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Over the Hillary

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“I was left with nothing but profound sadness, disappointment and unresolved anger.” That’s Hillary talking about her husband’s indiscretions in Living History, but it could just as well be me talking about my feelings for Hillary.

At the start of the ’90s, after too many years of Reagan-Bush in the White House and bland heavy metal on the radio, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Courtney Love came as a huge relief to me: two wily, sharp-tongued viragoes who weren’t afraid of the F-word (feminism). They quickly became the decade’s whipping girls, branded as radical feminazis. Hillary seemed to scorn family values with her clumsy comments about cookie-baking stay-at home moms, and stubbornly clung to her maiden name. (She writes in the memoir that Bill was the only one who didn’t hound her to drop “Rodham”). She was reviled as a shadowy, interfering presence in the White House, who (like Courtney with Kurt) vampirishly rode the coattails of her successful hubby. Neither woman was all that perfect—they were both a little creepy, in fact. But their enemies were so much worse, desperate to pelt these women with unsubstantiated dirtbombs. (Remember Whitewater?) Courtney was accused by some of killing her man, while Hillary merely stood by hers.

As the ’90s progressed, it grew harder to root for them. Courtney appeared at movie premieres in shiny Versace gowns, bragging about her plastic surgery and making equally plastic-sounding albums. Hillary muzzled herself to avoid seeming strident or weakening her husband’s position. She made so many compromises that it was no longer clear who she was, or what she stood for.

Living History doesn’t reveal the “real” Hillary. Although categorized as a memoir, everything about this book feels artificial, from the airbrushed cover to the limp revelations about how she felt about Monica. It reads like something written by spin doctors (and judging by her lengthy acknowledgments, it was). Living History does convey a lot about the persona Hillary wants to project, however: a friendly, all-American girl who always has the country’s best interests at heart. Her childhood resembles a Norman Rockwell painting, as she racks up Girl Scout badges, reigns as president of the Fabian fan club and the student body, and expands her horizons in a Methodist youth club thanks to one of those hip ministers, who introduces her to European literature. She even writes to NASA to volunteer for astronaut training but is rejected because they don’t accept girls.

Although Living History struggles to depict Hillary as Everywoman, this 500-page résumé only shows what a freak she is. From her teen years until now, Hillary has been propelled by unremitting ambition, a sense of purpose, and grim tenacity. She hurled herself through college and law school, attending Senate hearings on migrant farmworkers and researching children’s rights. The first time Vernon Jordan met her, he reportedly asked a mutual friend, “Aren’t you going to introduce me to this earnest young lady?” She seems to have made it through the ’60s and ’70s without any countercultural hijinks and gone straight to sober middle age.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A lifetime of selfless slog for the public good is admirable—but the overachievement onslaught makes for a tedious book. This is compounded by Hillary’s Methodist background, which instilled a hatred of watching anything go to waste. That includes life experience—nothing ever happens for the sheer hell of it, but must be turned into policy or parable. The chapter on Chelsea’s birth skims over the interesting details (e.g., who looked after Chelsea while the duo worked) and instead explains how this period inspired them to formulate the Family and Medical Leave Act, later to become the first bill her husband signed as president. Years later, when her dad is dying, she clears her schedule to spend time in the hospital. But instead of sitting quietly by the bedside, she talks to doctors about how to improve the health care system.

Don’t bother looking for anything juicy in Living History. Hillary is predictably tight-lipped about Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, and barely mentions “that woman” by name. The only hint of raw feeling peeks out early on, when she writes of meeting Bill for the first time and being enthralled by his animal magnetism: “He arrived at Yale Law School looking more like a Viking than a Rhodes Scholar,” exuding “a vitality that seemed to shoot out of his pores,” she gushes with rare candor. On their first date he talks his way into a closed Rothko exhibit, wooing her with his persuasive power over total strangers. Her awestruck descriptions of Bill are redolent of Sylvia Plath’s accounts of hubby Ted Hughes, another womanizing hunk. Hillary struggles to hold her own in the relationship, and the first time Bill proposes marriage, she rejects him—a defensive gesture to protect her own aspirations. “I thought of him as a force of nature and wondered if I’d be up to the task of living through his seasons.” Few marriages have triggered so much speculation—partnership or passion? But aside from these hints, Hillary offers little insight into their enigmatic relationship.

Eager to polish her stature as a feminist icon, Hillary devotes large chunks of Living History to her international trips promoting women’s rights. But the cruelest irony is that the former first lady was best loved when she became a public victim—the wronged woman who nonetheless stood by her husband. (She reveals in the book that Stevie Wonder sang a song to her about forgiveness, and the Dalai Lama visited, urging her to resist anger and bitterness.) Bill’s lowest point was Hillary’s finest hour, redeeming her in the public eye and making her politically bankable.

So what about Hillary for 2008? Although she may have intended her memoir as a testament to her accomplishments, Living History mostly proves her as evasive and synthetic as any politician around. She lacks the charismatic spark and common touch that made her husband enduringly popular (even through his most shamed moments). Having ditched her wild-eyed idealism and chutzpah somewhere between Little Rock and Chappaqua, Hillary’s starting to bear an unfortunate resemblance to another would-be president: Al Gore.



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