A memoir by a sitting public servant is inevitably a continuation of politics by other means—background-gilding, score-settling, a controlled forum in which to make one’s points. As such, it’s a tedious form. But Hillary Clinton is a most unusual public servant, in that she’s already occupied the White House and has more scores to settle than most. And then, of course, there’s the Question. Hillary Rodham Clinton, being duly sworn to tell at least some of the truth to the best of her recollection by an $8 million advance, hereby provides the fewest possible personal details about her wronged-woman status.
Actually, Living History begins as a surprisingly three-dimensional memoir about her heartland upbringing, with a rock-ribbed Republican father, a closet-Democrat mother, a cast of flawed, beloved family, and the makings of the midwestern-ingenue persona (she and a friend “thought we had invented dipping the French fries into ketchup”) that she’s maintained ever since. But as the memoir moves forward and her ambition builds, the book gets streamlined, and storytelling gets left by the wayside. She keeps ending up at the top of this organization or that, without mentioning her implacable drive or any egg-breaking that might have been required from time to time to make her excellent omelette.
Clinton isn’t whiny or defensive—at least considering all there is to whine about or defend against. But there’s little new thinking about what happened and why and almost no gossip. She’s not going to spend the chits she’s collected until she’s good and ready. The distinguished senator from New York freely bestows her own senatorial honorifics on almost everyone she meets, and the acknowledgments are an alphabetized thankathon covering hundreds of names. The frugality instilled in her by her Republican father serves her well in hoarding her Democratic political capital. Even that vast right-wing conspiracy is reduced to just a few names and anecdotes: Starr, Rehnquist, Scaife.
While the main course may seem a little skimpy, she’s poured that unctuous Clintonian syrup (hers, as always, is somewhat less calorific than her husband’s) with a free hand. Broad, Saharan swaths of the book are devoted to describing her foreign experience, trips that were, of course, stage-managed to avoid even the hint of a surprise. Her impressive speech about women’s rights in Beijing in 1995, in which she, with impressive tact and diplomacy, harshly criticized her host country, is the emotional high point of the book, a moment of which she’s justifiably proud.
Hillary Clinton’s back-to-the-future marital bargain (in which her power, if not her income, derives largely from her husband) is still a fascinating conundrum. She’s destined (because there will be a female president, won’t there?) to be a transitional figure, the missing link between the fifties and now, when cookie-baking can be a status symbol—even for men.
Cynics will argue that, as always, her decision to stay with Bill Clinton was a purely political calculation—because, for instance, who but Bill Clinton could elect her in 2008? Whether her confession was a calculated commercial move, or something more like a Checkers speech, it’s true that she writes about Bill Clinton in this book with an affection that one imagines would be hard—though not impossible—to fake. After everything, she gets girlish over his handsomeness, his energy, his long pianist’s fingers. And, of course, they’re both wonks. Her smittenness is charming, and it provides the structure for the book. It’s Why She Stayed With Him.
But Hillary still comes from a place called Denial. Her husband’s philandering impulse, while muted by Kennedy’s standards (it’s not an accident that Jacqueline Kennedy is the most vivid nonfamilial character here), must have been more apparent than she lets on. The wide-eyed thing just isn’t that believable—though, God knows, this is nothing to make a federal case out of.
Sidney Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars is liable to be the definitive work of the paranoia—justified, justified!—of living in that embattled place. Blumenthal rushes back and forth, firing salvos, putting out fires, tending the wounded, covered with soot and grime—one thinks of the movie Zulu. Hillary is living in the same fort, under the same siege, with the same flaming arrows (and many more are aimed at her than at Blumenthal), but in this book, she’s pretty much whistling as she works, occasionally marveling at the energy of the savages who’ve beset her and the staggering losses her little party is suffering. Webb Hubbell gone? He was a good man. Travelgate? A giant misunderstanding. Impeachment? My, it’s getting hot in here. Normalcy is maintained. This is the heartland version of the stiff upper lip—Methodist acting, impressive for what it doesn’t show.
While Hillary likes to talk about the need for a zone of privacy, she may not need one herself. When interviewers ask her to further emote about her trials, she’s at a loss: What more do they want me to say? It’s possible that her inner life has atrophied—certainly there’s not much evidence to the contrary in this book. One wonders if pushing back against the forces that have pushed against her has simplified her. The vast portions of her brain devoted to policy formation and political arithmetic may have crowded out other faculties that might have made this book more human.
This is a sacrifice that public service seems to involve nowadays. Staying on message is the politician’s most important skill. Experience is reduced to its lowest common vote-getting denominator. Which is why it seems pointless to feel cheated by Living History. She is what she is—an instrument of her ideals—and possibly what she should be.
To many Democrats, the Clinton presidency is a particularly painful sort of postmodern tragedy, in which the largeness of the promise and opportunity is mocked by the triviality and sordidness of the plot. Brought down by a stain on a dress? It’s Macbeth—out, out, damned spot—told inane. But Living History is far from a tragedy, or even the story of a plucky survivor. Hillary’s book is about winning, continuing, the caravan pushing forward inexorably as those nasty dogs continue to bark, having their day for the time being.
By Hillary Rodham Clinton Simon & Schuster; 562 pages; $28.
Buy it at bn.com.