Hillary's History

Culture Watch

Mr. Gould is the author of 1968: The Election That Changed America, Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady and The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. He is currently working on a history of the Republican Party.

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Amid all the hysteria and hype about Hillary Clinton's new memoir, Living History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003, $28.00), almost no attention has been given to where the book fits into the genre of first ladies memoirs. Equally absent have been appraisals of the book's historical value for understanding the intricacies of the Clinton administration itself. In both cases, the strengths and weaknesses of Mrs. Clinton's narrative are likely to keep historians busy consulting the book for many years.

While it has become standard in the past three decades for presidential wives to write accounts of their years in the White House, the record for most of the twentieth century was more spotty. The first memoir by a presidential wife was Helen Herron Taft's Recollections of Full Years (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914). Most of the book deals with the years that the Tafts spent in the Philippines, but the last several chapters take up the presidency. She takes some shots at Theodore Roosevelt in the course of describing her White House life and defending her husband's record.

Edith Wilson waited eighteen years after the end of her husband's presidency to bring out My Memoir (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1939) about Woodrow Wilson's courtship, their marriage, and his illness in 1919-1921. Mrs. Wilson had a vivid imagination about what happened to her and she did not let facts stand in the way of a good story. The phrase "use with caution" has become almost part of the book's subtitle.

The most prolific first lady memoirist was Eleanor Roosevelt who published one volume about her early life, This Is My Story, while she was first lady, another after her husband's death called This I Remember, and a third in the 1950s entitled On My Own. Mrs. Roosevelt was very discreet but the pain of her rocky marriage comes through in such chilling lines as her judgment about Franklin: "I was one of those who served his purposes."

Following Eleanor Roosevelt, there was an extended break in first lady memoirs. In 1970 Lady Bird Johnson published A White House Diary (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) that contained one-seventh of the extensive diary entries she had made almost daily during her years in the White House. The book remains one of the best windows into Lyndon Johnson's character and gives a good sense of the contributions of a remarkable first lady. Some further portions of the diary were disclosed by Michael Beschloss in his books on Lyndon Johnson's tapes. Nonetheless, a scholarly edition of the entire corpus of Mrs. Johnson's diary would be a major contribution.

Pat Nixon remained silent about her White House experience, and the best clues to her feelings lie in the biography her daughter Julie brought out in Pat Nixon: The Untold Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986). Her successor, Betty Ford, has been the listed author for two ghost-written accounts of her White House tenure. The first was The Times of My Life (New York: Harper, 1978), written with Chris Chase, and a second also done with Chase, Betty: A Glad Awakening (Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1987). In the first Mrs. Ford is guarded and elliptical about her alcoholism; the second is much more candid and direct, though key details about her family and her own marital past are omitted.

The most popular first lady personal narrative prior to Hillary Clinton was Rosalynn Carter, First Lady From Plains (Boston, Houghton Mifflin,1984), constructed and written with help from Linda Bird Francke. Carter's book outsold her husband's memoirs and was on the best-seller list for a time. Because of the personal and political travails the Carters experienced, this book is most like Living History in tone and approach. When read in conjunction with the memoir of Mrs. Carter's press secretary, Mary Finch Hoyt, East Wing: Politics, the Press, and a First Lady (Xlibris, 2001), First Lady From Plains explains much about why the Carter presidency took the form it did.

The two Republican first ladies that followed both have contributed two memoirs to the literature in this field. Nancy Reagan's first book, written with Bill Libby, Nancy (New York: William Morrow, 1980) was a kind of prequel to the presidency that presented a sanitized portrait of her early life. The second volume, written with William Novak, My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan (New York: Random House, 1989) allowed her to respond to the flood of kiss and tell books from presidential aides that emerged even before the Reagan presidency ended. Barbara Bush, Barbara Bush: A Memoir (New York, 1994) recounted her White House years based on the extensive, candid, and often waspish diary that she maintained during her husband's presidency. Mrs. Bush has another memoir coming out in October about her post-White House years and her son's administration as president. Reflections: Life After the White House is reportedly so candid that the lawyers for the former first lady have advised her to make some timely deletions.

