Throw the Books at Her

Illustration by Darrow

Hillary Clinton is boring. She insists on showing up for her day job as junior senator from New York, voting on immigration bills, and issuing statements of “concern” regarding, say, the relocation of a Bronx post office. Her presidential campaign remains focused on weighty issues like preschool education, the crisis in health care, and how to get out of Iraq (which, of course, helps deflect talk about her vote to get into Iraq in the first place). It’s still early, but the only haircut scandal of the 2008 campaign has afflicted one of her Democratic rivals.

This is all a gigantic disappointment. It’s also why she’s winning. Yes, as you may have read somewhere, Barack Obama raised more money than Clinton in the first quarter of this year (and a Clinton fund-raiser predicts Obama will also beat her in the second quarter, ending June 30). But Clinton’s lead in the polls has grown, with one notable exception. Partly this is because she’s stuck to a well-conceived, if unthrilling, plan. “People think the country is headed in the wrong direction; people are concerned about the direction the world is going,” says Howard Wolfson, one of Clinton’s senior strategists. “People want somebody who can step in on day one and make big decisions and start from strength. And that’s her. That was the theory of the case on day one, it’s the theory of the case today, and it’s going to be the theory of the case next year.”

That premise flows from the state of the world, but it is also deeply rooted in Clinton’s campaign history. In 2000, when her first New York run for the Senate was floundering, campaign advisers argued furiously over whether Clinton should directly confront the accusations that she was a carpetbagger and the messy history of her marriage. The faction that prevailed, led by media strategist Mandy Grunwald and polling guru Mark Penn, favored keeping the focus on policy and away from personality. The Listening Tour continued, Rick Lazio was dispatched, and a core doctrine was enshrined for all Hillary Clinton campaigns to come: We win when it’s not about her.

In that respect, Obamamania has been a gift to Clinton. It has forced the Illinois senator to explain himself sooner, to a vastly larger audience, than he might otherwise have chosen for his debut on the national stage. His flat performance in the first Democratic presidential debate, in South Carolina, gave Clinton more of a boost than her aides expected. More important, as the hot, exotic new ingénue, Obama has dominated news coverage the past few months, allowing Clinton to plod diligently forward, often out of sight, in places like Shenandoah, Iowa. Clinton is hardly hiding, but given that she’s one of the most famous women on the planet, and the front-runner in the race for the most powerful elective office in the world, it’s amazing that she frequently disappears from the major-media radar for weeks at a time.

Now, though, Clinton’s rivals are trying to shake her out of her comfort zone. Last week, another campaign sent Clinton’s team into frantic damage control by helping leak an internal memo by a Clinton strategist that advocated skipping the Iowa caucuses. She quickly, loudly dismissed the idea and jetted to Mason City and Algona for a Memorial Day weekend of pie, coffee, and “conversation” with Iowans. But the memo touched a raw nerve by reviving the image of Clinton as coldly calculating. This week, things will get even more personal. The Clinton circus is coming back to town.

Two big new biographies, from three big, important writers, are about to make headlines. Her Way is by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, current and former Times reporters, respectively. Gerth has been a longtime thorn in the Clintons’ sides: At the Times, he doggedly pursued Whitewater allegations, ultimately to a dead end. Van Natta and Gerth are document-digging reporters, and their book delves into the big-money side of the Clinton political machine. It’s a subject Hillary tries to avoid, but she’s certainly not the only politician to be muddied by the need to raise gargantuan sums of cash.

Carl Bernstein is a very different cat. He’s spent eight years on his Clinton book, A Woman in Charge, and 200 advance copies are being distributed to political reporters this week. Bernstein’s publisher is teasing the salacious stuff: Hillary’s father was rougher on her (hint, hint) than she’s previously disclosed, and her marriage to Bill has long been rocky (really?). Bernstein is a talented writer, though, and his book aspires to be a grand psychobiographic portrait. The biggest surprise may be how sympathetically Bernstein treats Clinton.

The books will nevertheless refocus attention on the polarizing elements of Clinton’s life, the things that underlie her stubbornly high negative ratings and that her policy-heavy campaign is designed to neutralize. They are being published now to piggyback publicity for the next Democratic presidential debate, on June 3 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Yes, we’re still a long way from the primaries, and yes, people with real lives are not obsessing over 2008. Yet Clinton has a great deal of work to do in bonding with the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, the traditional and still crucial first states to cast ballots. Iowa is the rare state where Clinton runs third in polls, behind John Edwards and Obama, and she’ll be shaking hands and gee-whizzing over livestock there all summer. And despite the royalist caricature, she has class advantages over Obama, the putative populist. “His support is really concentrated among elite Democrats—wealthier, more-educated Democrats, the same kind of people that supported Gary Hart and Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley,” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic consultant not affiliated with any of the current candidates. “There’s time for him to expand his reach. But downscale Democrats are still the majority of the party, and so far, Hillary has been successful in capturing their support, because of her history of being involved with issues that matter to them, like health care or education.”

Clinton’s poll numbers are stronger in New Hampshire, but her weaknesses are the same. “People here place a lot of emphasis on ‘authentic,’” says a senior New Hampshire Democrat. “There’s a sense that she’s too much the politician, willing to say anything or do anything as opposed to saying, ‘This is who I am, this is what I believe.’”

That is why the details of the two new Hillographies will be less important than the bind they highlight. Clinton is no longer running to become one of 100. This time she wants to be the one. As much as the presidency has been demystified and deglamorized, the job still holds an emotional resonance for tens of millions of voters. They want to connect before they pull the lever. Clinton succeeded in humanizing herself in New York, but the task is tougher in a national campaign. She understands the problem, and lately has been showing a sense of humor in Website videos. As much as Hillary Clinton would love to stick to the issues, this race was always going to be about her.


Throw the Books at Her