Edward Klein would tell you his new book The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President does not intimate that Hillary Clinton is a closet lesbian. And he would tell you the book, a much hyped biography that hit store shelves last week, does not engage in the broader sport of gay-baiting.
“I would say those criticisms are unsophisticated and politically motivated,” Klein says, when asked if the text is trying to tell us something about the sexual proclivities of New York’s junior senator.
This comes from a man who, 12 pages into his 305-page tome, relays the “water-cooler gossip” among White House staff over the Clintons’ sex life:
“Were there any telltale signs on the presidential sheets that they ever had sex with each other? For that matter, did the Big Girl have any interest in sex with a man? Or, as was widely rumored, was she a lesbian?”
Just one page later, Klein is setting up the many contradictions of Hillary. He writes:
“She was a mother, but she wasn’t maternal. She was a wife, but she had no wifely instincts. She said she was passionately in love with her husband, but many of her closest friends and aides were lesbians.”
Throughout the book, he seems to reach for every last bit of innuendo. On page 62, he describes the “long tradition of lesbianism” that had, uh, influenced Hillary during her Wellesley College days, making a point to note, “At least two women who were close to Hillary . . . would become out-of-the-closet lesbians.”
He then quotes an unnamed someone identified as a former Clinton classmate, who claims “the notion of a woman being a lesbian was fascinating to Hillary.” The source, according to Klein, continues:
“But she was much more interested in lesbianism as a political statement than a sexual practice. . . . Hillary talked about it a lot, read lesbian literature, and embraced it as a revolutionary concept.”
True, Klein does not come out and claim Clinton is secretly gay—if anything, he paints her as asexual. As he tells the Voice, “I came to the conclusion she never was that interested in sex—whether it be homosexual or heterosexual.”
And he defends what he has done in his book by saying it wasn’t he who invented the speculation that has swirled around Clinton and her sexuality. It was his job to address the underground suggestion that she’s a closet dyke, and explain it—how it’s been fueled by, say, Clinton’s own “spinster” looks, the “mannish” appearance of her female friends, the presence of open lesbians on her staff.
“We’re talking about a woman who was virtually called a lesbian by Dick Morris,” he says, trotting out the name of the Clintons’ onetime pollster and present enemy. “I had to discuss it.”
Maybe so, but Klein’s critics say he ends up rehashing unfounded junk. David Brock, of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit monitoring the conservative movement, says the dyke-Hillary prattle is “scurrilous, unsupported, and unsupportable tabloid-style gossip.” Brock is no stranger to salacious allegations about Senator Clinton. Not only has he read every anti-Hillary book out there, but he penned his own before undergoing a conversion to the left a few years back. Of them all, he says, “I don’t believe any crawled this low. The gay-baiting is blatant.”
It becomes even more so when you consider the book’s ties to the conservative apparatus. Right-wing organs like NewsMax are promoting it, sending e-mails hawking copies two, three, four times a day, while the Conservative Book Club has listed the title as a featured selection on its website.
In this context, Klein’s book fits a larger pattern of rumor-mongering that has dogged Hillary Clinton for decades—and not just her, but female leaders generally. Paula Ettelbrick, of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, finds it “amazing” that the lesbian talk surrounding Clinton so exactly parallels what happens to powerful women everywhere. Last March, the commission issued a report, “Written Out: How Sexuality Is Used to Attack Women’s Organizing,” documenting the way women—from activists to politicians, from Malaysia to the United States—get tagged as “lesbian” in an effort to bring them down. The report highlighted the New York senator, who, it states, “continues to be baited as a public leader” for being “strong, smart, and opinionated and therefore ‘not a good traditional woman.’ ”
“There is a broad-based attack on women to keep them from leadership positions,” Ettelbrick says. “We see it whether we’re talking about a women’s NGO in Malaysia or a potential president of the United States.”
Gay-baiting has long been used as a weapon to drag Clinton down. In his book, Klein writes that the “rumors first began to fly through Arkansas that Hillary was a lesbian” back in 1974, when her husband, Bill, ran for U.S. Congress: “The rumors were founded on Hillary’s tough, aggressive manner, her military barracks vocabulary, and her defiant refusal to do anything about her unkempt appearance.”
Such speculation only worsened when she hit the campaign trail with husband Bill in 1992, on the road to the White House. She was maligned for being, in essence, a modern woman. Social conservatives whipped themselves into a frenzy, tarring her as a “radical feminist” over her infamous pledge not to “stay home, bake cookies, and have teas.”
Then came the lists of Hillary’s supposed lovers posted on the Internet. People like Reverend Fred Phelps, of Topeka, Kansas—who showed up at the 1998 funeral of Matthew Shepard with a “God hates fags” poster—have protested her support for gay causes, handing out fliers with her image and the words “Dyke Hillary.” Like-minded folks have picketed all sorts of surprising events—the U.S. Open tennis tournament?!—splashing the “Dyke Hillary” message on posters with her face.
Her enemies continued to crank the rumor mill in 2000, during her Senate bid. The Christian Action Network, a Forest, Virginia-based group devoted to family values, marshaled its resources for an ad, asking, “It’s rumored that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian.” The punchline? “Sometimes rumors are true.” It aired on at least one upstate cable channel. In October, the Star tabloid ran a piece on the ad’s claims, with the banner front-page headline “Hillary Caught With Gal Pal in Midnight Swim!”
Darrell West, a Brown University professor, has tracked the Clinton lesbian rumors, and says the 2000 ad marks “a concerted effort to put this issue out there and try to turn it into a political liability for her.” Now, West says, it’s no accident the insinuations are revived again, this time in an unflattering biography.
“She’s running for president,” he adds, “and there are people who want to make sure she doesn’t get an opportunity to run.”
Senator Clinton, for her part, has kept mum on the whole thing, including whether she is indeed running for the White House in 2008. Her office issued this statement last week: “This is a book full of blatant and vicious fabrications contrived by someone who writes trash for cash.”
Part of the calculation for making a buck, it seems, was to pump up the gay-baiting innuendo. On June 5, in a promotional run-up to the book’s June 21 release, titillating excerpts appeared in the British tabloid the Daily Mail questioning Clinton’s sexuality. The claims made their way back here two days later, when Rush Limbaugh picked up on them.
“I’ve got some interesting, juicy details on this book on Hillary by Ed Klein,” Limbaugh teased his audience, adding, “It has to do with sexual orientation.”
On June 11, the New York Post—not the paper of choice for Hillary fans—reported on the book’s suggestions that Clinton had “lesbian relationships” with two college friends. It challenged the veracity of Klein’s reporting, revealing that he never spoke to either of the women. One, Nancy Pietrafesa, who is introduced in the book as “Hillary’s lesbian lover,” has since hired a lawyer. Klein confirms, “She, through her lawyer, has threatened to sue us.”
Despite all this, he insists he has no agenda to bring down a powerful woman. “I’m a biographer,” he says, by way of explanation. The senator has become the first female politician with a serious shot at winning the White House. He adds, “I wondered, ‘How did she get to this point in life?’ That’s the driving question.”
He especially bristles at the idea that he’s engaging in gay-baiting. It happens to be true that lesbian rumors have loomed over Clinton, he argues, and that she developed an affinity for “political lesbianism.” Reporting such details, he says, “wasn’t meant by me to be a slur on her.” He then asks, “Haven’t we gotten to a point where we can discuss homosexual rumors openly without accusing the people who write about them of being homophobic?”
Maybe in New York, but not in the rest of the country. Suzanna Walters, who teaches gender studies at Indiana University, says gayness and feminism are still conflated by the right “as the demon of the liberal left.” Just consider the heated rhetoric on gay marriage, HIV/AIDS education, and reproductive rights. “Strong women and homos are enemies of Western civilization,” she says, wryly.
Of course, it’s no longer acceptable to be a blatant misogynist. “One wouldn’t write a book that says, ‘We hate Hillary because she’s a strong woman,’ ” Walters says, as “it doesn’t have cultural currency.” But flinging the lesbian tag has the same effect. After all, how many openly lesbian politicians do you know? And how many do you expect to run for president?