Hillary’s Delayed Awakening, Her Ambition at Last Her Own

Living History , by Hillary Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 562 pages, $28.

One question for the reviewers and readers who have professed disappointment in Hillary Clinton’s new book: What did you expect? Or to put it another way: When was the last time you read a really good book by an American politician at mid-career? It probably wasn’t John Ashcroft’s Lessons from a Father to his Son , an inspirational tome that recounts his fairy-tale rise from Missouri state auditor to Missouri state attorney general. And I’d be surprised if it were George W. Bush’s cheerily soporific A Charge to Keep , in which the President reveals that as a college student he once swiped a Christmas wreath for his frat house. There’s a reason why used copies of these books go for next to nothing on Amazon. They’re selling documents, and if they’re good ones-which Hillary Clinton’s is-they’ll arrive in bookstores with as few remaining traces of distinct and incorrigible voice as possible. They’ll be written, or at least carefully vetted, by committee-Senator Clinton credits seven lead elves, one of whom, Lissa Muscatine, she describes as “responsible for many of the words in my speeches and in this book.” And they will follow certain rules of the genre, which are not, it should hardly surprise anyone to know, rules designed to enhance the readability or literary merit of a book. If you’re an able politician, your campaign memoir will be a lot like an infomercial-advertising diligently masquerading as documentary-as David Grann pointed out in The New Republic a few years back.

The aim of a campaign memoir is to present a person with failings, yes, but failings that are either small and endearing (bad hair days) or small and long ago conquered in a blaze of redemption (frat-boy high jinks and a tendency to linger at the keg). Parents of the campaign memoirist are nearly always “simple people”-a bit of a stretch if they are also nationally known politicians, but politician-parents can usually be portrayed as “plain-spoken,” “rough-hewn” or possessed of the common touch. Also “hard-working,” and bent on instilling a love of hard work in their children, who grow up to be Americans of “abiding” faith and no personal ambition to speak of. The campaign memoir mixes pseudo-confession-but rarely any admission of serious mistakes-with evocations of the author’s stature in the world (adoring crowds and smitten heads-of-state in colorful regalia) and civics-lesson boilerplate (“I was raised to love my God and my country, to help others, to protect and defend the democratic ideals that have inspired and guided free people for more than 200 years”). It will include, as Senator Clinton’s certainly does, long clotted lists of names-all those friends who have helped along the way, and might help again. (This is a good reason, if you needed one, to avoid the audio version of Living History .)

If the campaign memoir offers a few rich anecdotes or persuasive corrections to the historical record, the reader can consider herself lucky indeed. Hillary Clinton’s contribution to the genre actually offers a bit more than that. Not the revelation that she wanted to “wring Bill’s neck” when he told her that there “had been an inappropriate intimacy” with Monica Lewinsky. (All the other “inappropriate intimacies” Hillary writes off as unfounded rumors and smears.) The hounding of Bill Clinton over his crummy little half-consummated affair with the girl in the Gap dress seems increasingly distant, repellent and bizarre-and the critics who aren’t blaming Hillary for not revealing more about it are blaming her for reminding us of the whole episode at all. It’s so tawdry, so pre-9/11.

Senator Clinton stands by her “vast right-wing conspiracy” accusation: “I didn’t know the truth about the charges against Bill, but I knew about Starr and his connection to my husband’s political opponents. I do believe there was, and still is, an interlocking network of groups and individuals who want to turn the clock back on many of the advances our country has made, from civil rights and women’s rights to consumer and environmental regulation, and they use all the tools at their disposal-money, power, influence, media and politics-to achieve their ends.” In retrospect, it seems clear that she was essentially right about this. It may not have been vast, and she was wrong to call it a conspiracy (with the special prosecutor at its helm, it wasn’t particularly clandestine). But the Clintons did inspire an unusually vehement partisan rage. And it’s hard, now, to see the Starr investigation as much more than the legalistic embodiment of that rage, a prurient vendetta that trivialized impeachment and assaulted privacy. Which is not to say that Bill Clinton denied his Savonarola fuel-the President supplied it, not only with his original peccadilloes, but with his semantic non-truths (“That depends on what the meaning of is is.”) It’s just that these were not, to put it mildly, matters of state.

