August 7, 2016

Reading Carl Bernstein's 'A Woman in Charge'

Carl Bernstein's A Woman in Charge (2007) is a painstaking and I think honest biography of Hillary Clinton. It dispelled me of some myths I'd grown up hearing from my Republican family. I'd been taught, for instance, that Hillary was an opportunist who latched onto Bill because she knew he was going places. But Bernstein shows that Hillary was "on her way to becoming a political meteor" long before meeting Bill. She become a prominent antiwar leader in college, got elected student body president her senior year, and delivered a politically-charged commencement address that ended up being published in Life magazine. As one classmate put it, "It seems wildly tragic that we know she could have been president if she had just not even married him" (62). 

And the evidence shows that Hillary genuinely loved Bill. One friend described her as being "besotted," "absolutely, totally crazy about Bill Clinton." Whenever Bill would be driving up to visit, her "face would change. It would light up." Some described her as being "near-obsessed with her relationship with Bill to the extent that her moods were dictated by the frequency of her phone conversations with him and the vibes she was picking up over the line from Arkansas" (97). One aide described the couple this way: "They would constantly argue, and the next thing you know, they'd be falling all over each other with 'Oh my darling...come here baby...you're adorable...' then throwing things at each other, and then they'd be slobbering all over each other" (113). 

Bernstein shows that Hillary, whatever else you might think of her, has sincerely held the values she's spent her career defending. She grew up accepting the Republican beliefs of her martinet father but began to rethink things after her Methodist church hired a new youth minister when she was in high school. The minister had been a Freedom Rider and preached that that true faith is accompanied by a concern for social justice. One night he invited Hillary and some other students to hear Martin Luther King speech and afterwards took them backstage to meet the reverend (35). She increasingly began to take up the fight for justice herself. Upon graduating from Yale, she famously chose not to go into corporate law but instead worked for Marian Wright Edelman's Children's Defense Fund. Shortly after moving to Arkansas, "she was the leading force in creating Fayetville's first rape crisis center, the consequence of a student coming to HIllary and telling of her experience after being raped" (127).

But by no means is this book an apology for Hillary. Yes, we read how during Bill's 1974 run for Congress her "high-minded ethical insistence" ran afoul with his campaign managers. A lawyer who represented the state's dairy interests offered the campaign $15,000 with the implicit understanding that if elected Bill would "serve the interests of the dairy industry once he was in office. But Hillary fought the deal during a heated election eve meeting," telling Bill, "No! You don't want to be a party to this!" (114). But Berstein also tells us that this decision might well have cost Bill the election, and in the years that followed Hillary "would be far less committed to the high road and much more concerned with results" (115). 

Her Methodist faith has stayed with her over the years, and Bernstein details both its positive and negative effects. A White House aide said during the Lewinsky ordeal that her faith "explains the missionary zeal with which she attacks her issues and goes after them," as well as "the really extraordinary self-discipline and focus and ability to rely on her spirituality to get through all this." Others in the White House believed her faith engendered self-righteousness: "She elevates her staying with [Bill] to a moral level of biblical proportion. I am stronger than he is. I am better than he is. Therefore, I can stay with him because it's my biblical duty to love the sinner, and to help to try to overcome his defects of character. His sins are of weakness not of malice" (36). 

She also evidently used her faith to support the ends-justifies-the-means approach to campaigning which she adopted after the 1974 election. In the years that followed she would join Dick Morris in trying to convince Bill of the need to run negative adds (166-67). Hillary and Morris "believed that you had to make somebody else the villain before you got fatally tarred yourself." This strategy "became a dominant leitmotif of Clintonian governance, a strategy meant to allow Bill's big ideas and grand goals -- and Hillary's tempered idealism and experience -- to flourish" (168). Stan Greenberg admired this about Hillary: "I think that Hillary was of that point of view that you were not going to have people's confidence unless you could show that you're strong and tough against your opponents. Your opponents need to know that you're not going to be passive, you're not going to be a punching bag, that you're not going to get pushed" (203).  

Bernstein articulates what a trailblazer Hillary was in the women's movement. She began her career during a time in which few glass ceilings had been broken. The partners at Rose Law Firm was reluctant to hire her simply because she was a woman. "How will we introduce her to our clients?" one associate asked Vince Foster and Web Hubbell, noting that the firm's important clients were all men (129). This environment demanded a kind of no-compromising toughness of women, and Hillary was up to the challenge. Her colleagues and clients at the firm found her "intimidating -- not because she was particularly aggressive, but because she was rarely, if ever, deferential" (130). 

Hillary must be given credit for much of Bill's success in Arkansas. She proved to be his rock whenever he faltered. Bill was "capable of self-absorption, self-defeating distractions, juvenile outbursts, a debilitating weakness for women, and a tendency to throw it all away when he was on the edge of greatness. This was particularly true -- and would become more so -- when left to his own devices, without the constant help, guidance, and encouragement of his wife" (154-155). After losing a gubernatorial election in 1980, Bill slipped into a debilitating depression, and friends believe Hillary is the one who helped him pick up the pieces, providing him with the assurance, giving his life much needed structure, and ultimately convincing him that his political career was not over (160-163). 

