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The memoir as election platform

Living History: Hillary Rodham Clinton; Simon & Schuster: 562 pp., $28

June 10, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

Hillary Rodham Clinton, now almost halfway through her first term as a Democratic senator from New York, has already said she won't seek the presidency in 2004. But if George W. Bush wins reelection next year, her popularity among Democratic activists virtually guarantees she will be anointed as the instant front-runner for her party's presidential nomination in 2008.

That prospect looms over her new book, "Living History." Like almost all mid-career memoirs from public officials, it is as much a political as a literary document. It seems edited not only for style and pace, but with an eye toward how an opponent might use any word in it during a future campaign.

At times it suffers from the dutiful political positioning of a party platform: While Clinton strongly affirms her support for legalized abortion, for instance, she's quick to defend the rights of "people of faith" to protest it by peaceful means. And while she identifies with the anti-Vietnam War movement, she makes sure to note that during her student years she helped put out a fire probably lighted by protesters at the Yale Law School library. You can almost see the political consultant looming over the author's shoulder as they position her: Activist, yes. Extremist, no.

The book won't settle all the controversies swirling around her. Her critics surely won't accept her versions of many events (particularly what she describes as her incredulity when her husband finally acknowledges his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in August 1998). And for too much of the book, she buries thought under motion -- avoiding introspection with a frenetic cataloging of her causes and travels.

But within the limitations of the genre, Clinton has produced a surprisingly engaging and, at points, even compelling book. Especially once the couple reaches the White House; she provides enough of a peek behind the curtain to keep the pages turning. She presents intriguing new details on her role in shaping the policies of her husband's presidency.

She does her best to answer the question many readers most want to see the book confront: Why did she stay with him? ("Even after all these years, he is still the most interesting, energizing and fully alive person I have ever met.") And though she glides over earlier problems in their marriage, it's hard to imagine anyone will feel she is withholding much about her tortured emotions after her husband admitted to the Lewinsky affair -- and why she continued to defend him against impeachment despite her overpowering sense of betrayal.

Above all, she emerges from the book as a complex, three-dimensional figure. She has doubts, uncertainties and regrets. (She nearly breaks into tears at her first meeting with her staff after the collapse of her health-care plan contributed to the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994.) She gets nervous before some appearances. She is awed and inspired by some of the world leaders she meets (Yitzhak Rabin, whom she suggests the former president saw as a father figure, and Nelson Mandela both hover as towering figures in the book).

At times inadvertently, she illuminates her weaknesses, particularly a reflex for political combat that compares unfavorably to her husband's brilliance for finding consensus. But she also demonstrates real strengths: shrewdness as a political strategist, commitment as a political activist, and tenacity as both a politician and a human being. Indeed, this self-portrait suggests that Hillary Clinton's greatest strength may be the same as her husband's: the simple ability to persevere through great adversity.

She roots that determination in her classic baby boomer upbringing in a Chicago suburb swelling with children after World War II. Her father was a conservative small-businessman who preached "up-by-your-bootstraps economics" while her mother "was basically a Democrat"; her own political views, Clinton writes, reflect "the push and tug of my parents' values."

She began her political involvement as a young Republican, but under the influence of a minister at her church, she was exposed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writing of the great mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and by college she was volunteering for Eugene McCarthy's antiwar challenge to Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primary and writing her thesis about Saul Alinsky, the legendary left-wing community organizer.

The book faithfully follows her story from there: meeting Bill Clinton at Yale Law School; resisting his initial marriage proposals; finally following him to Arkansas, where he began his political career and she climbed the ladder at the Rose law firm; and then careening through the 1992 campaign, where she instantly emerged as a polarizing figure, admired as a symbol of women's progress by many, despised by others as an elitist who appeared contemptuous of women who stayed at home "and baked cookies and had teas," as she disastrously put it at one point.

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