Book Review, Hilary Rodham Clinton, Living History

Reading Between the Lines
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Living History (Simon and Schuster, 2003), 562 pages, $28
American Outlook, December 15, 2003
by George W. Liebmann
This campaign autobiography is Mrs. Clinton’s effort to establish that she knows “how Congress really works” and that she “developed relationships with foreign leaders.”
In her acknowledgments, buried at the rear of the book, she thanks three associates for “spending two years of their lives working with me”; two lawyers, not part of the average author’s equipage, who “provid[ed] wise and practical counsel;” and three hundred other persons. This is not a work which will go on the shelf with The Education of Henry Adams (1918) or the first volume of George Kennan’s memoirs. On the contrary, Living History is as meretricious as a book can get.
It begins with an account of a gritty and tense family background. Mrs. Clinton complies with the Fifth Commandment, but leaves little doubt that, unlike Harry Truman, she is not one of Burke’s ‘natural aristocrats,’ endowed with “habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction.” “The gender gap started in families like mine,” Mrs. Clinton writes, “My dad was highly opinionated, to put it mildly.” In high school and college, she was a politician, conforming to the prevailing zeitgeists. No teacher made an impression, though she admired the radical activist Saul Alinsky, who promoted a confrontational politics not scrupulous about means. She was of the generation who studied law, in the late constitutional scholar Philip Kurland’s phrase, “to sharpen their weapons”—not out of a conviction that the law had important and useful values of its own.
Wellesley was succeeded by Yale Law School, at that time under the influence of the “policy studies” school, which was uninterested in law as an autonomous discipline. She was part of a generation which, in Clarence Thomas’ words, “majored in protest”; Michael Walzer predicted that there would ultimately be “hell to pay” for the failure of the universities to maintain their standards and the indifference of the young to what universities had to give. No great book made an impress on Mrs. Clinton’s thinking. She became involved with Marian Edelman’s “anti-poverty advocacy,” leading her to write some articles on children’s rights. “Who would have predicted,” Mrs. Clinton declares, “that . . . Marilyn Quayle and Pat Buchanan would twist my words to portray me as ‘anti-family.’” She neglects to acknowledge that cultural historian Christopher Lasch, no right-winger, after exploration of these writings (listed in the New York Review of Books for March 5, 1992), declared that Mrs. Clinton was “opposed to the principle of parental authority in any form” (Harper’s, October 1992).

In the summer she “clerk[ed] at Treuhaft, Walker, and Burnstein, a small law firm in Oakland. . . . I spent most of my time working for Mal Burnstein.” She does not tell us that Robert Treuhaft—an engaging person, according to his recent British obituaries—was until 1958 an activist in the Communist Party, and that she befriended his like-minded wife, Jessica Mitford. Clemenceau famously observed that he would disown his son if he were not a Communist at twenty-five or were still one at thirty, a principle running in favor of daughters also. Mrs. Clinton was no Communist, but her involvement with the Old Left was deep and prolonged; it is she who chooses to present her career as a seamless web.
She proceeded to work on George McGovern’s presidential campaign, helped Edelman to foster the federal special education law, with its adverse effect on school discipline, and sought to curtail the tax exemptions of Southern private schools. On the House Impeachment Committee, her one-sided rules roused the ire of permanent staff. She believed the Nixon pardon was the right decision—but this did not keep her husband from assailing it as “another blow to that vast body of law-abiding Americans whose faith in equal justice under law has been shaken.”
Mrs. Clinton next joined the board of the New World Foundation, which funded the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and the conspiracy-mongering Christic Institute; this, too, goes unmentioned. She notes only in passing her chairmanship of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Because the LSC enjoyed immunity from private lawsuits, it disregarded statutory limitations on its activities, contributed to referendum campaigns, subsidized the NLG, and encouraged its grantees to make large political contributions, resulting in an unmentioned adverse report by the General Accounting Office.
