Two Mirrors on the Clinton Years

By Richard S. Dunham


By Sidney Blumenthal

Straus & Giroux -- 822pp -- $30


By Hillary Rodham Clinton

Farrar, Simon & Schuster -- 562pp -- $28

During Bill Clinton's two terms in the White House, his enemies kept the spotlight on his ethical shortcomings -- alleged and real. At the time, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton blamed a "vast right-wing conspiracy." But now, it's Mrs. Clinton and one of the family's most spirited defenders who are keeping those hoary tales alive.

Two memoirs have hit the stands just weeks apart. Journalist-turned-Clinton-adviser Sidney Blumenthal's The Clinton Wars is a lengthy and often acrid reinterpretation of the cutthroat policy battles and scandal-mongering of the era. In Living History, Hillary Clinton eschews such details and presents an impressionistic portrait of an unlikely political life. Clinton relies largely on anecdotes to create a soft-focus picture: an idealistic suburban Chicago girl whose political journey began as a supporter of Republicans Richard M. Nixon and Barry Goldwater but who was transformed by the turbulent '60s and a charismatic Arkansan.

Both books are self-serving -- but they serve different purposes. Blumenthal's obvious goal is to settle scores with Clinton's many detractors, including, in no particular order, Kenneth Starr, Newt Gingrich, Alfonse D'Amato, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge, Paula Jones, Dick Morris, Henry Hyde, and a gaggle of investigative reporters who picked up on leaks by the Enemies of Bill. Reading The Clinton Wars is like watching professional wrestling: If you're a Clinton fan, you enjoy seeing the villains get their comeuppance. If you're a Clinton hater, you seethe at how an abject apologist for the bad guys uses questionable tactics to hurt your heroes. Either way, it's entertaining, even though Blumenthal is sometimes sloppy with his facts. (He incorrectly describes Gingrich as House Minority Leader, a position he never held, and says Ronald Reagan selected the first George Bush to be Vice-President in 1984, not 1980.)

Hillary Clinton -- now a New York Senator widely believed to harbor Presidential ambitions -- has a very different goal. Yes, she settles a few grievances and directs some partisan zingers at old foes. But while Blumenthal is looking back with anger, she is looking forward with studied equanimity. She's clearly aiming to reintroduce herself to the American public on her terms. Ever since she burst onto the public stage in 1991, amid the infamous "bimbo eruptions" of her husband's first Presidential campaign, Senator Clinton has been defined by the news media and her enemies. This memoir is her best opportunity to date to alter the images: Lady Macbeth, Joan of Arc, feminist extremist, ambitious carpetbagger, aggrieved wife who made a Faustian bargain.

To accomplish that, she chooses not to wallow in Whitewater nor mope about Monica. Instead, she skillfully creates a new political image of her own. And while Living History is never going to be mistaken for a literary masterpiece, it is surprisingly readable for a political memoir, a genre that is often stiflingly boring. Her prose, polished by a team of six credited helpers, is competent and sometimes chatty, though occasionally dense. It bogs down when the author turns to such policy issues as health care and welfare reform.

But Senator Clinton's book is mainly about herself, not her agenda. And for someone who has been tight-lipped about her private life, a personal memoir represents a challenge. The senator lifts the veil through a process of selective candor.

Dozens of stories provide bits of insights into Hillary Clinton's complex psyche. And for many readers, they just might succeed in melting away the image of the Ice Queen. You read about her mother, a child of divorce who was raised by a rigid Victorian grandmother. You learn of the young Republican Rodham who investigated voting fraud on Chicago's South Side, trying to prove that Mayor Richard J. Daley stole the 1960 election for Democrat John F. Kennedy. You see how a lecture by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. opened her eyes to civil rights, and how "a Viking from Arkansas" (her description of the red-bearded Bill Clinton of Yale Law School days) became the love of her life. And you read, time and again, how she was so angry at her husband's cheating and lying that she spent months contemplating a divorce from the President of the United States.

The result is a more human view of a well-known yet not well-understood public figure. Beneath the tough veneer lies a sometimes brittle ego. Time and again, her own mistakes and her enemies' allegations send her into funks. The ice melts, a bit at a time.

Senator Clinton's candor has its limits, however. She shrouds daughter Chelsea in "a zone of privacy," recounting precious few of their discussions and omitting entirely their talk of Monica Lewinsky. And her recollection of how she discovered her husband's affair with the intern contradicts earlier media accounts. (She says he told her; press reports say she learned earlier from a lawyer.)

Living History has confounded the skeptics by becoming an instant best-seller. If the book's popularity is any example, Hillary Rodham Clinton could be a potent, if divisive, Presidential candidate. The media, and the vast right-wing conspiracy, would do well not to underestimate her. Again.

Dunham covers the White House.

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