for child welfare, another part of the maternal legacy, long predated her arrival at the White House, and was not the kind of appropriately womanly cause that First Ladies are encouraged to take up.
It is common knowledge that the Clinton presidency inflicted upon her one long series of humiliations, culminating in the Starr inquisition. Of course, she was not the only First Lady with an errant husband problem, but she was the first one to have been so brutally exposed, scrutinized, vilified, and¨most cruel of all¨ridiculed during the prolonged ordeal. Hillary Clinton's ability to overcome those humiliations, and translate them into assets suggests a formidable strength of character, similar to that of her mother. It also goes a long way to account for the phenomenal success of this book. That success, and its unexpectedness, indicates that the breadth of her appeal has been underestimated, and that she is seen by many people, especially by women, as a heroic figure.
One last note and a very sinister one: she writes of her childhood as a time when kids walked or rode their bikes everywhere, "sometimes trailing the slow-moving town trucks that sprayed a fog of DDT at dusk in the summer monthsÓWe just thought it was fun to pedal through the haze, breathing in the sweet and acrid smellsÓ" One can only hope that she survives the toxic effects of those poisonous clouds, as well as she has survived the toxic effects of non-physical poisons that have enveloped her for much of her career. ˛

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