By Vikas Datta
Is she a consummate, capable stateswoman ready for the most powerful job in the world, or a polarising, manipulative politician who should be kept away from it?
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton may have legions of devoted admirers — as well as fierce detractors — but there can’t be many who can ignore her. Her fate will soon be decided by Democratic voters and, if successful, then the US electorate, but till then the debate has spilled over into the literary world with a spate of works dissecting her antecedents, ability and performance.
Clinton has been in the public gaze for nearly four decades now, right from when her husband, Bill Clinton, became Arkansas governor in 1978, and held the post (apart from a two-year gap) till elected US president in 1992. After an over two-decade-long stint as First Lady at the state and national level, she carved out her own political career – as a senator from New York and then presidential contender in 2008.
She then began a role as a stateswoman, accepting her successful rival Barack Obama’s offer to join his administration as its top diplomat – the third woman to hold the post in a little over a decade. After one eventful term, she bided her time before again entering the fray for the White House in 2016.
Her own take on her life can be found in her autobiographies “Living History” (2003) and “Hard Choices” (2014) about her stint as Obama’s secretary of state, but it has also inspired nearly 100 books, ranging from sympathetic portrayals to polemical attacks, from ‘tell-all’ accounts of former associates to scholarly analyses, satirical fiction and even a children’s colouring book.
The leanings of most of the works can be made out from their titles – Joe Conason and Gene Lyons’ “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton” (2000), Susan Estrich’s “The Case for Hillary Clinton” (2005), David Brock’s “Killing the Messenger: The Right-Wing Plot to Derail Hillary and Hijack Your Government” (2015) are as obvious as Peggy Noonan’s “The Case Against Hillary Clinton” (2000), Carl Limbacher’s “Hillary’s Scheme: Inside the Next Clinton’s Ruthless Agenda to Take the White House” (2003), and Dinesh D’Souza’s “Stealing America: What My Experience with Criminal Gangs Taught Me about Obama, Hillary, and the Democratic Party” (2015).
What are we to make out of these – and many more like them? Should we believe that Clinton has a good record of public life, is well-suited to be the next president of the US but is being demonised, or is she just another overly ambitious and unscrupulous politician who must be exposed? Is Bill Clinton a shrewd operator with a feel for the public pulse or a money-minded philanderer, or an asset or liability to his wife? There are no easy answers and they will, in any case, depend on what you want to believe.
But there are some books that are neither enthusiastic hagiographies or unrestrained diatribes, but present a picture in all its positive and negative aspects so as to allow you to arrive at your own judgment.
Among the latest is Karen Blumenthal’s “Hillary” (2016). The author, whose previous works include a biography of Steve Jobs and of Walmart founder Sam Walton, focusses on aspects that moulded Clinton’s thoughts and how these influenced her personal and public life. Blumenthal doesn’t ignore the many contradictions between words and deeds or the many scandals that followed the Clintons but quite objectively.
Kim Ghattas’ “The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power” (2013) combines the Lebanese-born BBC correspondent’s own story with accounts of several important foreign trips she accompanied Clinton on and a keen insight into the reality and limitations of American power.
On the other hand, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ “HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton” (2014) dwells on her domestic political career as secretary of state. It also claims the Clintons had prepared a “hit” list comprising party leaders who had either been unhelpful in 2008 and how these were “fixed”.
To get a feel of how of those not favourably disposed look, Daniel Halper’s “Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine” (2014) is illustrative, with its recital of a long list of innuendos and claims, made by a host of unnamed sources, who had sought they be kept anonymous to avoid the ire of the Clintons.
Though a little dated, “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton” (2007), by Carl Bernstein, one half of the duo that broke the Watergate scandal and helped bring down a president, cannot be bettered, or its estimation that she is “neither the demon of the right’s perception, nor a feminist saint, nor is she particularly emblematic of her time” but a person with several positives and some flaws – like most of us are.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )