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14 June 2007

Who is the real Hillary?

If you want to understand the woman who would be president, don't bother to read the latest avalanch

By Andrew Stephen

I will begin with two Hillary Clinton scoops of my own. Early last summer, I went to a party she was giving at her house – hidden away off Massachusetts Avenue, a stone’s throw from the British embassy – and took the opportunity to introduce her to a teenage boy who I knew was going to intern for her later in the summer. She gave the kid about five seconds of her time, beaming at him before moving on to the next hand to shake.

Probably six weeks later, having not so much as set eyes on her since, the boy was walking down a Senate corridor when Hillary approached in the opposite direction. Meeting his eyes, she greeted him without hesitating: “Good to see you again, Pete.” Then, three weeks after that, the same kid and zillions of other Hillary interns gathered in a small, overheated office to have their photographs taken with the senator. Suddenly, overcome by the heat, the boy collapsed almost literally into her arms. He came round a couple of seconds later, lying on his back and seeing the face of (possibly) America’s 44th president peering anxiously down at him, proffering her bottle of water. “She was really kind, sort of motherly,” he told me later.

OK, so these are hardly scoops. But they highlight two little-known facets of America’s most famous woman – of which more later – and, above all, they are brand-new, in that they are Hillary anecdotes that have never seen print before. I have thus just about revealed more than the avalanche of Hillary Clinton books that is sweeping America.

We are now truly into a pre-election Hillary feeding frenzy, with at least six biographies in the catalogues of big US publishers this past spring alone – some of them designed to scupper her so far successful run for the presidency. David Bossie, who once worked as chief in vestigator for the Republican congressman Dan Burton – an especially egregious dolt – is busily trying to amass dirt on her for a “documentary” that will be released in cinemas this autumn, and that is designed to have the same effect as the in famous swiftboat veterans’ film that sank John Kerry. “There’s an enormous market for Hillary Clinton information,” says Bossie, perhaps the champion political smear merchant of all time.

The very paucity of the information available, however, is revealing in itself. For example, perhaps the most eagerly awaited of this summer’s books – A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein, the more flamboyant and creative half of the Woodward-Bernstein duo that brought down Richard Nixon – consists of no fewer than 640 pages, took eight years to produce, and fetched a $750,000 advance. In one of his many publicity appearances, Bernstein told NBC viewers on 1 June about “another great secret that she kept for 30 years”, as though his book is crammed with such exciting revelations. What the US media then dutifully described as this revelatory “nugget” was that Clinton had failed her DC Bar exams; this failure, Bernstein suggested, was a turning point both for Hillary herself and for history, because it propelled her towards a new life in Arkansas with Bill rather than to the career in Washington that she had wanted.

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Oh yeah? The great scoop sounded a little familiar to me, so I went to my bookshelves, and soon found why. The answer lay on page 64 of a book called Living History that was published four years ago, and written by . . . er, Hillary Clinton. She unequivocally states herself that she failed her DC Bar exams but passed those for Arkan sas, and that “maybe my test scores were telling me something”. Indeed, in his own book, Bernstein actually cites Living History as his source. This was something he conveniently forgot to tell NBC viewers, but if breakfast telly interviews sell hundreds of thousands of books, who cares?

The second of what the Washington Post pliantly calls these “probing books” – but that one Clinton aide describes more accurately as “cash for rehash” con jobs – is an unremittingly hostile tirade called Her Way by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, former and current New York Times reporters respectively, which weighs in at a mere 416 pages and ends with a resoundingly unanswered question: “So, who is the real Hillary?” Bernstein, Gerth and Van Natta all concede that they did not get any access whatsoever to the senator herself while preparing the biographies, but that has not stopped their books flying off the shelves amidst the frenzy.

So why all this unprecedented hysteria over an election that won’t even be held until 4 November next year? The answer, I am convinced, is that the leading candidate so far is a woman who is trying to break a 218-year male stranglehold on the most powerful job in the world. That, in turn, has unleashed vast tides of subconscious sexism from America’s political commentators, the vast majority of whom are male. A woman seeking the power and masculine majesty of the US presidency? How dare a petty little Machiavellian ogress like her have such audacity!

I started with my two little anecdotes, though, because I think they actually say two things about Hillary Clinton that are related to this. The first showed that she possesses, in spades, the phenomenal and enviable skill of a true politician in remembering names and faces. The second illustrates that, for a woman invariably dismissed as “hard” (“camouflaged”, is the word Bernstein uses), she also has a gentle and caring (dare I say feminine?) side that has never been seen by the public. In fact, perhaps she has simply never risked letting it be seen; she is certainly the most extraordinarily self-disciplined politician I have ever watched in action.

But then she has to be, because she must balance the projection of images of supposedly masculine US power and strength with the reality of being a woman; she must be seen as being prepared to nuke Iran if necessary. There is no blueprint, after all, for how a woman should pursue the US presidency. Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher: all managed to suspend their sexuality while exercising political power, as does Angela Merkel, but in their cases nothing like the might of the American presidency was at stake.

In countless ways, every day, Clinton has to navigate her way through potentially cataclys mic storms stemming from these dilemmas that male candidates simply never have to confront. Her husband, for example, is prone to “tearing up” when confronted by human suffering – but woe betide her if she does the same, thus showing what, in a woman, would be widely derided as weakness. The contrast is a paradox: Bill possesses the kind of enormously folksy media charm that his wife lacks, but she has much the more disciplined and focused intellect.

The sexism proliferates unchecked: the Boston Herald has just alleged that she uses Botox to smooth the creases on her face, a claim that would be laughable in the case, say, of her fellow senator and Republican presidential contender John McCain. At meetings, she feels obliged to crack jokes about trying to lose weight. Her main Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, provides photo opportunities of himself indulging in the “quintessentially American” recreation of shooting hoops on a basketball court; for her, there is no sporting equivalent open to a woman that would not carry the risk of being perceived as butch.

The untrue whispers about lesbianism – why else would her husband stray so much and she so single-mindedly pursue power like a man? – never go away, either, and they are bound to surface a lot more when the likes of Bossie really get down and dirty. But, as Bernstein and all the others have neatly shown us, there is little new to add to the “scandals” of the past 15 years that we already know too much about.

Clinton’s glaring Achilles heel is, in fact, a purely political one. It is not just that she voted in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, but that she failed to read the then top-secret 90-page National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq which cast doubt on many of the Bush administration’s claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and which was available to senators in the ten days before the crucial vote. She is now faced every waking hour with having to argue her way out of what was an unarguably wrongheaded Senate decision.

Despite the multitudinous hurdles still facing her, Hillary’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination is holding up very well indeed. Notwithstanding the Obama fever being whipped up, the most recent CBS poll places her ahead of her closest opponent by 45 points to 24. If you average out the ten leading polls, she is beating him 33-26. In the first quarter of 2007, she raised more than $26m and she has $31m cash in hand; the equivalent figures for Obama, during what is portrayed as his political blossoming, are $25.6m and $19m.

My prediction two years ago that Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2008 still holds firm, yet occasionally I glimpse something of the doomed Lady Macbeth in her, and find myself unable to suppress a foreboding that her story will end in tears. But, in the meantime, do not rely on Bernstein et al for your information. Montaigne told us that to really understand somebody, you have to talk to leurs domestiques. In Hillary Clinton’s case, ask her interns.

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