Public Affairs

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-N.Y.) big media day has arrived. After months of speculation, a week of leaks and last night's interview with Barbara Walters on ABC, her memoir, Living History, appears in bookstores today.

I bought a copy this morning and quickly flipped through the pages. But because I haven't yet had time to read it fully -- and comment on it intelligently -- I want to address Clinton's interview with Walters.

In his review of it this morning, Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales attacked Clinton for being "chillingly chilly. She may have emotions like normal people, but she doesn't like to admit it and she's scarily proficient at suppressing them," he adds.

I don't know what Shales was expecting -- perhaps that Clinton would tell Walters that there were days when she was so upset during the Monica Lewinsky mess that she could hardly get out of bed. Or maybe she would announce, on national television, that she and Bill are getting a divorce. Perhaps she would cry and say that no one understands what kind of pain she's been in.

Of course Walters is famous for making her interview subjects cry. For her Oscar-night specials, Hollywood celebrities line up to talk about their tough paths to the top, their fathers who abandoned them and how they're so happy at just being nominated. Then they spring forth a few tears. But no one should have expected Hillary Clinton to do that last night.

The Lewinsky episode occurred about five years ago. If Clinton hasn't made peace with her husband about it by now, there's really no hope left for the marriage. Clinton acknowledged that she was upset with her husband, saying, "I could have wrung his neck for a million reasons." And she said that they'd seen a marriage counselor. Any tears she cried were likely shed in private.

Critics will say that by talking about the affair in the book and answering questions on television, Clinton is only exploiting this tragedy for private gain; after all, she did get an $8 million advance. But so much information is already out in the open on this matter (i.e., Kenneth Starr's report) that the book would have been incomplete if it didn't address these issues. While Clinton last night gave us some insights into that period, she had the dignity not to go into every nitty-gritty detail about what had to have been an awful time in her life. More politicians -- and celebrities -- should follow her lead.

As Shales notes, Clinton declined to answer a few questions citing a "zone of privacy" -- she didn't want to comment on her conversations with daughter Chelsea, for example. Shales wonders cynically if maybe Clinton is saving that for another book. A better -- and more likely --answer is that it's a policy many first families, including the current one, follow when trying to rear children in a very public setting. Clinton seems fine with the fact that her life is public (as she should, especially now that she's a senator). But while in the White House, her daughter never asked for the spotlight; Clinton is simply being a good parent by refusing to disclose what's a mother-daughter matter.

I agree with other political analysts that it's smart for Clinton to publish her book now. If she decides to run for president in 2008, she can say that she's already addressed some thorny issues in her memoir. She keeps her name in front of voters. And she beats her media-loving husband to the punch by telling her story first.

It will be interesting to see how well the memoir sells. When I picked up my copy, a television crew was filming and interviewing book buyers. Both her publisher, Simon & Schuster, and she have a lot invested in how well it does. I don't know how realistic it is to expect that the book will change anyone's views of Clinton; her ability to attract or repel people hasn't really changed in the two-and-a-half years she's been out of the White House. But readers should give her high marks for choosing to tell her story and share some personal insights without revealing more than we need (or want) to know about her. It's a graceful way of balancing the public's right to know with the individual's right to privacy.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.

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