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FROM THE RIGHT, A PAT ON THE BACK FOR THE FIRST LADY

She's smart (smarter than Bill), savvy (savvier than Bill) and in control (she controls Bill).

Hillary Rodham Clinton is "the most powerful unelected official in history." Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is "perhaps the weakest chief executive since Warren G. Harding."

That's the assessment of the first couple in "The Seduction of Hillary Rodham," an impressively reported book by the journalist who has been called the No. 1 Clinton-hater in America.

Given David Brock's past work -- his best-selling book that bashed Anita Hill's credibility, his "Troopergate" revelations detailing Bill Clinton's philandering -- you might expect his book on Mrs. Clinton to leave nothing but scorched earth behind.

But it's not so.

Brock's portrayal is balanced, often admiring. He shows us a brilliant and resolute idealist who's brimming with talent but who has taken a few wrong turns. His politics hardly show at all when he's dealing with her.

It's Brock's treatment of Bill Clinton that is not only nasty but probably unfair.

Clinton, in Brock's view, lacks vision, leadership ability -- even, at times, competence.

At one point, Brock says it's impossible to talk about a struggle for the president's political soul -- because he has none.

The book makes the case that Hillary has long served as Bill Clinton's lightning rod -- attracting and absorbing all manner of public criticism while her husband remains mostly unscathed.

In a strange and implicit agreement, she's seen as evil so that Bill Clinton can be seen as good.

Brock flips that formula on its head.

In his portrayal, it's Hillary who deserves the credit and Bill the blame for everything from policy victories to political success.

The more Brock praises Hillary, the worse her husband looks. None of what they've done right, he says, ever could have happened if she weren't around.

The book makes much of the Clintons' dependence on each other, the way they supply each other's missing parts.

What the president lacks in direction, ideology and determination, Hillary provides. What she lacks in likability, ability to see other points of view, and glad-handing skills, Bill provides. Together: the perfect politician.

They are opposites in many ways.

"The difference between . . . a cold shower and a warm bath," Brock quotes one of their Yale Law School professors as saying about their intellectual style.

They are formidable as a team, but lost without each other. This symbiosis, more than any great love or devotion, is what keeps them together, Brock speculates. You could more easily separate Siamese twins.

In addition to this psychological portrait of the first couple, the Brock book has its share of news. It takes a hard, in-depth look at Whitewater, the health care reform fiasco and Vincent Foster's suicide.

Among the book's many findings:

Mrs. Clinton did not use her position as governor's wife for her own financial benefit, as is widely believed; her Arkansas law firm's state business actually declined during that period.

She nearly divorced Bill in the late 1980s, and decided to stay in the marriage so that he could run for president in 1992.

As chief damage control specialist for the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992, Hillary actually solicited information on the number and extent of her husband's extramarital affairs.

It has been a long time now since Hillary Rodham Clinton left the realm of ordinary personhood and became one of those American icons -- like Madonna, or Newt Gingrich, or O.J. Simpson -- whose very names can evoke rage, envy or devotion.

For some, she stands for every misunderstood threat of the women's movement, incarnated and wearing a pink suit.

At the other pole (and when you're talking Hillary, you're talking polarized reactions), she stands for a feminist ideal. She is Superwoman -- fearlessly balancing power, family and achievement at the highest levels.

David Brock manages to knock down the icon and reveal the woman, the wife, the lawyer. Even more clearly, he shows us Hillary the politician and ideologue.

And while his portrait is largely positive -- he strongly suggests that she'd be a far better president than her husband -- Brock says she made a couple of big mistakes along the way.

She was "seduced," he says, by "the idol of big government" and the temptations of her unfettered power. (This seduction theme is part of an underlying, and mostly subtle, strain of sexism throughout the book. Hillary's real problem, says Brock, was that she was unattractive as a young woman, and her finest accomplishment may be her daughter Chelsea's poise.)

But Hillary's worst mistake, Brock says, was getting involved with Bill Clinton, the biggest seducer of them all, who gave Hillary the role of his "moral compass."

"When a fundamentally weak person like Bill relies on a moral compass that has itself become askew, the results can be tragic."

Brock is never terribly clear about what's so tragic.

But we know this much: It must have been Bill's fault.

Review
The Seduction of Hillary Rodham
By David Brock
Free Press
452 pages, $26.

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