Who is the real Hillary Clinton?
From stateswoman to Oprah wannabe, the former First Lady has many masks. Mary Wakefield picks the best of recent bios on the presidential hopeful
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
There is something very peculiar about the Clinton triumvirate these days. There they are on stage most weeks - Bill, Hillary and Chelsea - making their latest bid for the White House. Chelsea looks all-American and average, which only highlights the strangeness of her parents. When not actively campaigning, Bill stands slack, eyes blank, mouth open.
Hillary, meanwhile, has become a bewildering mishmash of all her former selves. After winning the Iowa caucus earlier this year, she gave a speech in which she rolled out, in quick succession, Hillary the stateswoman, Hillary the grandmother and Hillary the Oprah-style chat-show host, all sass and frisky head-tossing. That the Democratic hopeful has a pocketful of personas is not news, but it leaves the world wondering: who is the real Hillary?
This is a gift for any would-be biographer, and published last month, among others, are: Hillary by Karen Blumenthal; Hillary Rising by James D Boys; and Who is Hillary Clinton?, a set of essays from The Nation magazine, self-styled "flagship of the left". There is also Hillary Rodham Clinton: On the Couch by Alma H Bond, a fictionalised account of what Hillary might say in psychoanalysis, which, for the sake of your own mental health, you should leave well alone.
Karen Blumenthal's Hillary is fundamentally a feminist, the Hillary of the "glass ceiling" speech she gave in 2008 when ceding the Democratic nomination to Obama: "We weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest ceiling this time, but thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before."
The book's blurb claims it is unbiased, "unflinching", but it's clear Blumenthal longs for Hillary to smash that ceiling and claim the presidency and this, as well as its oddly-childlike style, is what lets it down.
As Lakshmi Chaudhry points out in an essay in Who is Hillary?, some women find it inconceivable not to support Hillary on the grounds of gender alone. Chaudhry quotes Nora Ephron, who addressed the Wellesley class of 1996 with these words: "Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you."
It's the same fierce female solidarity that Madeleine Albright was channelling recently when she declared there to be "a special place in hell reserved for women who don't back Hillary". I suspect Blumenthal would agree. The Hillary Clinton of James D Boys' biography is a more nuanced and calculating character, closer - I'd have thought - to the truth.
In all these biographies, the stories from Hillary's early life seem to reveal most about her. Brought up in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago, young Hillary was earnest, clever and astonishingly self-confident. According to Blumenthal, even her mother, Dorothy, said: "Hillary always valued herself highly. I liked that about her."
She was voted "most likely to succeed" by her classmates, though there are hints she wasn't always popular. Her friend Betsy Johnson says her classmates thought she was conceited.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: On The Couch tells us that Hillary's high school nickname was 'Owl Face' on account of her enormous thick glasses. Here is Hillary in psychoanalysis, as imagined by Alma H Bond: "I tried to jazz up my glasses by picking out red or purple frames, but it didn't help. The kids and school teased me mercilessly. Would you believe that I still feel like Owl Face? Sometimes the feeling is so strong I have to look in the mirror to check."
Hidden amid the glutinous mess of Bond's book, there are some useful titbits. For instance, she informs us that another of Hillary's high school nicknames was "Sister Frigidaire".
The young Hillary stayed in place, roughly unchanged, from her birth in 1947 right up until Bill lost his job as governor of Arkansas in 1981. Until then, as a point of pride, Hillary had made no effort to pander to the south's idea of what a wife should be. She kept her maiden name and refused any kind of makeover. "I think she thought make-up superficial," her mother said, quoted in Blumenthal's book.
Then came Bill's defeat, and a rethink: "I failed to appreciate how important in political terms an elected person's spouse is to voters," she later wrote. So she dyed her hair, ditched the glasses and - most significantly - became a Clinton. It's worth remembering as we watch primped and polished Hillary strut from state to state that inside her, somewhere, is young Owl Face, who might well consider her 68-year-old self a sell-out.
Also interesting for those who don't quite know what to make of her is the fact Hillary was once a staunch right-winger and, in 1964, even campaigned for Barry Goldwater, Republican senator for Arizona, who famously said that "extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice… and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue". There has been much speculation over the years about Hillary's hawkishness and her reluctance to admit she was wrong about the war in Iraq. Is there still a splinter of Goldwater in Hillary's Democrat heart? Another unhappy fact for many Democrats is Hillary was brought up, and remains, an eager Baptist. Blumenthal and Boys both remind us that she carries a Bible wherever she goes and seeks solace in it in times of stress.
Her religion makes some sense of her conviction that the world can be separated into good guys and bad, and that she can discern the difference: Barbara Ehrenreich's essay in Who is Hillary? describes her capacity for righteous aggression as Secretary of State: "Far from being the stereotypical feminist-pacifist of your imagination, the woman to get closest to the Oval Office has promised to 'obliterate' the toddlers of Tehran - along, of course, with the bomb-builders and Hezbollah-supporters. Hillary even forswore talking to presumptive bad guys. Watch out - was her distinctly unladylike message to Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-il and the rest of them - or I'll rip you a new one."
Boys reminds us that, as Secretary of State in 2011, she addressed the Doha Forum for the Future with these words: "People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform." This was prescient about the Arab Spring, but her tendency to see things in simple moral terms meant she underestimated the dangers.
The trouble with cheerleading biographies is that they become almost deceitful in the details they omit. For both Blumenthal and Bond, Hillary's decision not to pursue a stellar legal career after leaving Yale was entirely a product of her love for Bill, whom she married in 1975.
Boys' more interesting book has a different take, and one that fits better with what we know of the younger, ambitious Hillary. "When she moved to Arkansas, Hillary Rodham cannot have imagined that she would be there for long," he writes. "Bill Clinton was running for Congress in 1974 and the Democrats were expected to sweep the board as President Nixon faced impeachment. What could possibly go wrong? Surely she would be back in Washington DC as the wife of Congressman Clinton by 1975."
Neither Blumenthal nor Boys mention a fact much put about by the Clintons' former spin doctor, Dick Morris, who has pointed out - frequently - that far from turning her back on this stellar career in Washington law to follow her heart south, Hillary Rodham failed the District of Columbia bar exams, passing the Arkansas exams instead. (Blumenthal omits Morris entirely from Hillary's story even though he advised both Clintons on and off from 1978 and devised the "triangulation" policy that helped Bill win re‑election in 1996.)Blumenthal also fails to mention Hillary's mishandling of the press when she first entered the White House. It's a telling story, and one that might have some bearing on her chances of becoming president. Boys writes: "Where reporters had once been free to roam from their press area in the White House, the new First Lady insisted a connecting doorway be closed, sealing journalists off from the various offices and work areas in the West Wing because, as she told her friend Diane Blair, in 1993: 'The press has big egos and no brains.' "
Well, perhaps. But perhaps it was egotistical and a little brainless of her to alienate the media on Bill's first day. But this seems to be the authentic Hillary, the one that has persisted, through all the makeovers, from Owl Face until today: determined, confident to the point of conceit and, often, her own worst enemy.
Hillary by Karen Blumenthal (Bloomsbury, €19.50)
Hillary Rising by James D Boys (Biteback, €23.70)
Who is Hillary Clinton? ed by Richard Kreitner (IB Tauris, €17.49)
Hillary Rodham Clinton: On the Couch by Alma H Bond (Bancroft Press, €31.55)