FOR LOVE OF POLITICS: BILL AND HILLARY CLINTON: THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS
By Sally Bedell Smith
Random House, 608 pages, $27.95
In her introduction to For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years, Sally Bedell Smith, who wrote a yeasty insider tell-all about the Kennedy White House, sets out to deliver another intimate portrait of a White House marriage. “This is an opportune moment,” Ms. Smith writes, “to try to unravel the mysteries of the Clintons’ marriage and to assess the extent to which the country was governed by a copresidency from 1993 to 2001, a historical excavation that has not been undertaken to date.”
It’s a timely setup, but that last bit is curious, since examining the Clintons’ marriage has been one of the chief preoccupations of Washington insiders since well before Bill Clinton was even elected president. Ms. Smith might be able to justify her claim with a Clintonian parsing of “historical”—but only because the vast hordes of journalists, political operatives and conspiracy theorists who have consumed themselves with excavating the innermost details of the Clintons’ marriage did so in real time, while the couple still occupied the White House. Now, as authors like Ms. Smith return to the scene of the dig, there’s precious little left to uncover.
Much of the book is drawn from contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles, and from the memoirs of White House veterans. Those principals who are interviewed anew say much the same things they’ve said previously. If there are big secrets remaining about the Clintons’ marriage, they’re apparently being held by very discreet people who have an eye on returning to the West Wing.
Consequently, Ms. Smith tells a deeply familiar story, though one that’s newly intriguing because of the likelihood that someone thought of at the time to be part of the supporting cast might, in hindsight, actually have been preparing to assume the lead role. With an archeologist’s precision, Ms. Smith starts with the 1992 campaign and proceeds chronologically to dust off every rock and crevice in hope of enlightenment: the bimbo eruptions, the “Comeback Kid,” Travelgate, Filegate, Troopergate, Whitewater and, of course, Monica Lewinsky, Ken Starr and impeachment. In Ms. Smith’s account, Hillary Clinton, too, follows the familiar narrative arc of going from domineering “co-president” who terrorizes aides, turns off the public and steers the administration toward disaster, to the quietly effective backroom powerbroker who always manages to turn her husband’s ear.
THE BOOK’S EDGE comes primarily from Ms. Smith’s brutal dissection of Hillary Clinton’s physical appearance. Each time Hillary is summoned forth is a fresh opportunity to the author to describe an attribute she finds repulsive. “Hillary had a large head,” Ms. Smith writes early on. She continues, ticking through Ms. Clinton’s figure (“matronly”), her legs (“thick”), her hair (“wild and frizzy”), her glasses (“exceptionally thick”), her overbite, her glasses again (“no-line bifocals”) and the “prominent buccal pouches” that pass for cheeks. Hillary’s fashion sense and even her interior decorating come in for strafing, too. The tenor of the book is such that when Ms. Smith quotes another journalist as having written that Hillary looks “like a little pig, but cute,” it’s one of the nicer characterizations of the first lady.
Ms. Smith aims to write a serious book, and woven in between all the Mean Girls sniping is a fairly comprehensive record of the major legislative and policy battles that occurred in Washington, and within the White House, during the Clinton years. She lays out everything from budget battles to the BTU tax, and includes detailed rundowns of Hillary’s own significant contributions in areas like women’s rights and children’s issues. But her main business here is to use Ms. Clinton’s candidacy as an excuse to plunge once again into the tawdry, embarrassing, deeply unpresidential behavior that consumed so much of the last president’s time in office and, possibly, the next one, too.
Though it covers well-trodden terrain, Ms. Smith’s book is nonetheless useful as a refresher of the first Clinton presidency—a Cliffs Notes, really, that highlights all the juicy details and points up the key themes for discussion, with special attention paid to Hillary’s role in all of it. Ms. Smith’s spiteful eye notwithstanding, For Love of Politics is mostly a fair and accurate account of what happened during the eight years of the Clinton administration. Even its familiar episodes have a kind of renewed power to jolt the reader because the Hillary Clinton portrayed in its pages is so strikingly at variance with the cool, composed, and—dare I say?—stylishly dressed candidate of today, who has not only ditched the bifocals and the frumpy checkered suits but seems ever more likely to win the Democratic nomination.
The years in need of excavation by talented authors aren’t the White House years at all. They’re the ones that have come since, and that may well yield clues that can explain why the idea of a Clinton restoration—so hard to imagine back then—seems more and more certain to come about.
Joshua Green is a senior editor at The Atlantic.