- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2007

An accurate image of a political leader usually emerges only after retirement. The cheers have fallen off, and so too the groans and the spitballs. Certainly this has been the case with Ronald Reagan. Two decades after his last farewell he is no longer portrayed as that “amiable dunce” napping in the White House and dreaming of the perfect mushroom cloud rising over Moscow’s “evil empire.” So, those of us who in the 1990s perceived the Clintons as corrupt, self-seeking and amusingly absurd, should not be surprised that it has taken mainstream journalists a decade to come to the same conclusion.

Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta have arrived at this conclusion in their biography of Sen. Hillary Clinton, and so has Carl Bernstein in his, though none of these writers is amused, amusement being an impossibility for the stuffy mainstream journalist.

To be sure, the authors soften their sour judgments with incongruous compliments. After duly reporting the scandals and legislative barrenness that led to Mr. Clinton’s 1994 electoral debacle, Gerth-Van Natta heave in this bouquet of plastic roses: “[T]he Clinton presidency had also seen remarkable success in its first two years.” After chronicling probably the most disastrous first year of any presidency, Mr. Bernstein salutes the 42nd president’s “enormous talent, good heart, and humane and brilliant politics.” The Democrats were about to suffer one of the worst off-year elections ever.

“Her Way” and “A Woman in Charge” are meant to be biographies of Hillary, but as I discovered in writing my own recent book on Bill in retirement, a biographer cannot write about one Clinton without writing about the other. Their lives have been tightly intertwined for four decades, and always in the same pursuits, the limelight and high office. Essentially the portraits you get here of Bill (now in a secondary role) and Hillary (now in an apprehensive primary role — where was Bill last night?) are the portraits presented for years in this newspaper and in the American Spectator. We are vindicated, though almost never cited in either book.

Bill comes off as cunning, mendacious, agreeable but volatile. He blows his top rather frequently — even more frequently in retirement. Hillary is cunning, mendacious and pained. Like another ungainly public figure, Richard Nixon, it has not been easy for her to appear at ease in public. She is, as both books report, vindictive and troubled. I came away from these books with a renewed awareness of how stupendously messy the Clintons’ lives have been. Since the 1980s, they have been distracted by financial disorders, romantic disorders and always political disorders. Is there any disorder I have left out?

As these books were rolling into bookstores, the Clintons’ attack team launched a pre-emptive assault, inveighing that nothing in them was new. That is not actually true. There are new examples of the Clintons’ baseness and brutality toward opponents. In fact, that the mainstream journalists are finally reporting the Clintons’ excesses is momentously new. Gerth-Van Natta discover Hillary presiding over a “Defense Team” to cover up revelations made in the 1992 race about her husband’s draft records, love life and other errancies. Mr. Bernstein stars in revealing Hillary’s role in managing the Whitewater controversy.

There are other mysteries in these books. Gerth-Van Natta only passingly mention the origin of Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, the Troopergate story’s reference to “Paula.” They validate earlier assertions that Vince Foster committed suicide in part because of Hillary’s sudden remoteness from what had been her old and intimate friend. Left unreported by Gerth-Van Natta is that the two had been lovers. Mr. Bernstein mentions “rumors” of intimacy but dismisses them without allowing readers access to the sources for these “rumors,” namely eyewitness accounts from Clinton bodyguards.

There are other stories in these books that are not fully fleshed out by the known facts. Marilyn Jo Jenkins, whom Mr. Bernstein describes as a sufficiently serious love in Mr. Clinton’s life for him to consider divorce, is set out on the page with important details missing.

Both of these books are very stingy about giving credit to earlier reports of the Clintons’ essential roguishness. Possibly this is because these reporters chastely averted their gaze throughout the 1990s. Yet now they have caught up, and they are giving their readers an accurate image of the Clintons. Readers of this newspaper had that a decade ago.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator, is the author of “The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House.”