Friday, June 8, 2007

Hillary Studies

Hillary Studies | Salon Books:By Walter Shapiro
There was a time when I, too, thought of majoring in Hillary Studies. During the early 1990s, I hunted down some of her Wellesley classmates (and heard their stories before they had grown stale from constant retelling) and looked up her Arkansas friends. I first interviewed Hillary, nearly 15 years ago, in the governor's mansion in Little Rock, and several times after that. What stays with me is something that she said during a 1993 White House interview, back in the hopeful days when healthcare reform was slated to be her signature achievement and Monica Lewinsky was still off at college. 'I am a Rorschach test,' she declared, reflecting a shrewd awareness of how, even then, her public persona was in the eye of the beholder. Tomasky, in his 2001 book on her initial Senate race, 'Hillary's Turn,' captured the same reality when he wrote, 'Hillary Clinton has existed primarily as a symbol, both to those who admire her and to those who detest her.'

The rigors of the 1992 campaign -- probably augmented by her own bent toward overpreparation and caution -- made Hillary an oddly distant figure, easier to theorize about than understand. These days, anyone trying to write something fresh and original about her has to grapple with the problem of access: As Bernstein writes, 'Both Hillary and Bill Clinton told me on several occasions that they would welcome being interviewed by me. In the end, both formally declined." (There is no textual evidence that the Clintons spoke with Gerth and Van Natta either.) Would-be chroniclers must also deal with the intense loyalty that has long been a feature of Hillaryland; almost no one close to her is willing to tell all (especially on the record), and virtually everyone in her orbit tends to be nervous about how even the most innocuous comments might look in print.

But the biggest obstacle to reporters is that this woman who has been probed and psychoanalyzed and hounded by special prosecutors understands the political virtues of repetition and boredom. As first lady, senator and now presidential candidate, she has rarely veered away in public from her self-scripted agenda.

If there was a turning point -- a moment when Hillary Clinton seemed to go robotic -- it probably came during the waning days of 1992 primary campaign. Attacked in a debate by Democratic presidential gadfly Jerry Brown over her legal work while her husband was governor, Hillary snapped, "I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession." Bernstein points out that Hillary went on to talk about the difficult choices that women have to make, but notes that her words were attacked "as evidence of radical feminist disdain for traditional values." What neither biography picks up is the larger significance of the "cookies and tea" furor: Bill Clinton had to step in to help his wife mend her image. This moment marked a change in the couple's power dynamic, for up until then, it had always been Hillary who took on the Sisyphean task of cleaning up Bill's messes. ...

Even when "Her Way" and "A Woman in Charge" score with telling details, there remains a sense that their subject remains tantalizing close, yet also out of reach. Hillary Studies (or, at least, political reporting about her as president or senator) is likely to be a growth area over the next decade. But like so many other fledgling disciplines, it is still in search of its core textbook -- a nuanced biography that captures Hillary Rodham Clinton as both human being and political figure, instead of dissecting her like a laboratory slide through the lens of investigative reporting.

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