Hillary also played a key role in reforming the state's educational system. Bill made her chairwoman of his Education Standards Committee in the early 1980s, and her "preparation for her assignment...was exhaustive, her expertise made almost as sharp as that of professionals with years of experience" (171). Her task force recommended mandating teacher-testing and requiring school districts to "uniform, state-imposed standards for curriculum and classroom size" (172). Although these reforms were unpopular with teachers unions, they proved to be incredibly successful: "the percentage of high school graduates who went on to college increased within four years from 38 percent to 50 percent," and school districts followed their instructions and reduced classroom sizes and began offering classes in foreign languages, advanced math, and science (174). 

Through this all, her devotion to Chelsea remained "absolute and unconditional." Both she and Bill were "hands-on parents. Given the time-devouring nature of their public lives, they found a remarkable amount of time to be with their daughter: discussions at the dinner table, driving her to school, cheering from the soccer sidelines, Scrabble games, and enjoying movies" (149). 

Bill developed an enormous debt of gratitude for Hillary and  continued deferring to her after becoming president. She urged Bill to reject the advice of his more Washington-savvy advisers and remain combative and non-compromising with his political opponents. But this strategy, which had been so effective in Arkansas, did not work in Washington. Lawrence O'Donnell, who served as Pat Moynihan's aide, said, "When your purpose is to pass legislation, you don't set up war rooms and you don't believe that you are going to vanquish the opposition." Bernstein writes that Hillary was "in a permanent state of warfare with Congress, including members of their own party" (407), and as a result her husband's popularity began to plummet. 

But what really hurt Bill's presidency was Whitewater and other related scandals, most of which involved Hillary. The accusations of their critics were ultimately shown to be baseless. After an investigation that lasted six years and cost taxpayers $52 million, the office of the special prosecutor could find no evidence that the Clintons had broken any laws, save Bill's lie about sex (349). And yet Hillary continually refused to cooperate with investigators, which only raised more suspicion and made matters worse. 

Bernstein posits a number of explanations for Hillary's behavior here. In part she stonewalled because she worried they would learn about more of her husband's sexual affairs. She also possessed a "fierce desire for privacy and secrecy" (553). She had always "zealously protected herself (and her family) from almost any invasive inquiry that might reveal something of her emotional life, her deeper ambitions, or her machinations" (221). Finally, she "seemed unable, or unwilling, to grasp the desires of less antagonistic citizens, members of Congress, and the press to be given straightforward, timely responses to legitimate questions" (366). She'd devoted her life to public service and had recently been tasked to deliver her husband's promise of providing universal health coverage, and she believed that all reasonable people shared her priorities and did not care about these trivial matters from the past. 

It's not clear how much Hillary has learned from these scandals, as her response to the recent email controversy has been eerily similar to her response to the Starr investigation. Her email usage was not illegal, although certainly careless and stupid, but instead of just coming out and admitting her error, she's again engaged in a type of lawyer-speak and subterfuge that has only made her situation worse.  But in other ways Hillary has clearly learned from her mistakes. For instance, when she ran for the Senate in 2000, "she did the opposite of a lifetime's instincts: she restrained her tendency toward unequivocal advocacy and the assertion of her own strongly held views" and instead went on a "listening tour" of New York. 

Although an effective PR move, the listening tour wasn't just for show. Ezra Klein has recently written: "[A]s I interviewed Clinton's staffers, colleagues, friends, and foes, I began every discussion with some form of the same question: What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail? The answers startled me in their consistency. Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns...Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens."

Klein initially didn't think much of Hillary's supposed listening skills, "[b]ut after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times," he began to take it seriously. He talked to a former Senate staff member who recalled how every few months Hillary would gather together her staff for "card-table time." Hillary would open up two "huge suitcases" which were "stuffed with newspaper clippings, position papers, random scraps of paper." "It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases," and she and her staff would pick through the papers. They would then put these papers into different piles on card tables: "scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there." The staff member says that these notes "really did lead to legislation," as Senator Clinton "took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up." And "[h]er process works the same way today." Several Clinton aides told Klein "that the campaign’s plan to fight opiate addiction, the first and most comprehensive offered by any of the major candidates, was the direct result of Clinton hearing about the issue on her tour."

Hillary has also developed a less combative and more team-building approach to governance. After becoming a senator, "[t]he first senators she sought out for conversation, for co-sponsorship of small but useful legislative initiatives, for prayer, for a drink, or for lunch in the Senate dining room tended to be those who had opposed the Clintons the most vigorously." Bernstein writes that she "identified who her enemies were, or those of her husband, and waged a war to win them over." "That was the internal institutional strategy. The external strategy was to show her constituents that she wouldn't let them down. She worked particularly hard for those who didn't support her" (547). 

* * * * * 

I can't say that I like Hillary more, or less, after reading this book, but I can definitely say that I understand her better. I can see that she's far from the demonic force that the far right has claimed. Hillary is a person of faith who has spent her life driven by a passion to make life better for society's most vulnerable citizens. She has an excellent mind and has learned from many of her mistakes. And she's also flawed. Her intense desire for privacy has at times led her to make awful decisions. And for all her intelligence, "when it comes to herself, she sees with something less than candor and lucidity. She sees, like so many others, what she wants to see." Bernstein laments that her 2003 memoir, when "judged against the facts," "underlines how she has often chosen to obfuscate, omit, and avoid" (552).

Hillary, in sum, is a remarkable woman, one who cares about people and has the ability to effect real change. And she also has some not insignificant weaknesses. After reading this book, I'm convinced that she has the ability to be an excellent president. I'm also convinced that if she's not careful she could easily get mired in the type of petty scandals which could sink her administration. 

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