Don’t hate me for liking Hillary. She’s an easy target for cynics, not only for her political maneuvering but also for her anti-charisma: the way she contrasts with Bill in both her lack of easy charm and her stilted delivery. Her style, both in speaking and in writing, is awkward, bulky, and fraught with platitudes and catchphrases that reek of George W. Bush’s campaign rhetoric: phrases like “opened my eyes and heart,” or “instilled a sense of responsibility.” Or, worse, in Hillary’s description of her childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois: “My active involvement in the First United Methodist Church of Park Ridge opened my eyes and heart to the needs of others and helped instill a sense of social responsibility rooted in my faith.” Her words feel, at times, like they came from a compendium of the World’s Worst College Essays.
It’s hard to trust anyone in politics, so, understandably, those (of the 600,000 or so who bought the book on the day of its release) expecting intimate revelations will be disappointed. Politicians’ livelihoods depend on how few people they offend, and Hillary is a very good politician. The memoir reads less like an autobiography and more like a study in political life and language. It begins with a background sketch of Clinton’s upbringing in Illinois, then discusses college at Wellesley, Yale Law School and her courtship with Bill Clinton. However, the bulk of the book details the events of her eight-year tenure in the White House. Here she describes policy battles and state visits, with sketchier descriptions of family life.
I believed Hillary when she gave an unequivocal “no!” to a TV interviewer when asked about a presidential bid in 2008—but that was before I read the book. Every paragraph of Hillary’s life conforms to the predictable character sketch. Hillary as a leader from the beginning! Elected captain of the Bus Patrol! A Young Republican! President of committees! Standing up to the Establishment at Wellesley! I suppose the reason many reviewers of this book have dismissed it as self-congratulatory fluff is because Hillary’s story does not have a rags-to-riches tale: no childhood rape a la Oprah, no life of crime a la Malcolm X, no harrowing military story a la John McCain. So, in the absence of a thrilling narrative journey, the question is: why write your autobiography if you are not trying to sell yourself?
Clinton’s prose is frustrating due to the vice-grip of diplomacy: the most honest, refreshing passages are those where there is clearly the least at stake, such as, “Frankly, I don’t like golf.” I wish there were more frankness about other things she just doesn’t like. In contrast, her descriptions of life with Chelsea are highlights of the book. It is clear that Hillary adores her daughter, and I’m sure all college students will identify with the moving-into-the-dorm scene: “…the occasion I had dreaded for years finally arrived: Chelsea was moving to California…I was on a mission, rushing around in a vain attempt to organize Chelsea’s belongings, arranging closet space, putting away linens and towels, measuring and cutting up contact paper to fit the drawers…” Children of similar high-achieving, overbearing mothers will recognize the way Hillary cherishes and documents everything Chelsea does. This seems to me a genuine impulse of Ms. Clinton’s, but her detractors could construe it as a calculated attempt to humanize herself. However, this humorously observed account of Chelsea sitting next to Strom Thurmond could not be fabricated: “By the middle of the meal, he mused, `You’re as pretty as your mama. She’s real pretty and you’re pretty too. Yes, you are, and if I was seventy years younger, I’d court you!’”
Unfortunately, not enough of the book is this candid. Instead, anecdotes that begin as benign or offer personal insight inevitably become entrenched in American Dream-type sentimentality or self-congratulatory musing on policy successes. For example: “Now I was free to hike with Bill and Chelsea through meadows of late summer wildflowers…and explore nearby Yellowstone National Park…Whenever I visit one of our national parks, I’m reminded of how our country has been blessed with such abundant natural resources….we have to be caretakers of a healthy, balanced environment.”
