Respond to this Article July 1999

The First Lady

A new biography is another example of how lucky the Clintons are in their enemies.

By Marjorie Williams

Joyce Milton's biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton beats to market several others that were commissioned in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. The book business, in finding Hillary Rodham Clinton an ever-more-interesting subject, has mirrored the feelings of the public at large, which rewards the first lady with rising approbation for every new evidence of her humiliation by her husband. The First Partner is of little help in boosting our understanding of this strange phenomenon. Mostly it's a further exhibit--as if any were needed!--of how lucky Bill and Hillary Clinton have been in their enemies.

The First Partner
by Joyce Milton
William Morrow & Co., $27.00

The First Partner, the work of a right-wing writer, has the strange air of having been conceived and written about six years ago. It includes, of course, an account of last year's scandal; but mostly it's a book that woke up when Hillary first burst upon the scene and decided that America must be saved from the demons of centralized planning that Hillary was plotting to unleash upon the land. Even granting, for the sake of argument, Milton's contention that Hillary came to Washington hell-bent on pursuing an agenda more liberal than her husband's, it seems strange for Milton to care so much. For one thing, the first lady's biggest effort in the direction of federal gigantism, her health care reform plan, collapsed more than five years ago. And Milton's approach ignores the obvious point that, in neutering his own presidency for the sake of his dalliances in the Oval Office, Clinton necessarily neutered Hillary's supposed co-presidency, too, leaving her only the weird consolations of being the wronged wife.

Hillary Clinton can be criticized for many things--in particular, helping her husband embitter an entire year, perhaps an entire era, of our politics in the service of his perjuries. As soon as she decided to take the offensive on his behalf, she became socially, if not legally, as culpable as he for embroiling the country in his year-long deception. The question of how this smart, driven woman got herself there--especially, what story she has told herself about her life and her marriage--is indeed an interesting one.

And Milton essentially grasps this version of Hillary's sins. But the sins she seems most interested in are of a kind that seem anachronistic--both because we're now so near the end of Clinton's sputtering presidency, and because our politics have mostly (happily) evolved past the battles over socialism and communism in which Milton labors to place Hillary Rodham Clinton.

She makes heavy weather, for example, out of Hillary's summer law school internship with Oakland lawyer Robert Treuhaft, the avowed communist who was married to the late Jessica Mitford. "While it is easy to see why a young, idealistic law student might have gone to work for Treuhaft in 1972," Milton intones, "one would also hope that she would eventually come to see that communism was not just a colorful variant of leftish idealism. Unfortunately, Hillary has never said or written a single word to indicate that she has." Then again, she's never said or written a single word to indicate that she hasn't. Ah, but there's all that collectivist rhetoric; there was Hillary's extensive involvement in the legal services movement; there's her career-long push for day care regulated and subsidized by the federal government.

It's entirely legitimate for a conservative to quarrel with Clinton's writings and proposals, which certainly do show a proclivity to believe in the power of Big Government. But when was the last time you heard a writer describe a contemporary figure, without a trace of irony, as a "fellow traveler"? This is what Milton calls Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, who was appointed in 1992 to head the Clinton transitions education planning. In criticizing Lani Guinier, the president's one-time nominee to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department--whose writings offer a conservative a really lively chance to engage the left's assumptions about race--Milton devotes equal time to Guinier's father, who was a "functionary," in her loaded word, in the American Labor Party in the late '30s and early '40s.

One can argue that the first lady's likely run for the U.S. Senate makes her views and associations more salient than ever. But a senate race, especially under the beady eye of the New York media, is its own sort of corrective to extremist views--as is the senate itself, should Hillary win the seat. The possibility that she will go on to have a long political career of her own doesn't fully account for Milton's alarums, which marry anti-Communist fervor with the anger of those who have argued that as first lady, Clinton has been unaccountable for her influence on public policy. There's a lot of justice to the view that the Clintons blurred the boundaries of her role in ways that are unacceptable; it's all to the good if the first lady steps forward and becomes answerable for her own views. But to believe, as Milton does, that we're in some real "danger" of seeing "Hillary and her allies ... push through a comprehensive government program" for universal day care is close to delusional.

