What Makes Hillary Stumble?

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

Carl Bernstein is a rarity in the American electorate: He’s ambivalent about Hillary Clinton. Recent polls show as little as 3 percent of Americans have no opinion of the former First Lady, and the 97 percent that do split almost evenly between favorable and unfavorable. So what to make of a book that exhaustively (over 600 pages of exhaust) plumbs the depths of the known Hillary record—we learn about her prom dress, her religious beliefs, her endometritis, her fears of indictment—only to conclude, lamely, that she “is neither the demon of the right’s perception, nor a feminist saint, nor is she particularly emblematic of her time,” and, shockingly, “the jury remains out.”

Tell it to the Scaife Foundation, Carl. Or, for that matter, to her passionate supporters, who see her not as a mere leader, but as a symbol of national redemption. If the “jury remains out” on Hillary Clinton, it is only because they’re hung.

Of course, her ability to polarize is what makes writing a mainstream biography of Mrs. Clinton so difficult. The non-hack must provide enough detail about the numerous Clinton scandals to make news, but cannot dim the lights too much on her considerable accomplishments, lest he derail the one thing that’s truly interesting about Hillary Clinton: She might be our next President.

At times, Mr. Bernstein seems self-conscious about the tightrope that he’s walking, taking the time to implicitly distance himself from hatchet jobs like Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary (which he describes as “an ideological screed, which contains barely smidgens—and no context—about what the title promises”), but also to judge, primly, in the style of high wingnuttery, such irrelevant details as the fact that “[h]er ankles were thick,” and to harp on both the “entitlement attitude of” and “holier-than-thou attitude of”—attributes that get their own index entries, along with such weirdly psychographic points of interest as “egregious errors and failures of” (10 references), “friendship capacity of” (eight references), “anger, temper, and hurt of” (23 references) and “clothes of” (25 references).

One is tempted to observe that the attention given to these areas says as much about Carl Bernstein as it does Hillary Clinton; though Mr. Bernstein has obvious and strong credentials as a journalist, his skill as an arbiter of what makes a relationship work—or a woman happy—has been rather famously questioned. (Heartburn, a roman à clef by his ex-wife, Nora Ephron, is about Mr. Bernstein leaving her for another woman while Ms. Ephron was pregnant with their child.) Indeed, his investigation of the central mystery of the Clintons’ marriage—what has kept them together—is curiously flat-footed: Apparently, they have some kind of partnership. Or, as he puts it in one of several iterations: “It was obvious that Bill and Hillary could never have achieved what they had without each other.” Not exactly worth a siren on Drudge.

Mr. Bernstein’s solution to wrapping the divergent opinions about Hillary—is she pragmatic or an idealist? Spiritual or hard-edged? Politically savvy or tin-eared?—into one neat (or neat-ish) package is not to clarify which view of Hillary might be true, but to proclaim that one doesn’t have to choose. He tells us, repeatedly, that it is Mrs. Clinton’s “extraordinary capability for change and evolutionary development” that makes sense of the contradictions in her life, “from Goldwater Girl to liberal Democrat, from fashion victim to power-suit sophisticate, from embattled first lady to establishmentarian senator.” In his grand narrative, events unspool like just-so stories, with Hillary learning An Important Lesson from her triumphs and defeats. When Bill loses his first election (to represent Arkansas in Congress) because—argues Mr. Bernstein—Hillary was unwilling to take a shady contribution, Mr. Bernstein writes: “Subsequently, she would be far less committed to the high road, and much more concerned with results.” This is, however, a lesson she also learned at Wellesley, where “[s]he was more interested in the process of achieving victory than in taking a philosophical position that could not lead anywhere.”

And, just to make sure, she learns it again after Bill first loses re-election as governor, upon which she and Dick Morris adopt a strategy of “do[ing] whatever it took to get elected and us[ing] the same philosophy to govern.”

Hillary Clinton was never slow to learn. Mr. Bernstein gets closer to what might be the truth when he observes that her approach is more like “military rigor: reading the landscape, seeing the obstacles, recognizing which ones are malevolent or malign, and taking expedient action accordingly.” She’s less about evolution than adaptation. And as much as Mr. Bernstein wants to talk about “Clinton, Hillary. personal growth and change of” (the index is in many ways more interesting than the book), his portrayal of her is remarkably unsurprising.

What Makes Hillary Stumble?