It seems that sometimes Hillary wants to tell us a vivid, detailed story, and starts it—but then omits the juicy details for fear that expressing preferences or giving details could offend someone. This diplomatic fear is present in scenes featuring prominent Washington names like Newt Gingrich and Al D’Amato, but also in things as innocuous as descriptions of life at Camp David: “At dinner we voted on which movie to watch that night in the camp’s theater, and in the event of a tie, or strong dissent, we sometimes ran a double feature.” Okay, so give us some movie titles! Omitting details makes for simply useless sentences. So many times while reading I wanted to mark in red pen: “What is the purpose of this sentence?”
The “what is the purpose here?” theme could also be applied to Hillary’s personal role, unwitting and undesired but clearly exploited for the purposes of this book, as a feminist icon. Gloria Steinem might call her an Uncle Tom, but I am more forgiving. Hillary has done groundbreaking things for women in her time— one of only 27 women in her Yale Law class of 239, first woman lawyer at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, and then first woman partner— and has lived through a time of true social upheaval. She chose to direct her energy toward changing the system from within. Yet, whether or not you are sympathetic to that perspective, it is hard not to be frustrated, if you are a feminist, at her seemingly half-hearted radicalism. Sure, she kept the “Rodham,” but it’s nowhere in Chelsea’s name. Sure, she “shocked” Bill’s Southern, false-eyelash-wearing mother in 1974 with her “jeans, workshirts,” lack of makeup, and “strange Yankee ideas,” but when she became First Lady, Hillary realized her appearance would be under public scrutiny and “loved having fun” with makeup, clothes, and hairstyles. Hillary is sharply aware of the excess scrutiny she faces, but reading this book as third millennium intellectuals, we expect her to make an explicit point, not just comment on these injustices and move on.
As for the Monica Lewinsky subplot, I found it just that— a subplot. I believe her when she says, “Bill’s standing in public opinion polls remained high. His standing with me had hit rock bottom.” She writes less about Monica and the whole sordid affair and more about the aftermath. Bill’s disclosure to her is about as hilarious as Nixon’s “mistakes were made”: “He told me for the first time that the situation was much more serious than he had previously acknowledged.” But the description of the aftermath sounds painfully genuine. They had to go on vacation although, “The last thing I wanted to do was go on vacation with Bill Clinton.” She states many times that she considered divorcing him, even though she believed that she still loved him: “Where do you turn when your best friend, the one who always helps you through hard times, is the one who wounded you?” That experience sounds so human and universal it could have come from a Judy Blume novel.
The early years of her life are far more compelling to read about, and her simple resume of accomplishments should refute claims by pundits that she is merely an opportunistic, power-hungry hypocrite. She was the first student speaker ever at a Wellesley graduation. She started grassroots campaigns for the United Way when she was 11. She went into Chicago’s South Side investigating voter fraud as a 13-year-old. She sneaked out of the house in order to protest at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. She worked her way across Alaska, sliming fish, when she was 21. She advocated foster care reform as a young lawyer. She studied children at Yale’s Child Study Center. None of this was done out of scheming or devious ambition; it was done out of blunt, naïve, conviction.
The real meat of the book lies underneath Hillary’s anecdotes and bland “learning experiences.” It is about a woman, who even as a kid growing up in Middle America, approached political involvement not as a quest for status and importance, but as a given, obvious duty for a person growing up in America. It is fascinating to read about the obstacles and challenges Hillary encounters in her life when trying, sometimes naively, to just do the things she thinks are important: like going to law school, working at a law firm (where she was told by one of her male colleagues that she could never be a partner because she “didn’t have a wife”), and living in the White House.
The book relates a time that, although recent, seems more like a nostalgic fairy tale now: a Democrat in the White House, a booming economy, and no September 11th. I hope that reading Hillary’s story not only provokes nostalgia, but inspires readers to react to current events and the impending election armed with the memory that for all Bush’s rhetoric about “American values,” two of the most enduring have been activism and dissent. Hillary has lived as though political involvement were not a hobby or a part-time job but a necessary, indispensable part of living in America. Whether you love or hate her, her story could not be more relevant to this place and this time. She might not write like Toni Morrison, but she might just have convinced 600,000 people to vote Clinton in 2008.