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Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Lady In Distress

Two new and unwelcome unauthorized biographies about Hillary Clinton are being released just in time for the summer beach reading season. At least, neither book will be greeted enthusiastically by the Clinton campaign. Both books, Carl Bernstein’s “A Woman In Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and “Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, don’t break any new ground. And since both tomes are by respected journalists, neither will be hatchet jobs. Bernstein, of course, is best known for his work with Bob Woodward at the Washington Post on the Watergate break in and his subsequent reporting as an ABC correspondent, and Gerth and Van Natta are both award winning New York Times reporters.

Despite all their accumulated credentials, I’m not sure why another book about Hillary Clinton is needed, let alone two. In fact, while I was complaining to a Republican friend (both of us were actually criticizing our party's respective choices) about the fact that I feared that Hillary is still too polarizing a figure for my comfort, he asked the following perceptive questions, “Is there anything the public doesn’t already know about her and Bill? Is there really any opportunity for an October surprise for her campaign?”

Good point. Her life with Bill, in and out of the White House, has been subject to so much scrutiny that it’s hard to see the public giving these two biographies more than a collective yawn before moving on to the next new best selling light fiction as they slather on more sunscreen.

That’s especially true if this report by Dan Balz and Perry Bacon, Jr., in today’s Washington Post is accurate:

“The books recount the roller-coaster ride through the Clinton presidency and his tenure as governor of Arkansas, raising anew issues of marital strife and infidelity, Clinton's strong and sometimes controlling personality, the scandals that ultimately led to impeachment, the failed effort to reform health care and much more.”
Although Balz and Bacon point out that both books could hurt Clinton’s presidential bid by rehashing past scandals and reminding voters of their Clinton fatigue from the late nineties, others predict that the public will largely ignore the ancient history. Indeed even the media has moved on to the newer scandals involving Brangelina and Brittany and Lindsay.

On the other hand, books like these do renew the energy of that part of the Republican base that has always made it a cottage industry to hate the Clintons, especially Hillary Clinton. Indeed the coffers of publishers like Regnery are perennially enhanced by printing books with unflattering pictures of her on their covers.

And that’s precisely where the danger comes for Republicans. Every time Hillary haters have tried to throw mud on her for her husband’s behavior, which is the great temptation for the self-righteous so-called values crowd, it has backfired because it reminds the larger public of two things. One is that Hillary was, in fact, the wronged wife and the victim. And, two, she behaved with great dignity during that difficult period in her life. She gained tremendous stature by stoically standing by her husband’s side, not contributing to a Constitutional crisis by leaving him, and generally acting with grace under extreme pressure. The public came to view her as a lady in distress who behaved with great decorum. And something about that view brought out all the protective instincts that people have toward victims who do not deserve what fate has dealt them.

If you don’t believe me, think back to Hillary’s debate, in her first Senate race, with Republican opponent Rick Lazio. He was a moderate, pro-choice New York Republican who was running strong at the beginning. During one of their debates, though, he aggressively stepped into her space, practically wagged his finger in her face and brought up Bill’s bad behavior in a way that suggested she was complicit in his adultery. The picture carried by the press nationwide was of her looking down with a sad expression as Lazio literally got in her face. Even with his choirboy good looks, Lazio looked like a bully who had just asked a rape victim how short her miniskirt was before her attack. People hated him for blaming the victim, the lady in distress. While I’m sure that incident was not the only reason for it, Hillary went on to win the election by 55 percent.

Books that attempt to revive Bill’s scandals or paint Hillary as controlling, cautious, and manipulative are a dime a dozen and they most bring a collective yawn. For more interesting summer reading, I’d recommend Brad Meltzer’s page-turner, “The Book of Fate,” which is now out in paperback.

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