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Archive for Saturday, June 14, 2003

Let’s not relive the Clintons’ history

June 14, 2003


Anyone searching for the line between a politician and a celebrity could have found it literally snaking out of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhattan on Monday morning.

Not long ago, candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, dressed in trademark black pantsuit and pink shirt, worked this street looking for handshakes. Now, New Yorkers were waiting hours for an autograph from the author and senator in pastel yellow.

Meanwhile on television all week, Hillary was the ultimate entertainment crossover figure: Policy wonk and wronged wife. Hillary-mongering was sandwiched between commentary on the Laci Peterson case and debates on missing weapons of mass destruction.

I read "Living History" in three speeds high interest, middle interest, and skim. By the end, I thought she should have called it "Reliving History." And I'm not sure I want to.

Here's a confession. Over the past 11 years, I've written 29 columns on Hillary. As a woman of a certain age Hillary's age you couldn't help but see her as emblematic of a generation caught in a rough, lopsided time of transition. As she says again in this book, she's been a Rorschach test for how people view social change.

I met this wife, lawyer, mother in 1992, The Year of the Woman that was definitely not The Year of the Wife. Even then, those who liked Hillary wished she were running for office; those who hated Hillary wished she'd shut up.

My first Hillary column was about the Clintons' "60 Minutes" appearance after the "bimbo eruption" of Gennifer Flowers. Hillary's strong declaration that she was no Tammy Wynette proved to many of us that she was no Lee Hart, caught like a deer in the headlights of her husband's infidelity.

Next came the campaign flap over Hillary's comment that "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies." Later came Hillarycare and its defeat, the years when she was targeted as a "Feminazi," the scandal that moved her from first lady to wronged wife, and finally, her stunningly improbable transition from the White House to the Senate.

In a magazine article, she once asked: "Why do I have to talk about things no one else in politics does?" Now, after all this, after winning a Senate seat against the odds and winning a reputation for hard-working collegial style against greater odds, Hillary Rodham Clinton wants to relive history?

By now I don't have to tell you the highlights of a memoir first hyped as "an inspirational survivor's story." The early pages of this book warmly describe her parents' background and the way she fell in love with "a force of nature." Gradually a different voice emerges of someone growing as careful with words as her father was with money.

The question of her marriage in this tell-just-enough book is handled as gingerly as possible. Even the anger and rage at her husband's betrayal "I could hardly breathe. I started crying and yelling at him" repeated in virtually the same words to Katie Couric and Barbara Walters, began to lose their authenticity, rather like a stump speech.

Yes, I know there are 8 million reasons for this memoir, all of them with dollar signs. The book at times sardonic, sincere, funny, defensive is also laced with the tenacious lawyer's belief that she can convince any jury. And it's infused with her mother's admonition: "There's no room in this house for cowards."

But what's missing is some larger sense of what really matters to Hillary. How does she view the social change she's come to symbolize? What does marriage mean? What is her 'vision thing' for the country now?

At the outset of her memoir, Sen. Clinton says: "As I write this in 2003, it seems impossible that my time in the White House ended only two years ago. It feels more like another lifetime." For the past few years, Hillary must have been living in two time zones, now and then. Memoirs do that to their authors. To this reader, "Living History" seems like a memoir from a distant era when we worried about Monica Lewinsky instead of al-Qaida and worried about presidents making love, not war.

To this day, Hillary remains the most polarizing female figure in American political life, and never mind Martha Stewart. As she book-tours around answering the same questions about her marriage and her past, she's also trailed by questions of her presidential future. I can't imagine she'd be mad enough to run for president but then again, one of my 29 columns said she'd be nuts to run for the Senate.

Hillary, celebrity and senator, superstar and supertarget. If this first lady wants to go back to the White House, it's time to close the book on "Living History" and start "Making History."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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