Review

A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton

by Carl Bernstein

The
subtitle of Carl Bernstein's book on Hillary Rodham Clinton is a
bit misleading. From the moment Hillary and Bill Clinton meet as
students at Yale Law School, A WOMAN IN CHARGE cannot help but
become their joint biography. Bernstein himself admits that their
stories are, for good or ill, inseparably entwined. I doubt there
has ever been, in all human history, a phenomenon comparable to
"Billary."

Bill Clinton's story is ancient political history by now, however.
Readers (and voters) want to know who Hillary is, how she got that
way and what she might be like as their President. Bernstein tries
very hard to answer the first two of those questions, but can only
speculate perfunctorily on the last one. His book is a formidable
compilation of detail gleaned from hundreds of interviews and
documentary sources. It covers her adolescent and college years in
great detail as well as her rise to prominence as Bill Clinton's
political career blooms. Her time in Arkansas during his years as
governor is examined, as well as her role in his campaigns (two
each) for governor and President, her difficult and not always
successful adjustment to the ways of Washington and the traumas
that nearly overwhelmed both Clintons in the White House.

Bernstein sees Hillary as a smart and strong-willed woman, a
take-charge type who learned to change her ways only through
political and personal reverses that nearly destroyed her. As a
college girl at Wellesley just getting into political activism, she
was a conciliator and a compromiser, but that changed drastically
as she entered the statewide and then the national picture.
Compromise suddenly became treason, opponents must be "demonized"
and anyone who disagreed with her felt her wrath. The woman who had
started out as a "Goldwater Girl" in 1964 soon moved to the
moderate wing of the Republican Party, flirted briefly with the
maverick candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and then became a
"designated warrior" for her husband and for Democrats --- but only
those Democrats who agreed totally with her.

Bernstein traces the failure of her national health care plan
during her husband's first term largely to Hillary herself. He
tacitly endorses the charge that it was just too complicated, and
faults Hillary for her utter unwillingness to change it. Then as
the crises pile up --- Whitewater, Travelgate, her father's death,
the suicide of her close friend Vince Foster, the Republican
electoral sweep of 1994 --- Hillary is forced to modify what
Bernstein sees as her "Messiah-like" self-perception and deal with
reality.

Then, of course, along came Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr,
endangering both Bill Clinton's presidency and the couple's
marriage. In an odd way, Bernstein feels, this devastating personal
disaster was her salvation. Her decision to stay with Bill and
fight for the public causes they both believed in transformed her
from a political liability into a plus factor. She came back from
"exile."

Bernstein had a front row seat for all this from his desk at the
Washington Post (a paper that Hillary came to loathe). He
has told most of it in minute detail, which is a virtue from the
point of view of the historical record, but a problem for the
reader. This is, after all, a thrice-told tale by now, a rehashing
of yesterday's headlines that can become tedious when the reader
knows the outcome.

It also affects the usefulness of this undeniably authoritative
book. Bernstein devotes only his last 15 or 20 pages to Hillary's
career in the U.S. Senate, and mentions her presidential
aspirations only here and there in passing. These, one would think,
are what matters most about the Hillary who would be President. For
example: If Bernstein had devoted the same kind of in-depth,
fly-on-the-wall coverage to her now-famous vote authorizing George
W. Bush to attack Iraq as he does to Whitewater and Travelgate, we
would have a much clearer picture of how she thinks and operates
today. His conclusion, in his last two pages, that she is a woman
who trims, massages and twists the truth to suit her purposes would
be much more relevant had he brought his story down to the present
more fully.

This is a valuable book, the work of an accomplished Washington
professional journalist. But for all its length and fascinating
detail, it seems too rooted in the past to be a solid guide to the
future.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton
by Carl Bernstein

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2007
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0375407669
  • ISBN-13: 9780375407666