As chairman of the Children’s Defense Fund, she opposed tax credits for private nurseries while championing a federal daycare program. This delayed enactment of assistance for nearly ten years.
As to her commodities and Whitewater investments, Mrs. Clinton writes that others “stayed in the market longer and lost a good deal of the monies they had made,” suggesting that she had indeed been allocated profitable trades by insiders. “The large return . . . never became the focus of a serious investigation,” she writes, reminiscent of the Maryland governor whose staff provided him with a commemorative plaque bearing the text of the Statute of Limitations. Her attitude toward investments was aptly described by former New York Times editor Joseph Lelyveld: to Mrs. Clinton, “noncriminal investments are the same as scrupulous and appropriate investments . . . [these were] attempts to make fast money with minimal investment and effort, involving in each case the support of good friends who needed access to state government.”

Mrs. Clinton writes that her husband’s failure to run for president in 1988 “came down to one word: Chelsea,” nothing being said of fear of “bimbo eruptions” after the demise of Gary Hart’s campaign on similar allegations. The accusations of Gennifer Flowers in 1992 are “a whale of a tale” according to Mrs. Clinton, though their core was confirmed by Mr. Clinton later in sworn testimony. One’s sympathy with Mrs. Clinton renders inexplicable her unmentioned award to Anita Hill for her “courage in coming forward” to make sexual allegations against Judge Clarence Thomas. (Ms. Hill, of course, was quite unwillingly dragged forward by eager Senate staffers, as was shown in the underpublicized report on leaks prepared by a Democratic Washington lawyer, Peter Fleming.)
Mrs. Clinton rightly deplores the use of sexual defamation, which, as sociologist David Riesman and historian William Sheridan Allen have shown, was a technique in Hitler’s rise to power and capture of the German General Staff. Whether such accusations are true or false matters little; the effect is to render their target an object of ridicule. But Mrs. Clinton left the Thomas hearings with unclean hands, which surely fuelled the later exploitation of her husband’s peccadilloes.
Of the White House years, she grandiosely proclaims, “While Bill talked about social change, I embodied it. I had my own opinions, interests, and profession. I represented a fundamental change.” Her book discusses various First Ladies, including Abigail Adams, Dolly Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, and the Mesdames. Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Even Helen Taft and Edith Wilson make the cut. Conspicuously absent, however, is Lou Henry Hoover, who received a degree in mining engineering from Stanford, translated a Roman treatise on that subject from the Latin, was the only woman to remain in China during the Boxer Rebellion (because of her command of Mandarin Chinese), and made girl scouting into a national movement. Hers was a life not worth remembering by Mrs. Clinton, however, who observes, “In my own life, I have been a wife, mother, daughter, sister, in-law, student, lawyer, children’s rights activist, law professor, Methodist, political adviser, citizen, and so much else.”
Once again avowing concern for her daughter Chelsea’s privacy, Mrs. Clinton writes that she “agree[d] to a People magazine story complete with a cover photo that included Chelsea,” being “persuaded by the argument that most Americans didn’t even know we had a child.” Regarding Chelsea’s education, Mrs. Clinton writes:
The decision for me and Bill rested on one fact: Private schools were private property, hence off limits to the news media. Public schools were not. The last thing we wanted was television cameras and news reporters following our daughter throughout the school day, as they had when President Carter’s daughter, Amy, attended public school.
But Amy Carter had no such experience, and many public schools are so security-conscious that they require entrants to pass through metal detectors. Elsewhere, she unblushingly opposes education vouchers, claiming that “our public school system . . . brings together children of all races, religions, and backgrounds.”
Mrs. Clinton’s book has, in fact, 133 index references to her child, no doubt a record in a politician’s autobiography. Were most mothers to reproduce several dozen anecdotes of adolescence in a bestselling book, their offspring would feel victimized. Hannah Arendt once expressed sympathy for children of the famous, who “often turn out badly, [lacking] a place of security where they can grow.” This concern is here subordinated to Mrs. Clinton’s perceived need to prove that she is a mammal and not (as some allege) a reptile.

