Lightning Rodham

When Hillary Clinton signed her book deal, the conventional wisdom among the chattering class was this: It’s outrageous that she got $8 million. She’ll never earn it back. She’ll have to come clean about Monica.

The consensus was that she would not. She would take the dough and rip Simon & Schuster off. And, of course, she would take the dough and rip us off. Those grabby Clintons.

But lo and behold, she did come clean, or clean enough. And naturally, the chattering class will not be satisfied.

The thing we’re supposed to say about the Clinton melodrama at this point is that we’re tired of it. It’s from the unserious era. We’ve been attacked. We’ve been at war, twice. We’ve disarmed and toppled a man who was clearly an imminent threat to the Uni—okay, forget that part. But we’ve all moved on.

This is the line. And like most lines, it’s not the truth. As long as Clintons roam the earth, the chatterers will never move on. The larger public will, and mostly has, and this is a vital distinction, more on which later. But the chatterers—the op-ed dandies and cable-TV talking heads; liberal baby-boomers and their counterparts on the right—can never allow the curtain to fall on the Clinton soap opera.

It’s too good for business. And it’s fun. They get to say and write the most conjectural, hyperbolic things. And if no Clinton has sued by now, it’s not likely he or she is going to, so bombs away. But the main reason the chatterers won’t let the story die is that besides being about the Clintons, it’s also—chiefly, even—about themselves.

Back in 1992, the liberal media—it can plausibly be said to have existed back then—loved the Clintons. They were entering the White House just as boomers were taking over journalism (new-paradigmer Tim Russert settled into the host’s chair at Meet the Press in late 1991, replacing old-paradigmer Garrick Utley). Between the Clintons and these sixties-generation journalists, there were shared histories, attitudes, and values. That led to abiding mutual esteem. A romance, even.

Meanwhile, the conservatives were having none of it. They recognized the romance for exactly what it was and set out to destroy it. Lee Atwater, the feral GOP consultant, said as much back in 1989: This Clinton guy is the only Democrat who can hurt us, he said. We have to kill him. And then, Clinton handed them the shotgun. Even then, they never killed him. But they killed the romance. So now there’s the conservative hatred, which is a constant, and, among the liberals, the kinds of things that are the residue of busted romance: bitterness, hurt feelings, shrink bills. Hillary is a punching bag for both sides. It’s her role.

The meta-question about Living History is, Can it do anything to change that relationship? Doubtful. But what the pundit class thinks doesn’t really matter.

Why? First, because Hillary pays no attention to them. She—midwestern, reserved—was never quite part of the romance the way the exuberantly soulful Bill was. And she doesn’t care what these people say about her. She almost never reacts to it or lets it change her m.o. Remember her Senate campaign: Everyone was clamoring for her to spill her guts. She ignored them all.

She is the opposite of Al Gore, who bled with every nick and scrape the chattering class administered. Of the many “if only” sentences we could mutter about Gore, we may add the one that goes, “If only he’d been more like Hillary.”

So she didn’t write this book to please anyone. She wrote it to give her side, and to make money. Part of making money was coming clean on the Monica stuff. And—sure—part of coming clean on that was to get it out of the way before a future presidential run.

And second, there’s the broader public. The chattering class thinks it represents the public, but it actually just represents itself. The public is a different thing entirely. The public was not really part of the romance, either, to the extent the chatterers were. And so their hearts were never broken, really.

Naturally, everyone wants to read the juicy parts. But mainly, this book will sell because there are millions of Americans who admire her and want to hear her side. You don’t see this angle on TV very much, but you do see it in real life. When she was campaigning, in every little town in upstate New York, there were women—teachers, social workers, and so on—who waited hours so they and their daughters could meet her, shake her hand.

You may dislike this if you wish. But if you really want to have a handle on the whole Hillary thing, you should understand it.

Lightning Rodham