Where then does Living History fit into this tradition of first lady reminiscences? Because of Clinton's role in the administration and the controversies that still swirl around her, this is more of a policy-oriented volume than its predecessors. Her involvement with campaigns and election strategy, as well as legislation, is laid out in more detail than had previously been the case for presidential spouses. As a result, the book has also received more intense scrutiny than had these earlier works.

The book is being published at a time when the dominant journalistic and political interpretation in the 1990s of the Whitewater scandal involving the Clintons is being overturned. Building on the work of Jeffrey Toobin, Gene Lyons, and Joe Conason, Sidney Blumenthal's book on The Clinton Wars (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) has called into question the assumption, once so prevalent in the journalistic community, that there must have been fire behind the smoke of the Whitewater allegations. The recent unhappy events at the New York Times involving Jayson Blair have spilled over into renewed doubt about that paper's role in the Whitewater story. So there may now be a more sympathetic audience, beyond journalists with a stake in the older version, for Mrs. Clinton's recounting of these events.

Her task in the book is not an easy one. Because so many issues were raised about the personal and public life of the Clinton's during the 1990s, the book sometimes reads like a step-by-step answer to the numerous critics of Hillary Clinton. Every sentence or paragraph about her childhood has become disputed ground. Was she really a fan of the New York Yankees as a young girl? She had said so in 1993 and 1994 before the question of running for the Senate from New York ever arose. Six years later, when the Senate seat opportunity appeared, New York-based commentators such as Tim Russert of Meet the Press questioned her claims and late-night comedians made much of the apparent opportunism of her new major-league allegiance to the Bronx Bombers. Yet she shows that a basic consistency existed in her Senate campaign with her earlier unprompted comments. As a fan of the Chicago Cubs in the early 1960s, she disliked the White Sox, found Mickey Mantle exciting, and thus rooted for the Yankees at a time when the baseball leagues had only eight teams and no divisions.

Similarly, Gaily Sheehy in her book Hillary's Choice (New York: Random House, 1999) constructed an elaborate psychological rationale for a strained relationship between Hillary Rodham and her father Hugh. One piece of evidence was the elder Rodham's apparent absence from her graduation ceremonies at Wellesley in 1969. In her interviews, Sheehy found that few of Hillary Rodham's classmates remembered seeing her father at the festivities. Clinton rebuts the story with her recounting of a father who flew into Boston on his own, stayed briefly to see his daughter, and then returned home.

For the historian, deciding the truth between these two interpretations will not be easy. On the one hand, there are the memories of Clinton's classmates, recorded more than three decades after the event, that her father was not there. Presumably, as new graduates, they were not concentrating on the whereabouts of the parent of their classmate who they then had no way of knowing would become first lady twenty-three years later. For her part, Clinton offers a plausible story of a father who made only a quick appearance to see his daughter. Perhaps the private papers of Hillary Clinton will one day reveal a note to her father, a fugitive plane ticket, or a letter from a friend saying how nice it was to see her father at the ceremonies. Until then, a kind of evidentiary stalemate will exist on this matter. The point is small in one sense, but large in another. Legends grow up around first ladies and presidents, harden into fact, and are endlessly repeated. Sorting them out decades later is a genuine challenge for serious historians.

From her cattle futures investments to the Rose Law Firm billing records, Mrs. Clinton engages in a kind of running historiographical dialogue to respond to her critics and set the record straight from her point of view. The discussion of the rationale for her investment in cattle futures seems plausible but does not discuss the dubious judgment that led her, like George Washington Plunkitt, to see an opportunity to profit from wealthy friends and take it. That she might have confined herself to the more prudent path of regular saving from her salary with the Rose Law Firm was an option that did not commend itself to her. While she disposes of the questions of illegality that surrounded this episode, she never really gets at the seemliness of her plunge into this high-stakes investment with Arkansas friends.