Of health care she notes that “Bill . . . rejected the single-payer and Medicare models, preferring a quasi-private system called ‘managed competition.’” She misleadingly describes her famous health-care task force as “comprising . . . six hundred people from different government agencies, Congress, and health-care groups, and including physicians. . . .” Because of its secrecy, litigation ensued; in defending it, she maintained that only government employees had participated, proclaiming her disregard of Justice Cardozo’s admonition “When the task before one is that of cleaning house, it is prudent as well as usual to take counsel of the dwellers.”
Mrs. Clinton’s closest adviser in this matter was Ira Magaziner, a “friend of Bill” with a career of grandiose fiascos, who famously proclaimed that “complexity is our ally.” Whereas the British Health Service Act and the Social Security Act were only a few pages long because, in Judge Learned Hand’s phrase, they “proliferated a purpose,” Mrs. Clinton’s creation weighed in at 1,342 pages. Predictably, she blames its demise on the Republican leadership and “right-wing radio hosts,” further declaring that “the ongoing Whitewater investigation . . . was about undermining the progressive agenda.” Hence, she tells us, “health-care faded with barely a whimper.” In fact, the proposal was debated for many days in the Senate, where provisions were roundly denounced by prominent Democrats such as Boren, Breaux, Bradley, and Moynihan.
The plan would have exploded demand while restricting the supply of specialists, an absurdity that attracted the ire of Moynihan. Reliance on federal controls presupposed the creation of new agencies, which was ridiculed in a famous diagram prepared by Senator Arlen Specter. Financial estimates pretended that the only new revenue needed was a cigarette tax, which caused the Democratic director of the Congressional Budget Office, Robert Reischauer, to administer the coup de grace. Finally, the Clintons’ “managed competition” model ran roughshod over the professional autonomy of doctors, many of whom, by contrast, had supported the 1911 and 1948 reforms in Britain.
Mrs. Clinton credits herself with “the ‘Hillary factor,’ the purposeful restraint on price increases by medical providers . . . during the nineties.” This resulted from the stampede of terrified doctors into managed care plans; the upshot was professional regimentation and a return of medical inflation when the public’s reaction to private-sector medical rationing set in.
Her treatment of other episodes is equally disingenuous. Of Waco, Mrs. Clinton writes, “An independent investigation concluded that the Branch Davidian leadership was responsible for the fires and gunshots that resulted in so many deaths.” In fact, the Danforth investigation was charged to determine only whether there was criminal activity by federal officers, not the wisdom of the behavior of the Attorney General whom Mrs. Clinton sponsored. One cannot conceive of, say, former Attorney General Edward Levi giving the directions Ms. Reno gave at Waco or in the Elian Gonzalez affair (unmentioned in this book), or of his appointing the FBI agent responsible for the killings at Ruby Ridge to the Deputy Directorship of the bureau. When discussing riots by Cuban detainees, Mrs. Clinton declares, “The situation was made worse because the Army, under a doctrine known as posse commitatus, had no police authority off the base.” Such passages are not reassuring.
Mrs. Clinton refers to “Europe’s failure to act after it had insisted that Bosnia was in its own backyard and was its own problem to solve,” failing to acknowledge that the first Bush and Clinton administrations undermined the Lisbon Agreement and two Vance-Owen peace plans by raising false hopes among the Bosnians (Lord Owen’s memoirs, scathingly critical of Madeleine Albright as UN Ambassador, are a useful corrective here), nor that the Dayton plan was less favorable to the Muslims than the plans the administration undermined.
The death of friend and White House aide Vincent Foster prompts some very slippery prose: “Two days after Vince’s death, [White House counsel] Bernie Nussbaum went to Vince’s office and, with representatives of the Justice Department and the FBI, reviewed every document there for anything that might shed light on his suicide.” What occasioned suspicion was the very fact that Nussbaum did the reviewing: the FBI, though present on the scene, was prevented from doing so. Foster’s Whitewater documents were transferred to Mrs. Clinton’s secretary, to the White House residence, and to her private attorney. “Since Vince’s office was not a crime scene, these actions were understandable, legal, and justifiable,” she writes. Most people would not employ the first and third adjectives.

