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Bernstein on Hillary Clinton’s ambition

In his new biography, “A Woman in Charge,” Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate scandal with fellow Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, examines her political career.
/ Source: TODAY

Who is Hillary Rodham Clinton? In his new biography, “A Woman in Charge,” Carl Bernstein, who shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward for their coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post, tries to answer that question. Her follows her life from her childhood in the Midwest to her college days at Wellesley to Yale Law School, where she meets Bill Clinton, to Arkansas to the White House and to New York as a U.S. Senator. With Hillary Clinton running for president, Bernstein gives readers another perspective on her personal and public life. In the book’s prologue, he writes about how the Monica Lewinsky scandal would put her life on a new course. Here’s an excerpt:

What I did and said in the next days and weeks would influence not just Bill’s future and mine, but also America’s. As for my marriage, it hung in the balance, too, and I wasn’t at all sure which way the scale would, or should, tip. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Living History

Toward noon on February 12, 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton, wearing sensible pants, a simple top, flat shoes, and a smile, strode into her sitting room, with its majestic view of the capital’s great Mall. The meeting she was about to convene would change the course of her life and (to an extent yet to be determined) the history of her country. Since the day she had met Bill Clinton in 1970, she had stood by her man through all manner of harrowing twists and turns, including (most famously and most recently) the national out-of-body experience known as the Lewinsky affair, on this day reaching its long overdue denouement. More than a year had passed since she (and the country) had first heard the name Monica Lewinsky, a year in which her world had been turned upside down, and Washington with it. Now Hillary Clinton was about to cut loose — though not from her marriage, necessarily, or from Washington, or from her tether to the national consciousness. Rather, a profound alteration in her relationship to all three was reaching critical mass: she was moving toward a final decision on whether to run for the United States Senate from the state of New York, where she had never lived, and to become the first first lady to run for office.

Downstairs in the Oval Office, the president was receiving reports from aides glued grimly to television pictures of the chamber to which his wife aspired. As the Senate’s one hundred members were called to order by the chief justice of the United States, the relative solemnity of the occasion was indicated by the special robes William H. Rehnquist had designed for himself to wear at the president’s trial. Their gold embroidered, striped, and ruffled sleeves had been inspired, appropriately, by a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

On each senator’s desk lay a red leather folder containing the formal, printed charges — perjury and obstruction of justice — against the president, and a tally sheet to track the vote. The result of the roll call about to begin was a foregone conclusion. A two-thirds majority was required to convict, and it was known that only Republicans would cast ballots in favor: forty-five on the first charge, fifty on the second. Clinton, the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives since Andrew Johnson in 1868, would be acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanors. Clinton would survive in office due principally to the actions of his wife, just as their tangled relationship — more than any other factor, arguably — was central to his being impeached in the first place.

Seven years later, Bill Clinton was trying to figure out what to do with his life. She, meanwhile, was trying to become president. After a single term in the Senate, she had transformed herself from first lady–cuckold to the most talked about and important leader of her party, the most polarizing politician in the land, a senator like no other, a celebrity like no other, taking the country on another wild Clintonian ride as she became close to omnipresent in what passed for sociopolitical dominance — on TV, in arguments every night at dinner tables all over America, in the foreign press, among her Senate colleagues, in the precincts of the supposed vast right-wing conspiracy that had tried to kill Clintonism. By the time of her overwhelming reelection to the Senate in 2006, she had inspired a nonstop national and international dialogue about herself — her politics, her business acumen, her future, her morals, her sexuality, her religion, her looks, her marriage (still). Single-handedly, she had reanimated the enemies of Clintonism to new heights of fear and frenzy. The public attention drawn to her person, abetted by a press whose hunger she fed unabatedly, at times exceeded even that of the incumbent president, who had been declared elected in 2000 by the same chief justice who wore the Gilbert and Sullivan robes and his colleagues on the Supreme Court. George W. Bush, winner of the first presidential election in American history to be decided not by the electorate but by the judiciary, had prevailed following a campaign promising voters that he would restore honor and traditional American values to the White House after its desecration by the Clintons. Plural.

Yet, as the disastrous presidency of her husband’s successor neared expiration, Hillary Clinton, in a nation besotted with celebrity, had come to a prominence unique in her time — settling in a rarefied place never populated even by FDR, Princess Diana, Ike, Oprah, or Eleanor Roosevelt as, in a great cacophony, people from every station and walk of life (plus talk show hosts and the National Enquirer) fulminated, debated, and screamed at one another about her. Those abroad asked Americans they encountered: Who is she? Do you like her? Will she become president? Is she gay? Meanwhile, she continued to play the U.S. Senate like a flute, charming her colleagues on both sides of the aisle, raising record funds for members of her own party (and preparing the financial ground for her own presidential campaign), entertaining the troops in Iraq, and carefully supporting their mission while looking for ways to separate herself from the policies of the president who sent them there, and from her own vote that had helped dispatch them.