The initial conventional wisdom among the punditry about the book was that there was little "new" in the volume. Leaving aside what "new" means in the context of a memoir, future students of the Clinton years will appreciate the level of detail that Senator Clinton and her collaborators have provided about such controversial subjects as the ill-fated healthcare plan of 1993-1994. Perhaps because she has spent three years in the Senate now, Clinton understands better than she did a decade ago that the capacity of Congress to digest large scale presidential initiatives is limited. If she does not fully explore why Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was so opposed to the Clinton initiative in healthcare, she does see why Democrats found the complex plan that came out of the administration difficult to understand and even harder to enact. Still, the detail is present and that will enable future researchers to track her thinking about healthcare in the papers of the administration when they are opened to view at the Clinton Presidential Library in the years ahead.

Complaints have also been raised about the abundance of information on Mrs. Clinton's overseas trips. Why should readers have to suffer through Mrs. Clinton's recitation, for example, of her trip to India and Bangladesh in the spring of 1995 and her visit to the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research? Here too there is more than meets the eye in the book. As Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler (June 20, 2003) has shown about Mrs. Clinton's support for efforts to fight dysentery in India, there was a genuine health policy issue involving "oral rehydration therapy" being described, and future teachers and readers of Clinton in classrooms will be grateful for these leads to her priorities. More than in most first lady memoirs there are a wealth of topics here for scholarly articles and future student papers about this most controversial of first ladies.

Understandably, Mrs. Clinton can shed only indirect light on the most vexing issue surrounding her career--why she excites such intense passions among those who oppose her. Her political journey from a Republican upbringing to a Democratic allegiance was not so strange as to sustain the feelings of intense enmity that have always crackled around her. Despite their personal failings and Bill Clinton's overactive libido (not a new phenomenon in the testosterone-rich environment of the nation's capital), the Clintons are two conventional politicians pursuing goals that are within the nation's mainstream. Perhaps it was Senator Clinton's start in politics as a Goldwater Girl in 1964 or her work in the Watergate episode that stirred Republican juices. Much will remain vague until the private papers of her adversaries are opened and we learn more about the inner motives of their public disdain.

More mystifying still is the animus of the press corps toward her that is evident in this memoir and their reaction to the book. If Bill Clinton drives Republicans to distraction, Hillary Clinton can make celebrity journalists such as Maureen Dowd and Margaret Carlson virtually foam at the mouth. Some have refused to read the book and others have skimmed it at book stores. When reviews occur, such as the one Maureen Dowd did for the New York Times Book Review (June 29, 2003), it is evident that old animosities have not diminished. Like a group of unruly school children faced with an unwelcome arithmetic assignment, the journalistic scribes offer up a few tired cliches about Mrs. Clinton's alleged lust for the White House in 2004 or 2008 and move on. The interpretive device of imputing political motives to politicians enables reporters to seem like analysts without having to consider the merits of the ideas themselves. This tired technique has become an obstacle to serious discourse.

So it will likely be up to historians, with their willingness to engage with primary sources, to document their findings fully, and to take account of other writings to provide the balanced assessment of Living History that the book deserves. The final verdict will no doubt be a mixed one. Hillary Clinton took the institution of the first lady in important new directions. She also made mistakes of strategy and tactics in handling the media and in framing issues. Still, her book will endure as a provocative and rich guide to the reasons why the Clinton years remain such a disputed part of recent American history. A future first lady writing about her years in the White House will be hard pressed to produce a book more revealing of and more interesting about the character of its author.

