Hillary Clinton: profile of 'A Woman in Charge'

Carl Bernstein serves up a new biography of Hillary Clinton.

The thing about Carl Bernstein's A Woman In Charge – and I may be going out on a limb here – is it's a book. It's not 500 pages of shocking tabloid headlines ("Bill Said Dress Made Hillary Look Fat!"). Nor is it a paean secretly plotted by the Clinton for President campaign.

No, it's a full-scale biography of the former first lady and possible future president, and a pretty good one, too. It's a bit long, and when he starts making assertions Bernstein can sound like the sort of person you edge away from at a dinner party. But given the difficulty of writing a rounded portrait of a polarizing figure whose public life is far from finished, this book is really a considerable achievement.

Plus I think Bernstein may be right in regards to what he calls the "biggest obstacle" to her succeeding her husband in the Oval Office: the persistence of Clinton fatigue.

To make this point he interviews a longtime Clinton associate who ticks off the reasons why Hillary would be a good chief executive, among them the fact that she's seen how the presidency works from close up.

Then the man pauses. "I'm not sure I want the circus back in town," he says.

Ouch.

In tracing the intellectual and emotional development of the woman who may be the first female US commander in chief, the journalist who helped topple Richard Nixon emphasizes three influences: father, faith, and marriage.

Hillary's father, Hugh Rodham, was a "difficult character", writes Bernstein. A drapery manufacturer, he was harsh, cold, and possibly abusive toward his wife, Dorothy. Other kids in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge got allowances; the Rodhams got pennies for picking dandelions out of the grass.

Hillary would later depict her childhood as a typical 1950s idyll, but such was far from the case, according to Bernstein.

"Hillary's first boyfriend in college, upon visiting the Rodham house, wondered almost immediately why Dorothy had not walked out of the marriage, and how Hillary had endured her father's petulance," says Bernstein.

As to faith, Hillary grew up a staunch Methodist, and was heavily influenced by a youth minister, the Rev. Don Jones. A Navy vet still in his 20s, Mr. Jones held what he called a "University of Life" two evenings a week, in which he introduced the Park Slope Methodist Youth Fellowship to T.S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, and the poverty experienced by members of inner-city black and Hispanic churches.

Then there was Bill. Tall, talkative, hirsute in a Viking kind of way, he was "the wild card in her well-ordered cerebral existence," said one college-era Hillary friend. They didn't exchange a word until one evening in 1971, in the stacks of the Yale Law Library, they connected via a mutual friend. After that they were both smitten. In particular, Bill's housemates discerned in him "almost a desperation that he not lose her."

These points are relatively well known – though Bernstein, perhaps more than previous biographers, sees in the marriage of Hillary's parents the roots of her own difficult marital relationship. But in placing them together Bernstein does a good job of picking out interesting scenes and witnesses.

Much has been made, for instance, of the book's allegation that Bill in 1989 had fallen in love with a businesswoman named Marilyn Jo Jenkins and discussed divorce with Hillary. But perhaps tougher is a section that describes the pressure Bill puts on his former chief of staff, Betsey Wright, to deny that she had ever talked to him about women who might come forward with allegations of improper behavior if he ran for president.

Ms. Wright had told Clinton biographer David Mariniss about such a conversation. He'd written about it, infuriating both Bill and Hillary.

Wright later issued a statement saying that Mr. Maraniss must have "misunderstood" her – though, as Bernstein makes clear, that wasn't true. The Clintons had just persuaded her to change her story.

Then there's the section on Hillary's Rose Law firm billing records relevant to the Whitewater investigation. The Clintons were very protective of these records – perhaps not because they showed wrongdoing, according to a White House lawyer quoted by Bernstein, but just because they showed she worked on small-potatoes small-town deals.

"Really, it was personal embarrassment.... Maybe she just didn't want people to know that this is what her life was," said Bernstein's source.

Yet Bernstein's personal judgment of her is ultimately not so harsh. Hillary is neither a demon nor a saint, he says. She is smart, energetic, tempestuous, spontaneous, and lethally retributive, according to her biographer. He concludes this is "all evidence of her passion – which, down deep, is perhaps her most enduring and even endearing trait."

Peter Grier is a Monitor staff writer.

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