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Hillary's new story is The Story all over town

June 09, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

You've got to come to New York City to tell the world who you are. You've got to go to the media/publishing temples here and burn the incense and throw rose petals to define yourself for the national stage.

This weekend, Hillary Clinton visited those altars on Sixth Avenue. On Saturday, she glided from Time magazine's offices to the NBC studios in Midtown. Up and down the free-media avenues she rode, promoting her new memoir, "Living History." She could easily have bumped into a journalist who had already interviewed her on her way into another green room. People like ABC's Barbara Walters who were having Clinton on their own shows were themselves going on shows, even on competing networks, to promote their interviews.

By Sunday morning, Clinton's wide grin was unavoidable. "Why I Stuck With Bill" bellowed a front-page headline in the New York Post. In an inside photograph, she was seen emerging from a television studio holding her own umbrella but wearing a look of "Singing in the Rain" exuberance.

And why not?

She is happily singing, telling her story the way she wants it told. Not the way Bill tells it. Not the way her critics carp. Not even the way an acolyte like Sidney Blumenthal, who has his own book out right now about those crazy White House years, would portray her.

It's a good deal all around for the junior senator from New York.

Hillary Clinton's biography before 1998 was that of a comic book figure on the fringes. She was the femi-nazi with no real political sense who dropped the ball on the one big account her husband, the 42nd president, gave her -- health care policy. After a sex scandal in the White House, she earned an identity as the wronged woman who struggled through nobly by distancing herself ever so slightly from her husband but not walking out. Why she stuck around was never quite clear.

Then she ran on her own for the U.S. Senate and methodically dug in. First Lady Hillary Clinton, the show horse, turned into Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the workhorse.

But why not leave it at that? The question, at least, at a cocktail party of the chattering class last week was: After going through all that, why in the world would she write a book and invite another round of looking at her marriage?

The money was good.

She got $8 million. That's enough to right any wronged woman -- and make her financially independent for life. Now that's a New York story. But perhaps as appealing as the cash was the opportunity to secure her definition of the Hillary Rodham Clinton brand, which she'll probably spend a lifetime doing because so many people want to do it for her. It's all about branding. And that too is a New York story.

Joel Benenson, a New York-based strategist and pollster who works for politicians and corporations like Procter & Gamble, says Clinton certainly deserves an opportunity "to talk directly to a whole lot of people who view her through a prism of the past couple of years.

"This is a strong woman with a long history of accomplishment. Of course, people are eager to read her story. Of course, she should have a chance to tell the whole thing her way."

In the excerpts and in promotional interviews, she is trying to show, so to speak, a little leg, trying to be sincere or at least be less opaque.

And so she gushes in print over her husband -- "I still love the way he thinks and the way he looks" -- and she excoriates his misbehavior, saying what a lot of American women wanted to hear all along: that she wanted to "ring his neck" after he confessed to lying about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. And although most Americans stuck with him, it turns out his wife remained for a very long time aloof. "Bill's standing in public opinion polls remained high," she writes. "His standing with me hit rock bottom."

Although the book was not officially released in bookstores until 12:01 a.m. today, these and other titillating tidbits trickled out over the past week and weekend in the Time excerpt and in passages leaked to the Associated Press. (A Barnes & Noble near Lincoln Center was scheduled to stay open until 1 a.m. today to cash in on people who couldn't stand to live another minute without the 576- page tome.)

Clinton will continue waltzing around Manhattan this week and around the country in the next six months in between Senate sessions, giving as many "exclusive" (excuse the abuse of the English language) interviews as possible. There was the exclusive magazine interview, the exclusive morning TV interview, and the exclusive TV magazine show interview. This week she'll start giving exclusive interviews to local media outlets. And Clinton is doling out exclusives to foreign journalists stationed here because the book is also being published this week in 17 countries around the world.

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