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Virginia Harlow - 7/20/2003

Mr. Gould. My students, when the reach the age to do so, will definitely research theClinton years. However, the facts about the Clintons will not be found in journalistic opinion pieces such as Conason, Blumenthal, etc. The facts will be fould in the under oath testimony of many people who testified, and in the OIC reports, the careful research of those who had solid evidence other than "journalistic opinion" on which to base their findings about the Clintons. I would hope that college and university classes require something more of historians than checking into journalistic opinion articles.

William C Berman - 7/13/2003

Pursuant to this discussion that Professor Gould has launched with his thoughtful review of HRC's book, I urge my fellow
historians not to overlook Dick Morris's Behind the Oval Office. It provides a valuable perspective and
and offers much useful material into the politics and antics of Clinton's first term as president.

Lewis L. Gould - 7/12/2003

If you wish to believe the New York Times went easy on Clinton, please do so. Few other students of the period would agree with that assessment. As for Mrs. Clinton, the Times Magazine ran a Michael Kelly piece attacking her in 1993 that hardly qualified as building her up. So I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on that matter as well. My larger point is this. Attacking the motives of the defenders of the Clintons and their critics is not in the end going to take us very far. Historians, using all the relevant sources pro and con, will have to wade into the sea of journalistic evidence, and try to find some balance and fairness. Reading Mrs. Clinton's book is part of that task, as would be the case with any other source. My review simply tried to point out that there is ample material in the memoir for appraising her impact. If I were teaching a seminar on "The Clinton Years," for example, I would have students take various episodes described in the book, tell them to go see what they would make of the controversy, and then learn from what they discovered. If, as you suggest, the work of the Clinton defenders is flawed, then opportunity knocks for you or others to write books showing how that is true.

jim naso - 7/12/2003

Mr. Gould:

Toobin's book grew out of a series of articles in The New Yorker, a periodical very sympathetic to Clinton. Blumenthal was writing regularly for The New Yorker a few years earlier. The fawning pieces he wrote there earned him a job in the White House. According to TRUTH AT ANY COST by Schmidt & Weisskopf, both he and Lyons specialized in circulating rumor and innuendo about Ken Starr among other devious tasks. Conason wrote pro-Clinton stuff for The Observer. He was reportedly a regular guest at the Clinton White House. I believe he used to write for The Village Voice. Enough said.

You seem to believe that The New York Times went hard on Clinton. Compared to The Wall Street Journal, they were easy on him. Of course, since you imply that "building on the work of" Blumenthal, Conason, Lyons and Toobin will carry us closer to historical truth than the "prevalent" journalistic view, you undoubtedly regard The Journal as not worth serious consideration.

I thought The Times bent over backward for Clinton. But what was glaringly obvious was the way that paper went to great and shameful lengths to promote and protect Hillary. When Bill's troubles were at their most acute, one could be assured of finding a front-page -- A FRONT-PAGE -- puff piece on Hillary that would have been more appropriate in a woman's magazine than in the alleged Paper of Record. "She's a conservative girl from the Midwest, but she believes fervently in all sorts of progressive causes. She bakes cookies and stands by her man, but she's also a staunch feminist." And so on, ad nauseam. These girlish pieces appeared in The Times regularly. Of course, she knew nothing about Whitewater, Rose records, Vince Foster, etc. "She was the co-President of the United States, but she knew nothing." Stands by her man, indeed.

I hope that when historians have their day with Clinton that they DO NOT build on the work of Blumenthal, Conason, Lyons, Toobin and Hillary Clinton. After Michael Bellesiles and assorted other frauds revealed in the last several years, the profession does not need any more black eyes.


