Doing the Hillary Limbo: How Low Can Klein Go?

The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President, by Edward Klein. Sentinel, 305 pages, $24.95.

“What about the Ed Klein book?” For a couple of months now, that question has echoed through political circles in Washington, and in the larger universe of people-admirers and enemies alike-curious about the past and future of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The intense anticipation is the product of a series of leaks to the Drudge Report and other outlets in the modern media echo chamber, reports filled with dark predictions that Mr. Klein’s portrait would prove so devastating as to end Senator Clinton’s presumed Presidential ambitions in 2008. The publicity has been no less effective for its heavy-handedness.

It worked on me, anyway. As the author of a recent history of the Clinton Presidency, one that deals centrally with Hillary Clinton’s role during those years, I was probably more curious than anyone to see the results of Mr. Klein’s excavation-and to see how The Truth About Hillary would be received.

Now here it is at last. Hillary Clinton’s image-lips pursed, eyes bulging, her gaze at once paranoid and castrating-adorns the cover like a kind of political pornography. Pornography, say the Senator’s defenders, is exactly what Mr. Klein has produced.

Let’s not be too pious about this. There are lots of folks who might reasonably be drawn to a penetrating and gossip-filled journey through the moist folds separating the public image that Bill and Hillary Clinton present to the world and the undoubtedly more complex realities behind their marriage, her beliefs and her long-term ambitions. If Mr. Klein had delivered the goods in a mildly convincing or entertaining way, probably few people would begrudge him his reliance on anonymous sources.

Unfortunately, The Truth About Hillary fails even as pornography. It’s about as arousing as footage from a hidden camera in the bathroom of a highway truck stop.

The initial blast of publicity has pretty well aired the book’s most provocative-and weakly supported-allegations. Mr. Klein notes Hillary Clinton’s years at Wellesley College and her friendship with avowed lesbians and draws an innuendo-stained line between these facts and why she’s content to stay in what he feels sure is a sexless marriage.

In a chapter called “A Night to Remember,” he claims that Chelsea Clinton was conceived after a violent bedroom tussle in Bermuda, and that Mr. Clinton only learned that his wife was pregnant after reading about it in a Little Rock newspaper. The endnotes scrupulously cite Mr. Klein’s “interview with an anonymous source who was with the Clintons in Bermuda.”

This chapter is at once so lurid and so laughable that Mr. Klein must worry he’s miscalculated and managed the impossible: gone too low even for those people whom he presumed would believe anything about the Clintons. In an interview this week with National Review Online, he insisted that he wasn’t implying-as the Drudge Report claimed-that Chelsea was the product of marital “rape” (though this is the clear implication of what he wrote). His point, he said, was to illuminate a marriage so phony that then-Governor Clinton didn’t learn about becoming a father from his wife. But that claim isn’t believable, either.

In fact, the only parts of this book that are remotely credible are those items that come from the previously documented record. Even much of the unsubstantiated gossip comes from earlier books of the same genre, particularly Gail Sheehy’s Hillary’s Choice (1999). Mr. Klein brings new malice but no new tools to the job of deconstructing Senator Clinton.

But let’s pretend, just for the hell of it, that Ed Klein is somehow on the level and that his book deserves a serious appraisal. There’s nothing implausible about suggesting that there’s a degree of artifice in the Clinton marriage (though it’s odd to find conservatives favoring divorce over perseverance). The larger question he raises-what makes Hillary tick as a person and politician?-is one that many people quite legitimately want answered. The subtitle of the book promises more: “What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President.”

His answers are that she knew everything-all about Bill’s extramarital excursions with scores of women, including Monica S. Lewinsky-and that she knew it right from the start, before any of the bad stuff became public, but did nothing and played along with the façade because she was more interested in amassing power and advancing her own ambitions than in personal integrity. Got it? As for what she’ll do to become President, the answer is, of course, that she’ll do just about anything. If so, it’ll be interesting to see how she’ll deal with her controversy-prone husband. By Mr. Klein’s reading, what was once a “marriage of convenience” is now a “marriage of inconvenience” that may pose serious obstacles to her ambitions. (Maybe she’s somehow behind his recent heart troubles.)

