Onward, Christian Soldier

A WOMAN IN CHARGE: THE LIFE OF HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON By Carl Bernstein Alfred A. Knopf, 628 pages, $27.95 Sign

By Carl Bernstein
Alfred A. Knopf, 628 pages, $27.95

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It’s the piety, stupid. Carl Bernstein’s mammoth new study of Hillary Clinton goes beyond the familiar theorizing about the gender politics of the New York Senator’s career, and instead homes in on her stolid Methodist enthusiasm for moral improvement. At key moments, Mr. Bernstein shows us a diligently observant Hillary, poring over passages in a small, well-thumbed Bible, underlining and pondering.

“Hillary’s faith is the link,” one of her former aides tells Mr. Bernstein. “It explains the missionary zeal with which she attacks her issues and goes after them, and why she’s done it for thirty years …. She’s not one of those people who’s out there doing the holy roller stuff. But that’s how she gets through it: some people go to shrinks, she does it by being a Methodist.” Another longtime friend of both Clintons observes: “With Bill, you felt he just wanted to be president, whereas Hillary had this religious zeal.”

And yet, as Hillary’s story unspools endlessly in the 628 pages of A Woman in Charge, the actual content of her religious beliefs seems only to grow fuzzier. With Don Jones, the charismatic youth-group leader of her Park Ridge, Ill., Methodist congregation, she encountered the socially engaged Protestant theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—an experience that helped pry her loose from the Goldwater conservatism of her father and her own activist youth. At Wellesley, and at Yale Law School, the frame of spiritual reference widened further, as she became a seeker after the same direct, transcendent experiences that haunted many of her youth-culture comrades in the 1960’s. When she delivered a student speech for her 1969 graduating class at Wellesley, she famously rebuked the commencement speaker, Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke, a liberal Republican and the only black member of the Senate, for his go-slow reformist sentiments. “We are, all of us,” she told the Senator on behalf of her generation, “exploring a world that none of us understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty …. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating modes of living.” Groovy.

During Hillary and Bill’s rapid ascent, the substance of her faith seemed to take on the easily ridiculed, gooey New Age cast now associated with management retreats. There were the Renaissance Weekends amid well-heeled boomer seekers at the Hilton Head, S.C., resort. There were Hillary’s Camp David confabs with the spiritual-cum-motivational savants Jean Houston, Marianne Williamson and Tony Robbins. There was Hillary’s mercifully short-lived romance with Rabbi Michael Lerner and his “politics of meaning” (a man, I’m profoundly sorry to report, I once worked for).

This all came across, quite rightly, as a symptom of the Clintons’ terminal boomer narcissism—their well-documented penchant for attaching cosmic significance to passing fancies and pet campaign themes. But in Mr. Bernstein’s mostly admiring account, Hillary’s spiritual engagements set her apart from the pack, politically speaking—and apart, especially, from her often all-too-worldly spouse. “Through the years of their marriage, Hillary’s experiential openness would further delineate her capacity for personal growth and change,” Mr. Bernstein says with enthusiasm. And then ruefully: “As for Bill, only his political skills and judgments, as opposed to personal and emotional attributes, appeared to become more acute as he grew older.” The dichotomy seems even to extend to the couple’s taste in movies: Her favorite was the dreamy (and nothing if not transformational) Snow White; his, the guns-blazing Western-hero yarn High Noon.

Hillary’s New Age slogan for the couple’s joint enterprise, which Mr. Bernstein calls their “co-presidency”? The Journey.

Onward, Christian Soldier