In all this, Bill Clinton had become her biggest booster as, roles now reversed, the gears of the Clinton apparat shifted and another Clinton sought the presidency. He was now a constant presence in the background as her counsel, consultant, strategist, and, finally, the elemental part of her process as a woman in charge.

A few minutes after the Senate had voted to acquit her husband and the thump of the chief justice’s gavel had ended his trial in the Capitol, Hillary had finished up her meeting in the White House with Harold Ickes. Hillary and Ickes, her unofficial deputy, had been the architects of successful strategies to save the Clinton presidency at various points. It had been Hillary, who, at the darkest moment, while others were floundering, had assigned a fanatically loyal entourage of men and women to report Sunday mornings to plan for the battle ahead as the impeachment process hurtled down the tracks, braked in a deafening screech, and came to a halt in the Senate chamber. Ickes, the president’s former deputy chief of staff, is the son of Harold Ickes, one of the most distinguished elders of the Democratic Party. It had been Harold Sr., FDR’s confidant and secretary of the interior, who in 1945 had met with Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after her husband’s death to urge her to enter electoral politics and run for governor in New York. After intense examination, political and emotional, she had rejected the idea.

Ickes Sr., like his son, had been equally close to the president and first lady, and had helped Eleanor adjust to the hatred and enmity engendered by her principles, politics, and participation in the presidency of her husband — the last Democratic president to be elected and reelected before Bill Clinton.

Harold Jr., a master of New York’s ice-pick-pointed politics, was ambivalent about whether Hillary should run for the Senate to succeed Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and he was forthright that afternoon about presenting all the obstacles of such a course, not least of which would be inevitable stories about the hostility (finally diminishing as Moynihan neared retirement) between the outgoing senator and the first lady. In the end, Harold Jr. had a much more willing and motivated candidate than his father had had a half century earlier with Eleanor — whom Hillary Clinton idolized. Hillary was seeking not just a seat in the Senate, but redemption: hers, her husband’s, and the Clinton presidency’s.

The years of the Clinton presidency delineated what many friends and associates regarded as the most profound difference of character between Hillary and Bill Clinton: her capacity for personal growth and change. “Emotionally, he’s still the same guy who got off the boat after Oxford,” a worn-out presidential assistant said as the Clintons left the White House on January 20, 2001. Hillary, sworn in January 3 as New York’s junior senator, had, on the other hand, demonstrated extraordinary capability for change and evolutionary development — from Goldwater Girl to liberal Democrat, from fashion victim to power-suit sophisticate, from embattled first lady to establishmentarian senator.

The ultimate demonstration of her ability to change was her transformation as the Lewinsky experience moved relentlessly through her life, and her decision to cut loose in its wake. She acted on “what even on its face is a preposterous idea,” said a deputy who had served both her and her husband. “A sitting first lady of the United States was going to the state of New York where she had never lived and run for the Senate — while she was in the White House. And pull[ed] it off. Every political consultant in the world would say, Preposterous, it’s goofy. Where did that come from? And she did it.”

She had never really aspired to public office, despite all the chatter in the press to the contrary over two decades, and the entreaties of close friends who wanted her to run. She had looked forward after her years as first lady to a life with books and policy advocacy, perhaps becoming a college president or the head of a foundation. Only once had she given even the briefest consideration to seeking elective office, in 1989, after she’d learned that her husband believed himself to be in love with another woman. She had thought then about divorce, and running for governor of Arkansas the following year, when his term ended. The few people who knew about that possibility said the idea was largely born of anger and hurt. Instead, Hillary and Bill had reconciled with great difficulty, and in 1991 she had told him (and he agreed) it was finally his time to run for president, that he could win in 1992.

After he had won, Hillary intimated to her closest friend, Diane Blair, that once in the White House, her husband’s sexual compulsions — the source of so much of her rage and anguish over the years — would by necessity be tempered by the office itself; if not by the grandeur of the presidency, then by the fact that he would be locked up in the White House, a golden cage with the nosiest press corps in the world constantly on the prowl.

