When the press reported that Hillary and Bill Clinton had rolled out of the White House with an assortment of flatware, end tables, sofas, fish knives, soup bowls and golf clubs, even many friends were mystified. It looked so tacky. Here you have two lawyers–one an ex-president and the other an incoming senator–commanding unlimited earning potential, trucking away what surely was a quite unneeded plethora of valuable objects from well-wishers, which might have stayed far more fittingly in the executive mansion. It’s one of the lingering mysteries of the late days of the Clinton administration. Sadly, a new book by Patrick Halley on Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t throw much light on that episode.
Halley’s treatment of the gift mess is confined to one short paragraph: “As for taking the gifts, which I think was a real mistake, it comes down to a chip on her shoulder,” writes Halley. To be fair, his book doesn’t promise insight–merely a look at Hillary Clinton’s “journey” from Arkansas to the Senate. But given his nearly decade-long association with the Clintons and his proximity to her, it seems reasonable to expect more. Didn’t she understand how taking so many gifts would appear to the public? Was she unaware that it had happened? Or did she weigh the possible outcry and do it anyway? We get no clues from Halley’s book.
Instead, it tells us about his experience planning events for Hillary Clinton during the 1992 campaign, running through her husband’s presidency, and including a handful of her events as she campaigned in 2000 for the New York Senate seat vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It ends on the eve of her election.
Because Hillary has, in many ways, become just another junior senator, her presence in the Capitol is mostly overlooked by the national press these days. And despite the tons of ink spilled on her over the years, she is still something of an enigma. For that reason, Halley’s book looked appealing, a peek at Hillary Clinton from someone who wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze her–like Gail Sheehy–or destroy her–like the late Barbara Olson.
As an “advance man,” Halley is part of the underappreciated machinery of modern politics. He visits places before the candidates do, setting up props, interviews, and crowds to help shape the message that the candidate is coming to deliver. In one passage, Halley describes flying to Arkansas after a 1996 tornado had crashed through tiny Fort Smith. First, he surveyed the damage himself from a plane. Then he met with officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a local sheriff for a rundown on the damage and recovery. The biggest challenge, he says, was finding survivors willing to let Clinton come into their damaged homes to make small talk about their loss in front of a national TV, newspaper, magazine, and radio audience.
Halley’s description of this work makes for a fascinating glimpse into the detail involved with organizing a smooth public role for anyone–but especially for a first lady. The goal was to make her look convincing as she offered compassion to victims and chatted appreciatively with exhausted FEMA workers. Because her visit was brief, its success rested entirely on the preparations of her advance crew–notably Halley–who found her ordinary families to empathize with.
But Halley, as he does so often throughout the book, injects his own unsupported take on Clinton’s feelings during such moments. In this case, he asserts that upon getting off the plane in rural Arkansas, “she seemed a bit nostalgic about returning.” He offers no evidence for his interpretation, which contradicts the current conventional wisdom on Hillary’s feelings about that state. Most observers believe now that Hillary Clinton endured Arkansas during her years in Little Rock and lacks the slightest nostalgia about that footstool state, as evidenced by her reluctance to return for almost two years.
Instead, Clinton treasures her time sunning with millionaires and intellectuals or entertainers on Martha’s Vineyard or visiting Oscar de la Renta at his Dominican Republic resort. Halley’s misguided vision of a woman tinged with a sense of homecoming exemplifies one of the biggest problems for any advance man’s memoirs: they hardly ever spend much time with their “principal,” and in this case, it is all too clear that Halley just doesn’t know Clinton very well.
From his own descriptions, he never went anywhere with her and never even worked at the White House. In all his years of advance work, it appears that he generally saw Hillary for a few minutes before her speeches and sometimes would accompany her for a while longer if her trip involved several stopovers. So when he describes her very first trip as first ladyto visit a Philadelphia hospital–Halley is unable to provide any context for her visit or offer insight into its planning.
Even in areas on which Halley ought to be able to throw light, he isn’t helpful. For instance, he describes the campaign as functioning like clockwork, a fittingly mechanical simile, which goes quite uncoupled to the notorious fact that the Clintons are never on time. Even now, Hillary Clinton is almost always behind schedule. More than once, I’ve seen Sen. Charles Schumer, New York’s senior senator, look around prior to opening a press conference and mutter “OK, where’s Hillary?” But he makes many assertions that, because he neither sources them nor explains why he should be in a position to know, are altogether unpersuasive.
Halley thus dismisses independent counsel Ken Starr’s long and expensive inquiry: “One of the remarkable things about the Clintons was how relatively unaffected they were by all this.” Try telling that to Chelsea or their friends, who saw the strain of the investigation take a terrible toll on both Clintons and everyone around them. Even today, Hillary Clinton’s reluctance to talk openly with the press is believed to have been hardened during those cold years.
In other places, where Halley might have offered a look into Hillary’s less well-known sides, he either has chosen not to was unable to. To me, one of the most fascinating differences between Bill and Hillary Clinton lies with their staff. While both attract some smart, accomplished people, some of Bill’s greatest betrayals have been inflicted by those closest to him–like George Stephanopoulos or Dick Morris.
By comparison, Hillary Clinton’s life remains packed with many of the same people who helped her when she was first lady, and none of her former staff has publicly turned on her the way Bill’s did. Patty Solis Doyle, Clinton’s longtime scheduler, now runs HILLPAC, her powerful political action committee. Hillary’s personal assistant after the 1996 election, Saudi-born Huma Abedin, still is one of the few aides to regularly accompany her everywhere from Israel to Buffalo. Halley imparts no sense of why anyone, himself included, is so devoted to Hillary Clinton after so rough a decade.
It may be a long time before we get a candid look at the real Hillary Clinton–or a review of her latest reinvention. Her life is just as regimented now as it was in the White House, except that her destiny is now controlled by the schedule set by Congress and the judgments of the electorate. What I’m waiting for is Abedin’s story.