- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

Living History

by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Simon & Schuster $28

562 pages, Illus

A presidential candidate has to have money, name recognition, a power base, an overwhelming ego and a passionate conviction in his (or her) personal ability. Hillary Clinton has all that. If only she would toss one of her unfashionable hats into the ring next year. (Maybe she has.)

She’s going to be with us anyway. If she runs she would get the dissection she deserves, not simply suck-up questions from Barbara Walters, Katie Couric and Larry King. She would unite Republicans of all persuasions, bring out a knuckle-baring debate from those hapless Democratic candidates who can’t get traction. We would all enjoy it a lot more than a ghost-written, self-serving book that teases with anecdotes of her salad days but leaves us with Walter Mondale’s famous question: “Where’s the beef?”

No one’s buying “Living History” to learn why Hillary Clinton made such a hash of her husband’s health-care initiative. Nor do we expect her to dump on her husband. We’re all sick of that. We already knew how she wanted to wring his neck. She’s got all her lines down pat.

She says she stood by her man because it was “right” for her. I believe her. Everything Hillary does she does because it’s “right” for her. Even her ridiculous assertion that the stories about Bill and Monica were the fantasies of a “vast right-wing media conspiracy” was “right” for her. It accomplished exactly what she wanted it to do — defuse the moment when the “Bill and Monica story” went public.

The truth was irrelevant. That’s the way it always has been with the Clintons.

Hillary is a phenomenon for our times. She’s lived more lives than Shirley MacLaine. She catalogues some of them in her first paragraph: Democrat, lawyer, advocate for women’s rights, wife, mother. Now she’s a senator.

Watching Hillary during her days of humiliation in the White House, I was convinced that she had to hate her husband. He made a sick joke of their marriage and cheapened the Oval Office as a sordid chapter in the history of his presidency. But watching her shill for “Living History” persuades me that her Faustian bargain with Bill is as strong today as it was when she went on “60 Minutes” to (apologies here to Tammy Wynette) stand by her man.

I can’t imagine two people more suited to each other than Bill and Hillary. He wiggles around the meaning of “is,” making legalisms of his lies about his love life, and she characterizes him as an irresistible Viking lover.

Neither shows the slightest interest in asking questions of an ethical nature. The medieval morality play meets reality television. In both morality play and reality television, characters wear masks hiding their lusts, titillating audiences with larger-than-life venalities. Moral understanding resides in the audience, not in the players. They act, we watch.

The audience interprets action according to its own perceptions of vice and virtue. Some in the audience envy the Clintons, their power and celebrity, cheering them on to exploit it for more power and celebrity. Others judge them for how they’ve used it.

They see vices writ large. Bit players come and go to swell a scene or two, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “Hamlet.” Think Sidney Blumenthal and Dick Morris. But Hillary and Bill remain always on center stage, playing to the audience for love and for laughs and get both in abundance. They live in the age of the big screen.

Hillary writes that one appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” generated more public attention for her than any of the serious speeches she gave on the issues and that ultimately determined her run for the Senate. We can believe that, too.

There’s a long list of what’s missing from “Living History,” from explanations for the “discovery” of the Rose Law Firm billing records to her interpretation of the selling of the pardons on Bill’s last day in office. What’s missing is less important than what’s here, a stale tale only occasionally enlivened with personal anecdotes about a woman who’s ambitious and careful in positioning herself for a run for the presidency, whether in 2008 — or next year.

The defining image she leaves is one from the videotape she made for the Gridiron dinner she couldn’t attend because she was traveling in South Asia in 1995. It was written by Al Franken, a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” a parody of Hillary playing Forrest Gump, sitting on a park bench in front of the White House with a box of candy on her lap.

“My mama always told me the White House is like a box of chocolates,” she writes of her imitation of Tom Hanks. “It’s pretty on the outside, but inside there’s lots of nuts.” Each time the camera returns to her on the bench she’ s wearing a different wig, satirizing her oft-changing hairstyles. “At the end of the spoof Bill did a walk-on cameo. He sat next to me on the bench and took my box of chocolates, offering me one piece in return, then asking if he could have some French fries.” The skit got a standing ovation. It was funny. It captured the First Couple just as they’re portrayed in this book: slick, amusing, diverting.

When Hillary called Bill to ask about her performance she was delighted to hear that her act was a huge success. “Few other things we tried to do in Washington,” she writes, “went as smoothly.” She’s right about that. But the reasons why they didn’t aren’t here.

Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, is nationally syndicated.

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