| Spinning her tale
Living History By Hillary Rodham Clinton, Headline, £ 20
When Hillary Clinton visited India, American embassy publicists dinned it into us that it was the fruition of a lifelong dream. Later, we were told that the dream also obliged her husband to follow in her footsteps. In spite of claims of an early interest in India, Mrs Clinton does not find Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit worth a mention. As for her own reason for squeezing India into a whistlestop five-nation tour — “The State Department had asked me to visit the subcontinent to highlight the administration’s commitment to the region, because neither the President nor the Vice-President could make a trip soon.”
So, it was politics and not passion. The candour is refreshing. The old gag about statistics being like a bikini which conceals more than it reveals could so easily be applied to a politician’s autobiography. Mrs Clinton does not shirk the headline-grabbing issues of her eight years as First Lady. After all, the publishers would not have agreed to a phenomenal $8 million advance if she had not promised to be frank about exciting controversies such as Bill Clinton’s sexual adventures, the Whitewater scandal, the national healthcare debacle and commodities trades. But let’s admit, we are not really much wiser about any of these issues after wading through her 562 pages of always readable prose.
Other occupants of the White House have left behind chatty memoirs reflecting their own social interests. Mrs Clinton is several cuts above them intellectually but that does not mean that she quite lives up to the promise of a pretentious title. Living History might have described the life’s work of a Jawaharlal Nehru, a Winston Churchill or a Mao Zedong. Even Bill Clinton was more a witness to, than a creator of, history. As for his wife, she has yet to demonstrate that she had more than a walk-on part in the great global events of the Nineties.
That is not to deny that this is an engaging book. But some might say that it is less significant for its retrospective disclosures and insights than for providing a glimpse into the author’s future political ambition. Naturally, therefore, it is a safe book. The writing is engaging. There are many interesting observations and anecdotes. But there is no salacious inside gossip. Mrs Clinton does not explode bombshells or throw out devastating challenges. Even political adversaries are treated with gentle consideration. Ken Starr is not so much her husband’s foe as the enemy of American libertarian and constitutional values. The Wall Street Journal is “spiteful.” Otherwise, she is almost above bipartisan fray and far too benign to settle scores.
The tone is mature and reflective. Mrs Clinton projects herself as a loyal wife, an adoring mother, and a woman with a deep commitment to public issues. That serves her need to explain and re-introduce herself to the American electorate. Spin is the key word in contemporary politics. Image matters more than substance. An exhaustive and blisteringly frank account of her White House years would not have helped her in the presidential election in 2004 or later. It is only in the context of that aspiration that people will be interested in the book’s raison d’être, “This is a story about an extraordinary time in my life. I touch on the good times, the not-so-good times and try to explain what the experience was like for me.”
The senate, then, is a stop en route to returning to the White House in a more exalted capacity. So far however, and ironically for such an avowed feminist, it is only in the context of her spouse that her declaration generates interest. Her chronicle gathers momentum only from page 52, when Bill Clinton makes his first appearance. It is as First Lady, presidential aide and helpmate and as the woman who stood by her man that she draws sympathy. What she calls “the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience” of her life — the Monica Lewinsky episode — gives it poignancy.
Her response to the challenge reveals her skill as an adroit lawyer. Her husband “ought to be held accountable for his behaviour — by me and by Chelsea — not by a misuse of the impeachment process,” she argues, neatly reducing a national crisis to a domestic contretemps, a question of integrity to one of marital fidelity. She is no less ingenious in debunking the crisis itself, attributing it to a right-wing conspiracy to destroy her husband because of his vigorous espousal of liberal democratic causes. “There has been a concerted effort to undermine his legitimacy as President, to undo much of what he has been able to accomplish, to attack him personally when he could not be defeated politically.”
There may be a grain of truth in the nature and intensity of the opposition to the Clinton presidency. But American slang has the apt answer to any attempt to dismiss the President’s peccadilloes as political fabrication — “Tell that to the Marines!”