Inevitably, when the impeachment ugliness arrived, like so many of the crises and battles of their life together, she and their relationship were at its root, the underlying factors, the unstated casus belli, at home and in the Congress — Lewinsky was only the most recent catalyst. The impeachment of the president was a direct reflection of the choices she had made, the compromises she had accepted, however reluctantly, and the enmity engendered by their grand designs, successes, and failures.

Robert S. Bennett, Bill Clinton’s lawyer in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, which had led to the special prosecutor’s discovery of Monica Lewinsky, said later that the outcome of the Jones matter ultimately turned on what he called “the Hillary question.” Bennett was certain that his client had refused to heed sensible legal counsel and settle out of court with Jones (who claimed that Clinton, without invitation, had exposed himself to her) only out of fear of Hillary’s wrath and abandonment. The president, his other women, Hillary, and the Clinton presidency had become inextricably intertwined.

Hillary, too, had instinctively recognized the dangers in the Jones case and that something ruinous lay underneath, portending the further destruction of the Clintons’ carefully constructed world. Not many days before the suit was filed in court against her husband, Hillary telephoned Bill’s former Arkansas chief of staff, Betsey Wright, and, her voice breaking, begged that a way be found to head off further legal process. But the Clintons’ enemies had by then taken control of the case. Her husband had dug himself in, the case went forward, and the predictable dynamic of the Clinton marriage in extremis took over once again: Bill didn’t dare acknowledge to his wife that something had transpired with Jones, so he rolled the dice and risked his presidency on the outcome —j ust as he would when he denied for months that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

As those who knew the Clintons best could testify, this was for him the only way forward. Hillary was the one person he could not do without, the single irreplaceable part of his past, his process, and his presidency — and his heart.

In the course of the twenty-two years that took them from Yale Law School to the governorship of Arkansas to the presidency, the Clintons had formed their politics, a very specific set of values and calculations arrived at from their separate experiences, expertise, and backgrounds: joined, tempered, and perfected in endless discussion, always with the understanding that they were on a journey together. And though her intellectual firepower was not nearly as spectacular as his, and her political instincts could be clumsy, she was in every sense his political partner, the person with whom he discussed every significant matter of policy, strategy, ideology, or ambition.

In the summer of 1974, a week after her work had ended (with Richard Nixon’s resignation) as a staff member of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry, she had packed her belongings into a Volkswagen and leftWashington to join Bill in Arkansas, to partake in his campaign for election to the U.S. Congress. It had taken her another year to make up her mind to marry him, knowing full well that the odds of his becoming monogamous could be less favorable than his becoming president. Almost all her close friends had tried to dissuade her: Could she really live in backwater Arkansas while he pursued a political career there? Was she really willing to tie her fate to his future and abandon her own potential as a political supernova? How could this square with the feminism of the era? To all these questions she always answered, “I love him,” and reminded herself that he was the most dazzling person she—or her friends (who conceded the point almost universally)—had ever met.

Bill and Hillary’s marriage would prove to be an uninterrupted dialogue of ideas and aspirations and a lasting love—often punctuated by passionate argument. Her counsel was the constant of his method and political development, though in the Little Rock governor’s mansion and later the White House he would, on occasion, sometimes to her frustration, follow a course at variance from the one she advised.

The “Journey”—their term—was at once endlessly romantic and unapologetically ambitious, a trek across the political landscape in which they intended to inspire the expansion of their country’s social consciousness, based on their own ideas and ideals, and those of their generation. There is no question, judging from their own words and those of their friends, that since their courtship, each had come to regard the other as the brightest star in their universe; that this fusion of energy and purpose was never just about him, but about them and the art of the possible. They would change the American story. To their opponents and enemies, who grew ever more numerous and outraged as the Clintons marched toward the summit, seemingly unbowed by humiliation and unfazed by peril, ambush, and attacks that would have felled lesser mortals, their journey was an act of hubris such as modern American politics had never witnessed.

When the definitive history of the Clinton journey is written, its Thucydides will be hard pressed not to portray the White House years 1993–2000 as a co-presidency. The concept was at first proudly proclaimed by candidate Clinton at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in 1992; then hastily retracted as impolitic; and, in the early days of his presidency, stealthily put into effect—dictating, for the next eight years, the basic terms of American political life and civic amusement. Ultimately, the most essential and yet elusive dynamic of the Clinton presidency came to be the relationship between the two of them—the sand in the gears in bad times, the grease that moved the machinery in good ones, the factor that almost no one else in the White House could get a grip on. Sometimes not even the president himself knew how to handle the Hillary factor.