Most chapters contain twenty pages of treacly prose describing minutiae of trips, followed by five pages of Kenneth Starr-bashing. (As a prosecutor, Starr, despite success in the appellate courts, displayed what a friend of mine called “an instinct for the capillaries,” by his emphasis on Clinton’s sex life rather than the treatment of potential witnesses.) Mrs. Clinton acknowledges that the president made himself the architect of his eventual impeachment “by signing the renewal of the independent counsel law sent to him by Congress. I had argued against signing the legislation unless the appointment of [previous Whitewater special prosecutor Robert] Fiske was grandfathered into the bill.” (The President had supported the bill when Senator Dole had opposed it.) She does not discuss two other self-inflicted wounds. First, the inquiry into the president’s sex life, giving rise to the perjury for which he was impeached, was made possible by Rule 415 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which the Supreme Court had declined to adopt and which was then enacted by Congress with Clinton administration support in order to pander to feminists. Second, the Paula Jones case was ultimately settled after its dismissal by Judge Susan Wright because the Supreme Court, in the case of Burlington Industries v. Ellerth—again at the behest of the administration—adopted a wider definition of sexual harassment than that employed by Judge Wright, who would have required the plaintiff to prove adverse job effects. It was not the fear that “partisan politics again would trump law and precedent” that explains why the case was settled. All three of these laws and rules were unwise; all were supported by the Clinton administration in the faith, dramatized by Mrs. Clinton’s “grandfathering” proposal, that rules are for other people.
Mrs. Clinton writes that she encouraged two vetoes of welfare reform bills and, with respect to the bill signed in an election year, declares,
Benefits for legal immigrants should be restored completely . . . the five-year limits for lifetime benefits should be waived for people who lose jobs in a jobless economy . . . some education hours should count toward work requirements. And the states should be held accountable for how they spend welfare dollars.
These changes would gut the law by inviting entry of elderly relatives of citizens as “benefit migrants” under the family unification provisions of the immigration laws, depriving states of the ability to use common sense in allocating benefits, and destroying work incentives.
As with welfare, so with Medicare. Mrs. Clinton declares that the Republicans “vowed to cancel a scheduled decrease in Medicare premiums, effectively raising rates for seniors.” Even on its face, this is doubletalk. As the liberal journalist Elizabeth Drew observed, “The debate . . . was fraudulent on both sides. In 1995, the Clinton administration essentially took a pass on the hard questions about Medicare.”
The accounts of Mrs. Clinton’s travels during her hibernation following the health care debacle are uninteresting, except for an arresting summary of an observation of Czech president Vaclav Havel, who argued that,
Rather than uniting people in a global common culture, a mass culture in which everyone wears the same jeans, eats the same fast food, and listens to the same music doesn’t inevitably bring people closer. Rather, it can make them less secure about who they are, and as a result lead to extreme effects––including religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide––to validate and retain distinct identities.
Havel’s theory, Mrs. Clinton writes, “had particular relevance to the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe,” hence his support for devolution of political power to local communities. What Mrs. Clinton fails to appreciate is the relevance of Havel’s concerns to the domestic government of this country.
She supports, for example, proposals for state-provided day care and after-school care, which she claims “has been shown to increase achievement in reading and math; it also decreases youth violence and drug use and gives parents much-needed peace of mind.” But many important thinkers have questioned the merits of exposing children to more peer pressure. Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1929, “Parents, as a rule, are fond of their children, and do not regard them merely as material for political schemes. The State cannot be expected to have this attitude.” The British approach, since the Plowden report in 1968, has been one of encouraging parents to educate their children, not on providing “peace of mind” for employed women who are taxed into the work force.
