HILLARY HATIN'. The Washington Post has a big takeout on two new books on Hillary Clinton that's kicking up a bit of dust today. The Carl Bernstein book, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton, which the Post devotes two-thirds of its story to, sounds like the more explosive and closely held one, which is probably why I was able to obtain a copy of Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta's Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, forthcoming from Little, Brown and Company in June, which I started poring through last night.
First things first: this book will not impress you with its narrative flair. Still, Her Way is a perfectly fine delivery system for what information it contains, most of which the Clinton camp is correct to point out to the Post has been reported previously, and whose most provocative allegation has already been denied directly by the source Gerth and Van Natta only quoted second-hand. Reports the Post:
The authors cite a former Bill Clinton girlfriend, Marla Crider, who said she saw a letter on his desk written by Hillary Clinton, outlining the couple's long-term ambitions, which they called their "twenty-year project."
Crider was first quoted about the letter in a book by a former National Enquirer reporter in 2000, at the time describing it as more about Bill Clinton's infidelities and the "little girls" he had. Gerth and Van Natta, however, report that they re-interviewed Crider and that she said the earlier book's account was "not totally accurate." In this telling, Crider described the note as being more about the couple's political plans, with little discussion of their personal relationship.
The authors report that the Clintons updated their plan after the 1992 election, determining that Hillary would run when Bill left office. They cite two people, Ann Crittenden and John Henry, who said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and close Clinton friend, told them that the Clintons "still planned two terms in the White House for Bill and, later, two for Hillary." Contacted last night, Branch said that "the story is preposterous" and that "I never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president."
The Clinton campaign's attempt to "yawn" off the book doesn't give you much sense of its actual flavor, which is too bad, because its opening tone is surprisingly nasty. And yes, I know it's the Clintons we're talking about, so that nastiness should never come as a shock, but these are Timesmen, of whom I would expect better, even in their private efforts. The introductory chapters are jam-packed with the sort of dated '90s aspersions that have been mocked into the ground this decade, as just about every hoary anti-Clinton cliche you've ever heard -- and some you thought were anti-Gore cliches! -- is trotted out and applied to events across the span of Clinton's life. You almost feel bad for the authors for failing to follow the change in the media climate. These tropes are deployed at such regular intervals in the early parts of the book that the effect is ultimately somewhat comical, as in the below, from an early chapter:
Hillary's commitment to carefully selecting a persona that would suit her best is revealing partly because of the determined and calculating way that she went about it. She wanted to weigh every pro against every con, consider each possibility from every angle. Her letters...show...an almost scientific devotion to self-creation.
A comment on her decision to run for the Senate from New York? Her time in the White House? Or maybe her new quest for the presidency? Nope. None of the above. That's the authors' take on Clinton's sophomore year at Wellesley College. And the book goes on like that. It manages to cast a single, retrospective, cliched interpretation on diverse events across the course of her life. I guess that's how you sell books -- publishers are more likely than newspaper editors to encourage reporters to arrive at conclusions that exceed what their reporting reveals, and that cast a consistent frame on varied material that can be interpreted any number of ways. To be fair, the tone does get more objective and less editorial as the book goes on. There's less about how she "exaggerate[d] her past accomplishments," "said one thing and [did] another," or "left former friends and allies on the side of the road" -- and more about the details of her Whitewater transactions and time in the Senate.
WhiskeyFire has more on Gerth's history with the Clintons, Yglesias mocks the book with appropriate vigor, and non-partisan Marc Ambinder concludes: "It's hard to imagine we'll be talking about these books in August."
UPDATE: Actually, Jeff Gerth no longer works for The New York Times. The New York Observer reported in January 2006 that he "left the Washington bureau via buyout last month," making him a former Timesman.