With the notable exception of her husband’s libidinous carelessness, the most egregious errors, strategic and tactical, of the Bill Clinton presidency, particularly in its infancy, were traceable to Hillary—not just her botched handling of their health care agenda, or the ethical cloud hovering like a pall over their administration, but so many of the stumbles and falls responsible for sweeping in the Congress led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 and ending the ambitious phase of their presidency, as well as what had seemed almost a permanent Democratic congressional majority, in place with irregular interruptions since FDR. The inept staffing of the White House, the disastrous serial search for an attorney general, the Travel Office fiasco, the Whitewater land deal, the so-called scandal over her commodities trading, the alienation of key senators and congressmen—all this can be traced in large measure to Hillary.

For the first time in American history, a president’s wife sent her husband’s presidency off the rails. At the end of two years in office, their dual administration seemed wrecked, repudiated. The first lady feared—and faced—possible indictment. Both the president and his wife were experiencing serious emotional depression. Heralded on inauguration day 1992 as an icon, yet endlessly beset by enemies, she now found herself loathed not only by right-wing zealots, but by millions of voters who had never registered Republican. In the capital, she was loved by few and feared by many more. While Bill sought solace in his familiar escapes, she read the Bible of her Methodist childhood and considered anew the explicit message of service in John Wesley’s teaching: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as ever you can.” She dabbled in New Age spiritualism, almost always carried with her an underlined and dog-eared book of celestial axioms, and welcomed into the White House Solarium a pair of feminist oracles who channeled her into Eleanor Roosevelt’s soul. All of this as she found herself—unimaginably to her—with no choice but to remove herself (or be removed) from the White House chain of command before two full years had passed. She then fled Washington for weeks at a stretch as she sought purpose and redemption in solidarity with women of the Third World.

Her climb back—and his—was long and arduous, but abetted by Gingrich’s arrogance, which brought about a government shutdown (which produced Monica Lewinsky’s pizza delivery service), the Clintons triumphed magnificently with Bill’s overwhelming reelection in 1996, something few political analysts would have predicted in the gloom left behind. A few months later, the special prosecutor who had pursued them for two years announced he was leaving Washington (and his sputtering investigation) to become a law school dean in Malibu, California.

At her husband’s second inaugural on January 20, 1997, the Journey finally seemed back on track, a repudiation of those who had hounded and harassed them, and a powerful endorsement by the American people for the policies and politics of the Clintons.

A year later, disaster arrived. The Washington Post, The Drudge Report, and ABC News reported that the reinvigorated special prosecutor, having been persuaded on grounds of unseemliness not to retire before the formal end of his investigation, had belatedly discovered that the president had been having an affair with a White House intern for sixteen months, and he had allegedly lied and conspired about it under oath in a deposition taken in the Paula Jones case. That afternoon, as the firestorm threatened to consume his presidency, Bill Clinton confided to a trusted adviser that he was not sure he could survive the week in office, and that he would probably be forced to resign. But his wife had gone on television six days later, on NBC’s Today show, and lent connubial credence to his contention that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,

Ms. Lewinsky.” Her support as a wife saved his presidency. She had done much the same thing in the presidential campaign of 1992, appearing on CBS’s 60 Minutes to assure the nation that another of her husband’s supposed lovers was a piece of trailer trash (as she called Gennifer Flowers in semiprivate) trying to turn a tabloid trick and land a book deal.

Almost alone among her family and friends and his aides, Hillary actually believed his protestations about this latest and most devastating allegation of his infidelity, believed him for the next seven months, until he’d had his lawyer prepare her for the rumbling ground beneath, and then (on the same day that he confessed to the nation and the world) informed her that he had (once again) lied.

And again, at perhaps the lowest point of both their lives, she had rescued him, intent on redeeming their legacy. First, tentatively, she had decided to stay in the marriage. She had brought in ministers of divinity and psychological counselors to attend him. Then she had thrown her weight and intellect into the battle to survive the impeachment crusade. In her fury and anguish she was convinced he had undermined virtually all they (and the Clinton presidency) had achieved together. Yet her credentials—as his wife, as a lawyer, and as a political strategist uniquely positioned to salvage the Clinton epoch—were unimpeachable. “Everything I had learned [working on] the Watergate investigation convinced me that there were no grounds to impeach Bill,” she wrote later.

Seen in the light of all these events, Hillary’s ascent after her husband’s presidency seems all the more remarkable.

Excerpted from “A Woman in Charge” by Carl Bernstein. Copyright 2007 Carl Bernstein. Reprinted with the permission from the publisher, Knopf.