Take the year of Monica Lewinsky. As a reporter who was covering the White House at the time, I can testify that it was obvious to all but the most willfully ignorant observers from the first day or two of the controversy that the President surely did have a relationship with the former intern. There were reports of dozens of off-hours visits by her to the White House, of gifts exchanged, not to mention Ms. Lewinksy’s florid descriptions of the affair on the Linda Tripp tapes-all evidence unchallenged by the White House. I concluded that willful ignorance was exactly what Hillary Clinton, for purposes of her own sanity and dignity, had achieved.

Mr. Klein concludes otherwise and, citing unknown sources, argues that she joined her husband in a deliberate cover-up of the truth. Perhaps so. He could be right, and I could be wrong. But I simply don’t believe that Mr. Klein has any source who could plausibly support his case. Hillary Clinton’s best friend was the late Diane Blair. Her husband, James Blair, once told me that his wife told him with astonishment before she died that the then First Lady never confided what she was really thinking during that humiliating year. A number of her top aides have told me the same thing: that her feelings about her marriage are shielded even from them.

I happen to believe that the marriage, while complicated, is entirely genuine. Mrs. Clinton may well believe, understandably, that this subject is nobody’s damn business-and that is her right. Some in the public may believe that if she’s going to be in public life, they’re free to speculate-and that is their right.

But there’s no way that this book could help anyone along in his or her speculation. “Monica Lewinsky had not seen the Big Creep since she was banished from the White House,” reads the first sentence, representative of the prose style to follow. It’s reminiscent, for a certain generation of male readers, of the old “Penthouse Forum” letters from the 1970’s. The 44 chapters are about as long as those in a children’s bedtime book. Mr. Klein has an annoying (and seemingly sexist) habit of often referring to women, such as pollster Mandy Grunwald and Senator Clinton herself, by their first names, though he doesn’t do the same for the male characters.

There are numerous factual errors. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once complained that Bill Clinton regarded welfare reform, not health-care reform, as “boob bait for the bubbas.” Perhaps some people called Evelyn Lieberman, the former White House deputy chief of staff, “Mother Superior”-though in a decade covering the Clintons, I never heard that nickname, and I can assure you that there’s nothing “prissy” about her. Mr. Klein asserts that if Hillary Clinton is elected President, it will mean that political operatives like Stan Greenberg will be back in power-never mind that Mr. Greenberg got tossed to the outer orbit of the Clinton circle more than a decade ago.

Those are errors of detail, and they’re a reminder that the author doesn’t know the first thing about the Clinton story. His core audience probably couldn’t care less. But what about the larger contradictions in the anti-Clinton storyline? According to Mr. Klein, Hillary coldly tolerates Bill’s affairs because the marriage is a political arrangement. How does that square with all the stories from the Arkansas state troopers about the horrible rows in the governor’s mansion when Hillary learned that Bill had snuck out for late-night assignations? Back then, the sources had her screaming-I paraphrase here-that she needed intimacy “more than twice a year.”

Well, which is it?

Perhaps I have let the joke of actually trying to follow Mr. Klein’s argument go on too long. Of course this book isn’t on the level. Presumably, neither Mr. Klein nor his publisher cares whether what he writes is true or makes sense. In fact, one has no idea what to believe about any aspect of this publishing event. Sentinel claims it has printed 350,000 copies, and that it moved up its planned publication by three months in order to satisfy public demand. Who knows? Other publishers widely suspect that both statements are baloney. If 350,000 copies are actually sold, that would make Mr. Klein’s book one of the best-selling books of the year. But surely Sentinel must now fear that it will end up proving P.T. Barnum wrong. Already, there’s a growing chorus of conservative voices denouncing Mr. Klein’s work as irresponsible.

The right is wise to worry. My own perspective on Senator Clinton is probably not too different from the typical swing voter’s. I was not an enemy, but I was hardly an admirer during her years as First Lady. She loathed the press, and her brittle manner was quite grating. I’m sure she remains no fan of my profession, but as Senator, she has presented a far more accessible, appealing and impressive face, to press and public alike. In person, she’s smart, commanding, sometimes funny and far more normal-seeming than many voters are primed to believe. The gap in expectations between the neurotic caricature that Mr. Klein presents and Hillary Clinton as she will present herself in a Presidential campaign will surely redound to her advantage.

Meanwhile, Ed Klein’s book can at least be appreciated for comic relief. About the large advance that Mrs. Clinton received for her memoirs, he writes, “Greed seemed to be the only explanation for the outlandish book deal.” On this one, he should know.

John F. Harris is national politics editor at The Washington Post and author of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House (Random House).