Turning to the courts, Mrs. Clinton’s extravagant denunciation of U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist fastens on two memoranda in race cases written when Rehnquist was a law clerk to Justice Robert H. Jackson. She denounces Rehnquist’s activities as a poll-watcher, a normal part of party politics. She criticizes him for opposing school busing; in the Milliken and Spangler cases to which she refers, however, the Supreme Court merely limited its own previous excesses, which had virtually destroyed the school systems of the nation’s largest cities. She rightly ridicules the equal protection rationale employed in Bush v. Gore, but neglects to acknowledge that Rehnquist had urged the compelling proposition that a federal statute barred changing rules “in the middle of the game.” She declares, “The Supreme Court voted 5-4 on December 12 to stop a recount of votes in Florida, effectively sealing the victory for Bush.” In fact, the Court ultimately voted 7-2 in favor of holding the recount improper and 5-4 in not allowing it to go forward under a new standard. She falsely charges that, when presiding over the impeachment of President Clinton, “instead of the usual plain judicial robes, [Rehnquist] wore an outfit he had designed.” It had in fact been adopted earlier. She does not note that Rehnquist’s only significant ruling at the trial favored the president; answering Senator Harkin, he supported a test higher than lawbreaking, the view he had expressed in his 1992 book on impeachment. Rehnquist’s real vices, in Mrs. Clinton’s eyes, are that he is an authentic conservative and an exponent of horizontal and vertical division of powers, and that he was the Chief Justice of a Court whose decisions on executive privileges clipped the wings of the Clintons’ “imperial presidency.”
On abortion, Mrs. Clinton declares, “It is dangerous to give any state the power to enforce criminal penalties against women and doctors. I consider that a slippery slope to state control of reproduction.” This is clever rhetoric, which elides the fact that medicine is already heavily regulated and that pre-1973 laws penalized not women but their abortionists. Nor does she explain the Clintons’ denial of speaking rights to the pro-life governors of Pennsylvania and Kansas at the 1992 Democratic convention. She claims that she shared Mother Teresa’s “conviction that adoption was a vastly better choice than abortion for unplanned or unwanted babies.” That position implies support for counseling requirements, at least for younger women, but Mrs. Clinton is silent on this matter. She praises laws encouraging states to move children into adoption and prohibiting delaying adoptions on the basis of race, but does not describe the tepid enforcement of the Metzenbaum Act by the Clinton Health and Human Services bureaucracy (which, to be fair, has continued under the Bush administration). She lauds the adoption tax credit “we were successful in passing,” not noting that it was part of the Republicans’ Contract with America and that Speaker Newt Gingrich, an adopted child, was its most vocal partisan.
This is a sad book. Mrs. Clinton has self-discipline and is intelligent, though not as intelligent as her husband. She writes that she has long involved herself in “women’s issues.” Unfortunately, she has gotten them all wrong. In the case of health care, through neglect of professional values; in the case of child care, through a view accommodating the interests of female professionals at the expense of their less fortunate sisters. She has never supported meaningful tax credits for families with preschool children, like those in Norway and the German-speaking countries. Nor has she recognized that the nations which have most successfully reduced illegitimacy and abortion, such as the Netherlands, have done so by delivering services with the aid of churches.
This is certainly not a good book, but in one way it is an important one. Mrs. Clinton may well become the Democratic candidate for president in 2004. The timing of these memoirs and her husband’s forthcoming book compel that suspicion. Certainly her education was defective, and her current efforts at deep thinking are of a piece with her famously incoherent Wellesley commencement speech: “Already we know that all human beings are 99.9 percent genetically the same, which has important implications for our peaceful coexistence in an all-too-violent world.” If you wish to know what kind of leader she might prove to be, you need only look here. What she says is not particularly interesting or revealing, but what she does not say tells us all we need to know.

George W. Liebmann is an attorney in Baltimore and the author of several books, including Six Lost Leaders: Prophets of Civil Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), and Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness and Equality (Praeger, 2000).

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