Gail Sheehy Stays Upbeat in Sad Tale of Hillary Clinton

Aside from at least three books by President Clinton’s former lovers, none of the many volumes on the Clinton scandals has been written by women, and that fact alone makes Gail Sheehy’s new book, Hillary’s Choice (Random House, 416 pages, $24), welcome. The writer spent quality time with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1992, on assignment for Vanity Fair , and though Hillary evidently chose not to lie back down on Ms. Sheehy’s couch for this book, Ms. Sheehy has in the last year interviewed many F.O.H.’s. Not that she interviewed any of Hillary’s enemies. The author of Passages is bound and determined to write an uplifting story about a woman charging into what she calls the Flaming 50′s. And still, the weight and thrust of this story is inevitably tragic.

Ms. Sheehy’s insightful take on the Clintons’ marriage is a turn on the theory of the glass ceiling. Hillary Rodham was herself fit to be President. But a patriarchal society, personified first by her sneering, underachieving father, could not abide that. So she chose to make selfish Mr. Clinton President. Doing so involved continual sacrifices of her dignity and integrity, while Bill sacrificed nothing for her. For instance, the night after going before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury, Hillary stayed home, “achingly lonely,” while her husband twinkled forth in a tux.

Meantime, Mrs. Clinton has become a vessel for feelings of feminist triumphalism. Harold Ickes says of her run for the Senate: “This is a race for redemption. It’s really that simple.” (How’s that for a political slogan?)

Ms. Sheehy is best when she skips the rhetoric and sticks with jargon. The jargon is of course psychological, and her analysis of Hillary’s psyche is highly persuasive. Her authoritarian father left Hillary with a weak ego and little sexual self-esteem. The attention of charming, good-looking Bill Clinton gave her the affirmation she craved.

Right from the start, she chose to ignore Bill’s sexual infidelity. One of the more delicious morsels in this gossipy book comes from the night he lost his first race, for congress in 1974. Approaching midnight, Hillary turned her wrath on the campaign staff for incompetence. The campaign manager’s wife responded by revealing one of her political functions: “I had to have Bill’s girlfriend as my goddamned nanny”-to keep her away from campaign headquarters.

Hillary tuned out adultery bulletins, or saw them as irrelevant to her marriage. Besides, she was getting something out of the deal. When Bill was bad, his behavior endangered his political progress, thereby enhancing Hillary’s role as political savior. She became a powerful “enabler.” Thus “Hillary’s Choice”: “not to know what she knew.”

Ms. Sheehy has fleshed out her story with excellent reporting. Her most interesting discovery is a trove of remarkably mature letters Hillary wrote as a Wellesley College undergraduate to a friend from high school, John Peavoy. Hillary identified clearly the choices available to her in life: to be an educational reformer, a political leader, “an involved pseudohippie,” or “a compassionate misanthrope.”

And she understood her detached temperament. “I could spend my life worrying about other people or the state of the world,” she said coolly. Hillary chose the world.

Still the world was not enough; she needed status, too. Her first real love affair fizzled out, Ms. Sheehy says, after David Rupert, a Georgetown student, declared that he was going to work for Vista, the domestic version of the Peace Corps. Too humble. But Mr. Clinton’s moxie was so thrilling that Hillary abandoned her own high-flying prospects to move to Arkansas. The book’s tragic theme is that Mrs. Clinton has always been so ruled by her fears-and patriarchal sexism-that she needed to find a male surrogate for her ambitions.

This analysis only goes so far. When Jane Sherburne, a former White House lawyer, says that Mrs. Clinton got enmeshed in Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan because she was being a “political wife,” that’s a feeble excuse for a Yale law school grad. Ms. Sheehy is too honest a reporter to buy the alibi. She seems to understand Hillary’s responsibility for Clinton scandals; she makes it clear that she believes the First Lady ordered the illegal Travelgate firings.

Ms. Sheehy also asserts that “an odor” surrounds “many” of the Clintons’ financial dealings, and that Hillary misled the country about her intimate involvement with Madison Guaranty’s fraudulent Castle Grande deal, not to mention the disappearance of the Rose Law Firm billing records.

Continually, she presents her heroine as an angry woman who cannot abide accountability; who in college wrote a paper on “The Need for Intolerance”; who in 10 years of being First Lady in Arkansas never offered the state police detail a cup of coffee; who apparently thinks of the White House as “her house,” and whose office there is forcibly peopled by “true believers” (that from David Gergen).

Hillary is “haughty,” “high-handed,” Ms. Sheehy concedes. “Asking for the most routine information was-and is-interpreted as an invasion or, at best, ill-willed snooping.”

And yet the author has little interest in political responsibility. No, she prefers to present a Hillary Clinton in chrysalis, about to be reborn from the misbegotten years with Bill as an Eleanor Roosevelt-like missionary of change. For anyone who respects strong, intelligent women, this is a stirring myth, but you have to wonder how realistic it is.

To begin with, there’s the question of what Mrs. Clinton has achieved after so many years so close to power. This book leaves the impression that she was most politically effective in Arkansas as an advocate for education and at Wellesley when she helped force the administration to relax parietal rules and increase the number of minority students.

Our heroine often seems confused about her motivation. At one point, she tells a friend she wants to gain the company of “very smart, very competitive, wealthy achievers.” And sure enough, she gets her wish. By age 50, she’s dining in Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons with Baldwins, Wassersteins, Dershowitzes and Rattners. What happened to changing the world?

Then there’s the character issue. Mr. Clinton may be dissociated, as Ms. Sheehy suggests, but how in touch with reality is his wife? Ms. Sheehy cites a verse that she says has had great meaning to Hillary in explaining her troubles: “As I was standing in the street as quiet as could be/ A great big ugly man came up and tied his horse to me.” Ms. Sheehy says that this verse is “a grand self-delusion,” and surely it is. Yet she notes that Hillary has trotted it out time and again to explain her difficulties with powerful men, from dad to Mr. Starr. If Hillary really operates with this sort of belief, New York voters ought to know about it.

When will feminists begin to hold their hero to the same standard as they hold men? The personal has become political, for men. Fine. But when it comes to a woman’s political choices, they are rendered in strictly personal terms. Ms. Sheehy is scathing in her treatment of Mr. Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Mr. Starr. As for Hillary’s late father, he was “oppressive,” a “tyrant.”

Yes, “tyrant” is a forceful word, charged with meaning, through and through. Sometimes “haughty” and “high handed” just don’t do the trick.