Lewis L. Gould - 7/9/2003

Mr. Richardson: I don't accept Mrs. Clinton's accounts as credible on their face. I say that she offers an explanation for her actions that need to be taken seriously by historians. Much of her story has been supported so far by the material in the Conason, Toobin, and Blumenthal books. She was not indicted for what happened with the Rose Law Firm files, despite predictions that she would be. As far as I know the Resolution Trust Corporation report supported her version of events, and indicated that the law firm files, once they came to light, backed up what she had said. The subject needs and so far has not had a documented, scholarly examination of the controversy from a viewpoint other than these pro-Clinton versions. That might put some of the issues you raise more into play.
On the "sanitizing" matter, that may not be as simple as you seem to think. Once documents get into the White House filing system, as they did with Mrs. Clinton, they have a high likelihood of being preserved and removing them becomes difficult. Take, for example, Mrs. Clinton's correspondence. Her staff told me in 1995 that she had received 500,000 letters to that point. This is mentioned in my sketch of Mrs. Clinton in my book, American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy (Routledge, 2001), p. 432. That would mean, for example, that there might be as many as 500+ manuscript boxes of her correspondence up to that point with at least as much, if not more, for 1996-2001. "Sanitizing" such a load of documentary information would be a huge task, one that we can assume Mrs. Clinton has not done since 2001. At some point, all of that information will become subject to Freedom of Information Act requests through the Clinton Library, if the documents are not opened to review in the regular course of the Library's activities. I would guess that in the end there will be several thousand boxes of documents relating to Mrs. Clinton that historians will need to peruse. To sanitize all of that would require months of work and the removal of files from the custody of the National Archives, not a process likely to occur under the supervision of the staffs of presidential libraries where I have done research. These are dedicated professionals who serve the government and not the president (or first lady) whose library is their place of employment. Moreover, in the sanitizing process, one would then have to perform the same laborious task for all the files of the White House aides in the Clinton administration as well as the White House Central Files.
Beyond the improbability of a general shredding wholesale out of all the materials at the future Clinton Library, there is so much else already in the public domain that historians can use but have rarely consulted. As someone who once owned and then donated to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin the 20 volumes of the Investigation of Whitewater Development Corporation and Related Matters, Senate Hearing 104-869 (Washington, 1997), I can attest that there is an abundance of material there that reflects well and ill on Mrs. Clinton. All of which is to say that your pessimism about what historians can find out about Mrs. Clinton from the materials in the Clinton Library, to take one example, is probably premature. Of course, my personal remedy for these matters is to say that when a politician of whatever party announces for federal office, their personal papers automatically become the property of the people of the United States. That rule, of course, would not apply to historians! Thanks for the comments.

Will J. Richardson - 7/9/2003

Dear Mr. Gould,

I too am one who "has skimmed the book in a bookstore". What most disturbs me about the tone of your article is your apparent willingness to accept Ms. Clinton's explainations of any event or circumstance as credible. She also asserts in her book that she did not believe or suspect that her husband, who she knew was a serial philanderer, had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. I for one view skeptically, explainations and assertions offerred the reader in a book which elsewhere invites incredulity and distrust. What have you discerned from Ms. Clinton's prior behavior or statments that informs your faith in her book's faithfulness to the facts? Consider the Rose Law Firm Files.

Lawyers do not lose files. Particularly when they are the subject of ongoing litigation and especially not when the Feds are looking for them. If the files are transferred to a new custodian the transfer is documented by both the original custodian and the transferee. This is true in every law firm and lawyer with whom I have ever been acquainted. Certainly the Rose Law Firm, one of the most influential and prestigious, in Arkansas, had a file tracking system documenting who had the file. The file got lost for two years and reappeared in Ms. Clinton's residence without a paper trail. This can happen only as a result of deliberate concealment.

The only point of my original comment is that historians will never learn anything about Ms. Clinton that she does not wish disclosed and will never find any primary source over which she has control unless she wants it found.

Lewis L. Gould - 7/8/2003

That issue is discussed in Living History, pp. 329-337.

Will J. Richardson - 7/8/2003

Since Hillary was able to keep the Rose Firm Billing Records hidden from the Special Prosecutor for years while they were under subpoena, it is unlikely that she will leave any primary source materials around which contradict her public positions. Whatever else, we can be sure that the only records that will be available to historians will be thoroughly sanitized.