By Gail Sheehy
389 pages, $23.95
Maybe, sometime in the future, a writer will come along and write a measured, factually-based and insightful biography of America's fascinating first lady. If so, they will do well to avoid the pitfalls found in Gail Sheehy's highly-touted "Hillary's Choice."
Expectations for the book were high for the long-time Vanity Fair writer and author of "Passages," if only because up to now the field has largely been left to a bevy of Clinton haters who have made a small cottage industry out of ideologically-driven and journalistically-challenged accounts of Hillary and Bill both. But Sheehy is simply not a biographer, and she is unable to present the kind of nuanced and complex portrait of her subject that's required.
Sheehy falls victim to sham devices -- such as an over-reliance on unnamed or embittered sources, and re-enacted dialogue -- and over-simplification as she strains to draw unambiguous conclusions where she frequently has none. To make matters worse, there are heaping amounts of psycho-babble (the book is being marketed, after all, as "a psychological thriller," whatever that means).
Take the passage where we encounter one David Rupert, who he believes was Hillary's "first love." Rupert looks back nearly 30 years later on his relationship with Hillary and concludes, perhaps more than a bit self-servingly, that it didn't work out because he lacked political ambition.
"I think my lack of desire to be in a political role . . . was something of a disappointment to her," he explains. Then Sheehy offers this cheesy chapter-closing revelation: "I never stated a burning desire to be president of the United States," says Rupert. "I believe that was a need for her in a partner."
The arc of the story reads like this: Hillary is born into an affluent Chicago suburb where her Patton-like father withholds his affection. Very adult-like from an early age, Hillary's ambition and concern for others carry her through the stratified worlds of Wellesley and Yale Law School, where she meets her politically ambitious match in Bill Clinton. She sacrifices her own career for Bill's, comes to terms with being a governor's wife in a southern state and learns to overlook her husband's unfaithful behavior.
As first lady, she struggles to find her place in the White House after trying unsuccessfully to reform health care in 1993, recasts herself in a softer image and wins America's respect following the Lewinsky sex scandal for the dignified way she carries herself. Now, in the twilight of her husband's political career, Hillary is stepping out, politically, on her own.
Hillary, we're told, is "addicted" to Bill, who is prone to withholding his love and affection for her except when she helps him out of a political jam or forgives him for fooling around. Bill is a "sexual predator," Sheehy declares, and Hillary is his enabler.
And why did Bill have his sexual tryst with a young intern? Well, an unnamed mental health professional explains, it's Bill's attempt to recapture his lost adolescence out of fear of an early death and in response to his daughter's sexual development. Got that?
Much of what Sheehy writes has been written (or speculated) before. To be fair, she has unearthed some new information on Hillary's stern upbringing, and as far as I'm aware, is the first to report that at Hillary's now famous Wellesley commencement address, no one from her family attended.
There are some interesting observations from those who knew Hillary, like this one from longtime Arkansas scribe Max Brantley: "Bill Clinton knows what's right, but he won't ever commit one hundred percent if the political damage to himself is too great. And I guess that's the thing about Hillary; there are times when she just might."
But there are lots of gossipy passages that serve no purpose other than to raise more heat than light. Mack McLarty, Bill's childhood friend who was his first chief of staff in the White House, served, we're told, "until he had outlived his usefulness and was discarded in the second term." That's typical of the sharp (and highly questionable) characterizations Sheehy makes of the Clintons. After quoting McLarty as saying, "I married above myself in terms of intellect, like Bill did," she adds, "It is worth noting that his marriage, to a woman smarter than he, did not survive." But is it?
Unfortunately, denied access to Hillary and most of her close associates, Sheehy chooses to rely on two people with an ax to grind who are described as "casualties of the first Clinton juggernaut," as well as discredited political guru Dick Morris.
Sheehy acknowledges Mandy Grunwald and Ann Lewis, trusted political consultants of Hillary's, were of little help to her. After reading the outcome, one can hardly blame them.