It is of course unthinkable that Hillary Clinton may have actually revealed something of her true self in Living History. As someone who knows Hillary personally–as I do every other living First Lady–I believe she does. Living History is not only a pleasure to read–an articulate, well-written, and detail-rich account of the Clintons’ historic time in the White House that will hold up as a solid work of autobiography for years to come; it is also a book that conveys, with surprising candor, a quiet conservatism at the heart of a woman who has spent years in public life being vilified for her liberalism.
No previous First Lady assumed the position with a greater knowledge and interest in her predecessors than did Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yet while she learned a lot of biographical facts about the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Dolley Madison, Nellie Taft, and Mamie Doud Eisenhower (who, like Hillary, insisted on always using her maiden name), her greatest mistake in her first months as First Lady was that she missed the important subtext: Use covert symbols and methods to impart influence, and you’ll get away with more–and with less criticism–than if you honestly disclose it. Intellectually, Hillary Clinton may have recognized that a First Lady’s ”power is derivative.” But even after a lengthy Ladyship-training session with Jackie Kennedy days after her husband’s inauguration, she did not fully grasp how delicately this power must be exercised, and just how much America reveres the mystique of First Lady.
Whether a First Lady wants to get the welfare system restructured or ascertain if the President is sticking to his diet, her most significant power is access to the heart and mind of the most powerful person in the world. And as long as presidents have spouses, fear of that power will be there. Nancy Reagan didn’t have to invent perestroika to earn the resentment of administration officials who opposed Reagan’s friendship with Gorbachev –she just had to discuss its benefits with her husband. And it is not a phenomenon merely of our time. The editorials denouncing Abigail Adams’s influence in the 1790s have the same ring of those denouncing Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.
Presidents and their wives have always been targeted by their political enemies. Witness the visceral hatred of Clinton by right-wing Jihadists, of Nixon by liberal revolutionaries, of Lincoln by rich states-rights Southerners, and of FDR by greedy Northern capitalists. But you’d have to add up all the dire partisan warnings about Eleanor Roosevelt (that she was part of a Red network), the innuendos about Edith Wilson (that she was running the country), the politically motivated attacks on Nancy Reagan’s entertaining style and White House renovation, the outraged mail campaigns against Betty Ford (protesting her support for Roe v. Wade and the ERA), the media exploitation of Jackie Kennedy’s private life, the petty charges against Pat Nixon (that she ”stole” state gifts of jewelry), and the outrageously bold-face-lies published about Mary Lincoln (said to have been supplying Union Army plans to her Confederate kin) to even approach the unrelenting vituperation directed at Hillary Clinton. And yet she not only survived, but also came through it all strong enough to win election to the Senate. Unsurprisingly, she compares herself to tempered steel. By the second inaugural, says Clinton, she felt ”harder at the edges but more durable, more flexible.”
There are no shocking revelations in Living History like those in the memoirs of Hillary Clinton’s predecessors. The very first published First Lady memoir–Nellie Taft’s 1914 Recollection of Full Years –stunned the country with its description of Mrs. Taft’s overt political ambitions. Clinton drops no bombshells in Living History, as Rosalynn Carter did in her memoirs–revealing her battle with her husband to take bolder actions during the Iranian hostage crisis–or Nancy Reagan did in My Turn, with its cutting assessments of James Baker, Ed Meese, and Ollie North.
Though Clinton offers us a glimpse of what passed between her and her husband when he finally told her that he had indeed had an affair with Monica Lewinsky (after denying it to her and the rest of the country for seven months), there is not much we couldn’t guess. What she also does not say is perhaps revealing. She calls Gennifer Flowers’s claim of a 12-year relationship with Clinton to be a ”whale of a tale,” and that her husband denied this was true: She does not dismiss Flowers as an outright liar. And if she writes of the Lewinsky debacle in that appropriately-parsed, take-the-high-road First Lady language, Clinton’s also capable of Bar-like barbs. Reflecting on a summer gig where she yanked the guts from salmon, she writes: ”Of all the jobs I had, sliming fish was pretty good preparation for life in Washington.”
But there are some surprises, especially for readers unfamiliar with her suburban-public-school Methodist-youth-ministry-babysitting-in the heavily-Republican Chicago suburb of Park Ridge and barefoot-summers-at-a-cabin-without-plumbing upbringing in rural Pennsylvania or of just how staunchly Republican she was. Indeed, in 1960, convinced by her father and one of her teachers that John F. Kennedy had stolen the election from Nixon because of Chicago Mayor Daley’s ”creative vote counting,” an outraged young Hillary joined a local Republican-led effort to uncover voter fraud. As part of that effort, she was dropped off, ”fearless and stupid,” in a poor and dangerous South Side neighborhood, where she triumphantly found, among other evidence, a vacant lot listed on polling documents as the residence of about a dozen voters. Interestingly, Clinton does not suggest that she now thinks Kennedy won the election fairly.
At Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was president of the Young Republicans. Her first great political hero was Barry Goldwater. Her admiration for Goldwater is not just some bit of cute retro whimsy. As she writes, ”Years later, I admired his outspoken support of individual rights, which he considered consistent with his old-fashioned conservative principles:’don’t raise hell about the gays, the blacks and the Mexicans. Free people have a right to do as they damn please.”’ As late as 1968, Clinton worked at the Republican convention to help nominate Nelson Rockefeller. It was Vietnam that fomented the first challenge to her politics, and the GOP’s rightward drift that helped push her into the Democratic Party. Some readers might find inconsistencies between her right-leaning twenties and her current political image, but Hillary finds continuity. As she puts it, in a take-off of a famous Reagan remark: ”I didn’t leave the Republican Party as much as it left me.”
We also discover that Hillary Clinton is a devout Christian who was part of prayer group with the likes of Joanne Kemp and Susan Baker, and that she relied on Biblical scripture and verse faxed to her by a member of the group to get through the most traumatic years of her tenure–all eight of them. I think I missed the coverage of this on the ”700 Club,” but I do anticipate an ACLU suit against her for retroactive use of government property for religious purposes. Kidding aside, at least for me, Living History sends a powerful message for everyone: Don’t judge others or yourself by any one label. Also surprising is her willingness to point out specific things she said or did that she regrets–especially because she knows from experience how easily such admissions might be distorted. About her ”60 Minutes” remark that she wasn’t ”standing by her man like Tammy Wynette,” she writes: ”The fallout…was instant–as it deserved to be–and brutal. Of course I had meant to refer to Tammy Wynette’s famous song,’Stand By Your Man,’ not to her as a person. But I wasn’t careful in my choice of words and my comment unleashed a torrent of angry reactions. I regretted the way I came across and I apologized to Tammy personally and later publicly in another television interview.” Clinton also blames only herself for the fallout from the infamous ”stayed home and baked cookies” sound bite. She regrets saying ”vast right-wing conspiracy” not because of the intent but the wording–it wasn’t a conspiracy, but largely open.
Living History‘s last chapters tell the now familiar tale of the impeachment and Hillary Clinton’s reactions to the events, but they contain a few interesting nuggets. There is one story, for instance, about the President permitting Ken Starr to tour the Lincoln Bedroom after his first grilling of Clinton. ”Somewhat characteristically, I was not prepared to be as charitable as my husband,” she notes wryly.
If a combination of ruthless political enemies and her own open policy activism made Hillary Clinton the most-criticized First Lady in history, the flip side is that she also accomplished more than any of her predecessors. Granted her own policy staff and the freedom to work Congress and the executive branch on behalf of issues she cared about, Hillary racked up (in addition to one massive failure on universal health care) an impressive list of achievements: health coverage for uninsured children, sweeping adoption reform, increased research funding for a host of devastating diseases that hit men (prostate cancer), women (breast cancer) and children (epilepsy), and the largest private fundraising ever conducted for historic preservation.
Clinton is also the ”most world-traveled” First Lady–a distinction previously held by Pat Nixon–and she journeyed not just to attend state funerals but to advance her international causes, from IMF micro-loans for struggling village economies to education of poor rural women. Finally, Hillary Clinton left a legacy to the ”Ladyship” as monumental as Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. She has opened wide the choices and options that the press and public will now expect from any potential presidential spouse. The media and public do not generally pay close attention to the real work that First Ladies do. So one cannot fairly blame Hillary-haters for ignoring the fact that, after studying new research on how vital it is to read to infants in terms of brain development, she convened a White House conference on early childhood development and promoted reading to infants through pediatrician offices. Or that she publicly spoke out against the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women as early as 1997. Or that she launched a breast cancer awareness campaign. Or that she herself started the federal Save America’s Treasures to protect historic sites. Or that Laura Bush has continued these endeavors. Will Hillary run for President in 2008? Liberals hope she will because they think she can win. Conservatives hope she will because they think she will lose. And the media hopes she will because it would be the hottest story since OJ.
Could Hillary Clinton ever be elected? Voters are unpredictable and we cannot know. But I cannot be the only American tantalized by the idea of Bill Clinton, back at the White House–as First Husband.
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan, is the author of several books, including the two-volume First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives & Their Power