Hillary's Holy Grail could be a poisoned chalice
A new book on the rivalry between the former US Secretary of State and Obama gives a taste of what is to come in the battle for the White House. Peter Foster reports.
Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30
No public office comes with more trappings, or could be more calculated to give its holder airs and graces, than the presidency of the United States. Yet it is an unpalatable truth for all its aspirants that attaining the Holy Grail of American politics requires a very unholy scramble.
And after nearly 30 unbroken years in public life, no one knows more about the hard knocks of the American political rodeo than Hillary Clinton. Even so, with the launch of her manifesto-memoir in June, followed by a national book tour-cum-campaign launch in all but name, it now seems certain that Mrs Clinton is planning to ride again. She will be 69 on inauguration day in January 2017.
Why on earth would she do it? That was the question posed openly this week by Barack Obama, the man who elbowed her into an undignified second place in the Democrat primaries of 2008 and now, after six frustrating years in office, just looks impatient some days for it all to be over.
Could it really be worth the candle for those - like Hillary and vice president Joe Biden - who might want to succeed him, Mr Obama wondered in a New Yorker magazine article. "They've already accomplished an awful lot in their lives. Do they, at this phase in their lives, want to go through the pretty undignifying process of running all over again?" he asked.
The answer is undoubtedly a resounding "yes", says one former Clinton White House staffer, for the very simple reason that for all Mrs Clinton's achievements as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, nothing can cap the presidency. "Becoming president makes you into a world, historic figure in a way that Hillary isn't yet. She's made a mark on history, sure, but it goes up by an uncountable factor if she wins the White House, particularly as first woman president," he says.
But presidential ambition comes at a cost, as Mrs Clinton knows from her husband's scandal-plagued presidency - some of it self-inflicted, like the Monica Lewinsky affair; some of it grossly unfair and openly confected, like the stories that the Clintons were involved in unlikely murders and cover-ups, including that of their own friend, Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in 1993, a few months after Mr Clinton took office.
Fast forward 20 years to the present and the once dormant cottage industry of conspiracy and slander about the Clintons has started to whirr and clank again, with the publication of a series of sometimes outrageously thinly sourced books that tap into the still-visceral dislike of the Clintons on the American Right.
Exhibit A is Blood Feud, a 320-page book that allegedly traces the bitter Clinton-Obama rivalry and rifts in the Clintons' marriage. It is written by Ed Klein, a former New York Times journalist who has made a new career out of writing salacious tell all books on the Clintons and Obamas.
The book is filled with wildly implausible fly-on-the-wall accounts of the Clintons' marital tiffs and White House showdowns, all relayed in breathless Mills and Boon prose. At one point, in Mr Klein's telling, Mrs Clinton is said to have jabbed her finger into President Obama's chest, which enrages Mrs Obama when he tells her: "It hurt."
In another scene, Mrs Clinton is having lunch with fellow Wellesley College graduates and launches into a foul-mouthed tirade against Mr Obama for having "No hand on the f---ing tiller", before declaring: "And you can't trust the motherf-----."
How Mr Klein, a publicly sworn enemy of the Clintons and the Obama administration, convinces all these aides to the Clintons to suddenly spill the beans is not explained. Mr Klein says his books are based on proper reporting, but Mrs Clinton's spokesman, Nick Merrill, impolitely disagrees, calling Mr Klein "discredited and disgraced" and even suggesting he should take a lie-detector test.
Mr Klein's work is given scant credence by serious American political media, but it is gobbled up with relish by the conservative book-buying public. To whoops of delight on the Right last month, Mr Klein's book outsold Hard Choices, Mrs Clinton's scrupulously gossip-free memoir of her four years at the State Department, according to The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list.
Other works, such as Ronald Kessler's The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of Presidents, extracts of which were leaked this week, are more plausibly sourced but equally salacious. According to the extract quoted in the Murdoch-owned tabloid The New York Post, Mr Kessler - who has a track record of breaking stories from the US Secret Service - alleges that Mr Clinton keeps a blonde, surgically enhanced mistress who is codenamed 'Energiser' by the former president's secret service detail, after the indefatigable bunny in a famous battery commercial.
A third takedown tome, Clinton Inc by Daniel Halper of the conservative Weekly Standard, has been treated more seriously, despite attempts from the Clinton machine to lump it in with more scurrilous works. The book paints Clintonworld as a place where scores are always settled and where Chelsea, who has taken a much higher-profile role since joining the board of the philanthropic Clinton Foundation is described as the "wizard behind the curtain".
How does Mrs Clinton cope with this onslaught? Mostly by ignoring it, says the former staffer, while relying on a close coterie of loyal old female friends. Chelsea, now 34 and expecting her first child, is another of Mrs Clinton's rocks.
"Does she agonise over it all? Absolutely not," says the staffer, who worked through the worst days of the Clinton White House scandals. "Bill and Hillary Clinton have had entire forests felled libelling them and Hillary's just used to it. She understands that it's a necessary part of the game."
That layer of personal armour is strengthened by the belief among Democrat strategists that in America's polarised political universe, the avalanche of anti-Clinton books is unlikely to affect the outcome in 2016. The belief is that they appeal only to that 40pc of Americans who, as one strategist put it, "would vote for a dog for president" before they'd ever vote for Mrs Clinton.
Arguably more damaging to Mrs Clinton's prospects are the self-inflicted wounds from her awkward relationship with a US media corps that still prickles at its high-handed treatment during her 2008 campaign. Sure enough, the launch of Mrs Clinton's Hard Choices last month demonstrated how ring-rusty she had become in four years glad handing the world as America's top diplomat.
But what may in the end be more worrying for Mrs Clinton than the pains of running for presidential office is the prospect that, even if she wins the great prize, she achieves disappointingly little with it. As Mr Obama has discovered, the modern presidency is saddled with old expectations that have not really caught up with America's divided political realities.
Mr Obama now talks openly of using his "phone and his pen" to get things done, but to many that only advertises the limits of his political predicament which will get worse if Republicans retake the Senate in this autumn's mid-term elections.
Given all her past experience and the platform the Clinton Foundation offers her to affect real change on issues close to her heart, such as gender equality and free speech, would Mrs Clinton trade her current position for the frustrations of the modern presidency? You bet she would.
"Everyone believes their time in the Oval office will be different," says the former staffer.
"And despite the frustrations, recent presidencies show that everyone does get to do something relatively big for a short while. That's the nature of ambition: you know the pain that lies ahead, but you accept the challenge. No one knows that better than Hillary."
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