Hillarycare Mythology: Did Hillary Threaten Democratic Senators?

This piece is a companion to our October 2007 cover story "The Hillarycare Mythology."

Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge, is the source of a story about her from 1993 -- including a threat she allegedly made to Democratic members of the U.S. Senate -- that has been cited repeatedly in the media in recent months as an illustration of her character. The real story, however, is that the episode probably never occurred as Bernstein reports it, and that mainstream publications have taken Bernstein's account on faith without double-checking the facts.

According to Bernstein, at a political retreat for Senate Democrats in Virginia in late April 1993, Senator Bill Bradley asked whether the delay in submitting the president's health care legislation would require any changes to the plan. Hillary then responded "icily" that "there would be no changes because delay or not, the White House would ‘demonize' members of Congress and the medical establishment who would use the interim to alter the administration's plan or otherwise stand in its way."

Bernstein then quotes Bradley as saying "many years later": "That was it for me in terms of Hillary Clinton. You don't tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them. It was obviously so basic to who she is. The arrogance. The assumption that people with questions are enemies. The disdain. The hypocrisy."

Reviews of A Woman in Charge by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker and by Jennifer Senior in the New York Times as well as a column by George Will in the Washington Post recounted this episode as Bernstein gave it. The New Yorker had the full Bradley quote; the New York Times quoted it in part. Many commentators and bloggers have repeated it.

When I read this story in the reviews and then in Bernstein's book, something immediately seemed fishy to me. Would Hillary really have threatened members of Congress at a time when she was seeking their support? So I called six people besides Bradley who were present at the 1993 retreat, and in fact, none of them recalls Hillary making the threat. I also spoke with Bradley, who says he doesn't recall ever making the statement Bernstein attributes to him and that the quote doesn't reflect his views and, in fact, makes no sense. "She was talking to Democrats. This was her team," the former senator said to me on September 13. "She was not threatening people in the room."

Some context for the first lady's appearance at that Senate Democratic retreat in April 1993 is important. Hillary had been making the rounds to talk with members of Congress and getting universally laudatory reviews for how carefully she courted them. In a May 30, 1994, New Yorker profile, "Hillary the Pol," Connie Bruck wrote, "What was unexpected, in those early months of her tenure as First Lady, was her sallying forth with the instincts and tactics of a seasoned politician." Bruck described the Virginia Senate retreat as exemplifying her political skills and quoted Senator Tom Daschle raving about Hillary's performance and saying that "at least half the senators who were there indicated that it was the morning, when Mrs. Clinton spoke, that was the highlight of the weekend."

Senator Daschle was one of the people I checked with about the incident described in Bernstein's book. Not only doesn't he recall her making the threat that Bernstein alleges; he says it would have been "out of character."

Bradley himself gives a somewhat different version of the same event in his recent book, A New American Story, and told me that for him it was really a story about "naivete, not arrogance." Bradley's version runs as follows:

Bill Clinton proposed health care reform in 1993, and he should get credit for at least trying, but he and his wife were naive. I never will forget a weekend retreat with Democratic senators after Clinton showcased the program in his first State of the Union address. Those in attendance had many years of legislative experience. ... The first lady, her favorite pollster, and the administration’s substantive point man for health reform attended the retreat. Sitting on a stage, they explained how they proposed to get the legislation enacted. They wanted to get it passed by the July 4 recess, they said, or certainly by the August recent. One senator asked what their strategy would be if the legislation hadn’t passed by then. ‘You don’t understand,’ Mrs. Clinton replied. ‘We will demonize those who are blocking this legislation, and it will pass.’ Unfortunately, the reform attempt collapsed.

This event took place 14 years before Senator Bradley's book was published and 10 years before Bernstein says Bradley told him about it in 2003. It is difficult to get a direct quotation right one hour after the words were spoken, much less 10 years later. The entire force of Bradley's quotation of Hillary lies in the word "demonize"; substitute another word ("We will fight those who are blocking this legislation, and it will pass") and the quotation becomes innocuous. That others present at the time do not recall her making any threat suggests that what she may not have been all that shocking. David Broder and Haynes Johnson did extensive interviews with members of Congress for The System, their 1996 book on the Clinton health plan, but they make no mention of Hillary ever threatening to demonize her fellow Democrats or other members of Congress.

Bernstein insists that his version of the episode and Senator Bradley's published account are basically the same, but a close reading of the two suggests otherwise. As Senator Bradley reports Hillary's words in his book, there is no clear indication of a threat to congressional Democrats. The reference to "those who are blocking this legislation" could refer to interest groups like the insurance industry and other politicians, which is Bradley's interpretation.

Bernstein's version says that the first lady was threatening to demonize members of Congress who tried "to alter the administration's plan or otherwise stand in its way" and then quotes Bradley as saying, "You don't tell members of the Senate you are going to demonize them," which clearly implies that Hillary was threatening Democratic senators.

But Hillary's supposed refusal to "alter" the plan should have tipped off readers that there was something wrong with the story as Bernstein has it. Hillary would not have said in April 1993 that there would be "no changes" in the health plan because at that time, the plan was still in flux and the White House was actively discussing options on different policy questions with members of Congress.

Moreover, the basic premise of Bernstein's entire account of Hillary Clinton's role in the health plan -- that she was uncompromising on health care reform from the beginning to the end -- is false. As Broder and Johnson note in a discussion of the White House's position when the bill was submitted to Congress in the fall of 1993, "She [Hillary] was not unwilling to compromise. Indeed, the First Lady told everyone what features in the plan could be negotiated away."

Bernstein acknowledges that he was unable to find any contemporary record or published account of the Senate retreat that refers to Hillary's supposed threat. Asked if he had any sources besides Bradley, Bernstein told me that "several people between 2000 and 2003" had described the 1993 incident to him, but he refused to divulge their names because he said he had agreed to keep them confidential. And Bernstein stands by the Bradley quotation about "arrogance" and "disdain," saying that the former senator made those comments to him in a conversation in 2003 and that he wrote them down soon afterward.

When I interviewed Bradley, he told me that no publication that had repeated Bernstein's account -- including The New Yorker, with its legendary fact-checking -- had contacted him to check whether he was quoted accurately.

Yet the purported episode itself has now taken on a life of its own. Writers love stories like this one because they seem to confirm a larger narrative about a public figure's inner qualities. Some stories are so good you wouldn't want to spoil them by finding out they never happened.

This piece is a companion to our October 2007 cover story "The Hillarycare Mythology."

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