Despite her reputation as a policy grind-the Hermione Granger of American politics-Senator Clinton does not distinguish herself here with penetrating analysis of legislation. She acknowledges some missteps in her handling of health-care reform, but blames too much of that failure on partisan politics. She has comparatively little to say about how the plan might have worked, or what we might do to fix health care now. Any policy battles she may have had with Al Gore go undiscussed, since Mr. Gore himself is barely mentioned.

And yet, there’s a reason why so many people remain interested in Hillary Clinton-interested enough to line up around the block for her book, and to expect something more from it. Unlike Laura Bush, who is in many ways a calmer and more successful First Lady, Hillary Clinton does not yet seem like a finished person. She seems, instead, like someone whose life will continue to surprise us, to take unexpected twists. And what this book has that most campaign memoirs do not is a satisfying, if partially submerged, plot line. It’s a kind of feminist Bildungsroman : the narrative, as literary critic Elaine Showalter describes it, of Hillary Clinton’s coming to understand “the vicariousness of her life”-her gradually dawning awareness that she was too ambitious to occupy a role whose power was essentially derivative of her husband’s.

Hillary Clinton-and some of her feminist sympathizers-often blamed her travails as First Lady on conflicting attitudes towards working women. And she recycles that line here: “In my own mind, I was traditional in some ways and not in others. I cared about the food I served our guests, and I also wanted to improve the delivery of health care for all Americans. To me, there was nothing incongruous about my interests and activities.” But, alas, “we were living in an era in which some people still felt deeply ambivalent about women in positions of public leadership and power. In this era of changing gender roles, I was America’s Exhibit A.”

This was always a flawed analysis, though: It made more of the alleged ambivalence towards women in power than was true or helpful to women in power. For one thing, much of the venom directed at Hillary Clinton was more straightforwardly political. For another, what many people felt ambivalence about was not women in power, but women in power at the behest of their husbands-and yet representing themselves, somehow, as feminist icons. In any case, a First Lady is not Every woman. Hers is a weirdly-and, by definition, uniquely-constrained and ceremonial role that leaves little room for experimentation and has a whiff of the royal consort about it. Americans accept that First Ladies will be informal advisers, but the idea of elevating them to overt policy-making roles offends our meritocratic sentiments. “Buy one, get one free” was not a slogan that worked. Neither did the strategy of appointing Hillary to run the health-care reform effort. We didn’t elect her, and the Clinton we did elect did not put her through a confirmation process.

Several reviewers have noted that the best parts of Living History are the early chapters, in which Hillary paints a fairly vivid portrait of her upbringing as a striving, bespectacled good girl in suburban Chicago, daughter of a tight-fisted Republican dad and a loving mom who was a Democrat on the QT. It’s clear that even then, Hillary Rodham was ambitious and political-the sort of kid who really loved mock Presidential debates, and at a time when partisan fervor in a girl wasn’t considered all that becoming. She doesn’t offer much insight into the origins of her ambition, which is a shame, but it’s hard to miss its bright, unpolished presence in the whirl of her uplifting activities. She’s like the Reese Witherspoon character in Election -dorky but indomitable.

In the last two chapters, the Rodham ambition returns, no longer indirect, as Hillary decides to run for the New York U.S. Senate seat. I liked those chapters-partly, I’ll admit, because I saw the end in sight. But I also liked them because it was a relief to glimpse Hillary Rodham Clinton where she belongs after all those high-school debates and student-council elections she hurled herself into: no longer the trailing spouse, but on her own campaign trail at last.

Margaret Talbot is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Hillary’s Delayed Awakening, Her Ambition at Last Her Own