Gail Sheehy’s Choice: Gossip Over Research

On the acknowledgments page of Hillary’s Choice , author Gail Sheehy writes, “I am indebted to Betsey Wright for her trust and candor.” Reading that line made me curious to know what the former Clinton aide thinks about Ms. Sheehy’s biography of the First Lady. My curiosity already had been piqued by quotations from her in the Sheehy book–some of which say precisely the opposite of what Ms. Wright has told me and other journalists about her long relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Speaking from her home in Arkansas, Ms. Wright was characteristically blunt about the grateful author: “Her book is saturated with factual errors, lies and distortions. I do believe it must be classified as fiction.” After a few moments of listening to Ms. Wright referring to mistakes page by page, it became apparent to me that she had gone through Hillary’s Choice very carefully, making dozens of notes.

To take one specific and especially well-known example, Ms. Sheehy reprises the story of the “bimbo list” that Ms. Wright supposedly used to discourage Mr. Clinton from running for President in 1988. This anecdote originally appeared in David Maraniss’ careful 1995 biography of the President, First in His Class . Back then, Ms. Wright said that Mr. Maraniss, whose reporting she otherwise praised, had misunderstood her remarks.

In Hillary’s Choice , the section concerning the alleged bimbo list bears a clever subtitle: “Betsey’s Black Book.” But according to Ms. Wright, the author “has taken a nonexistent list and expanded it into a nonexistent black book.” Ms. Wright did speak with Ms. Sheehy, but now regrets that she did. “She misapplies quotes totally outside the topic of what the conversation was really about, for her own purposes,” Ms. Wright said.

But what would those purposes be? Aside from the obvious opportunity to rush out a best seller in time for the New York Senate race, that is hard to say. As a veteran magazine writer, however, Ms. Sheehy does seem exquisitely attuned to the received opinion of the mainstream media. Often poorly informed and simple-minded, that Beltway-via-Manhattan perspective on the Clintons can be captured in a single word: bad.

“Cultural myths are what we live by,” Ms. Sheehy explains in one passage, and no one could better describe the function of her own book. With regard to the “Clinton scandals,” she summarizes (and often vulgarizes) various mythologies that have become part of the conventional narrative.

Partly this is because Ms. Sheehy’s book relies so heavily on the same news stories that got Whitewater utterly wrong. So when she delves into Whitewater, Castle Grande and other such matters, she instantly gets lost in other writers’ mistakes. So lost, in fact, that she can only recite the usual Washington media cant on those perplexing issues. Her prose rings with unearned indignation about events she didn’t bother to understand.

A particularly gross example is her discussion of the Castle Grande real estate deal on pages 280-281. There she cites the Resolution Trust Corporation reports of 1995 and 1996 as evidence of Mrs. Clinton’s perfidy. Ms. Sheehy denounces the First Lady for using a “semantic dodge” when she testified that she had not worked for “Castle Grande” but for a larger project known as “I.D.C.,” or Industrial Development Corporation, that encompassed Castle Grande.

Yet Ms. Sheehy’s endnotes reveal that–like so many pundits with firm opinions about Whitewater–she never actually consulted the R.T.C. reports herself. Instead, she cites one news article from The Washington Post and a collection of Whitewater editorials from The Wall Street Journal (whose tendentious tone she generally adopts on these topics).

Had she or her research assistants dug up that musty old R.T.C. study, Ms. Sheehy would have discovered that the infamous Rose Law Firm billing records refer only to I.D.C. and never to Castle Grande–confirming Mrs. Clinton’s testimony. She would also have learned what the attorneys hired to write the R.T.C. reports said regarding Mrs. Clinton’s work on an unused option document for the I.D.C. project– after they had examined the billing records: “[T]he circumstances point strongly toward innocent explanations, and the theories that tie this option to wrongdoing are strained at best.”

Admittedly, the long, somewhat technical volumes of the R.T.C. report, plus appendices, aren’t nearly as diverting as gossip about the condition of the Clintons’ marriage. Still, Ms. Sheehy might have taken a moment to glance at the report’s conclusion: “There is no basis to charge the Clintons with any kind of primary liability for fraud or intentional misconduct. This investigation has revealed no evidence to support any such claims. Nor would the record support any … liability for the possible misdeeds of others.”

How refreshing it would have been if Ms. Sheehy had been sufficiently daring and diligent to challenge the usual clichés about her subject. And, unfortunately, as things turned out, how very unlikely.