My real quarrel with this book, however, is that it fails to answer the same question that has defied every other Hillary-explainer. Why does she stick with him? Some of the satisfactions of being constantly wronged--the admiration of others, the power that accrues to her in times of crisis--have become apparent over time. But no one has ever really explained how the arrangement evolved. Milton comes closest in her chapters dealing with the Clintons' early years in Arkansas, when the bright, ambitious, fashion-impaired Hillary followed her beau to Arkansas only to discover him in the arms of a series of beauty queens. She does a persuasive job of imagining how pained Hillary must have been by this, but doesn't really help us to understand what glue kept her at Clinton's side.

Milton does quite a good job of describing Hillary's astonished reaction to Clinton's family--especially its bone-deep denial of brother Roger's drug habits. As she suggests, it's interesting that Hillary's denial of the obvious about her husband was beginning to develop at the same time she was denouncing her in-laws' blindness during the family therapy that followed Roger Clinton's conviction on cocaine charges.

But Milton gets lured into the same trap as almost everyone else who writes about Hillary--which is to accept the convenient fiction that Hillary is above all a creature of her marriage. Hence, Milton seems more interested in the problems of Hillary's in-laws than in her parents. While she does a fair enough job of summarizing Hillary's childhood, she fails to follow up on the single most striking element of that family history, which is the childhood of her mother, Dorothy Howell Rodham. Dorothy was born in Chicago to a 15-year-old mother and a 17-year-old father, and later abandoned by them. At the age of eight, she was sent--with her three-year-old sister--across the country by train, with no adult help, to live with a hypercritical grandmother in California. The raw facts of that story--the neglect, the sadness of it, the huge early responsibility--suggest the extraordinary legacy Hillary might have inherited as Dorothy's only daughter. It's certainly the most obvious place to look in explaining the first lady's sense of embattlement and her adhesion to a marriage that must have caused her furious pain.

But Milton is more interested in raking over the tired coals of Whitewater, Madison Guaranty, and Hillary's commodities trades. The tone of these financial passages is, at first, temperate. But as the book rolls on, Milton dredges up every rumor she turned up--including rumors of Clinton misbehavior that I'd never even heard before--with reliance, at key moments, on the works of leading Clinton-haters like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Gary Aldrich. (Her acknowledgments also include a valentine to the right-wing web site "Free Republic," which recently hosted a dinner in Washington honoring the House Managers of the president's impeachment trial.) By the time of Vince Foster's 1993 suicide, Milton is no longer even pretending to tack her allegations to the known facts. She writes, "Foster had other papers in his possession likely to be ... sensitive, including the copies of the Clintons' tax returns, a file marked Hillary Clinton, Personal,' and, for all anyone knows, documents relating to the Clintons' use of private investigators to track various women connected with Clinton in the past."

For all anyone knows? For all anyone knows, Milton wrote this book at the behest of aliens who abducted her during a picnic three summers ago. As she recited the right-wing catechism of the Clintons' misdeeds, I found myself shaking my head once again at how successfully the president and first lady have created the enemies they need. I would have thought it was impossible, at this late date, for anyone to provoke me into defending the Clintons: I felt and still feel that Clinton's offenses last year called for his impeachment, and I think we're still just beginning to find out how his legacy will play out in our politics. Yet I found myself rising reflexively to discount Milton's rumor-mongering, as well as the prosecutorial zeal with which she goes after Hillary Clinton for such curious offenses as decorating the Blue Room badly for Christmas.

Finally, The First Partner fails to shed much light on why it is that Hillary Rodham Clinton remains a figure of such enduring interest and, in some quarters, such an admired one. Why did her approval ratings shoot up when the president admitted to having lied--to her as well as to us--about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Why do her numbers begin to sag when pollsters ask how they would feel about Hillary divorcing The Big Creep? I've argued elsewhere that women should disregard all politicians' wives, Hillary among them, in hashing out their own issues of autonomy and identity and career-vs.-family; political spouses' lives are impossibly distorted by demands that other women can't imagine. But the temptation persists to treat Hillary as the national Rorschach.

Is she venerated for being his dupe? Or is she venerated because she isn't? Is she us? Or is she the doormat we don't have to be, because she's doing it for us? It would be unfair, I guess, to blame Joyce Milton for leaving us with these questions, whose answers may be better sought in a mirror than in a book.

Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair.


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