Donnie Radcliffe biography of Hillary Clinton

Hillary, we still hardly know you.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of isolation that is life to either, will die.”    — E.M. Forster, Howards End

“Things didn’t bother her very much,” a high-school classmate tells Donnie Radcliffe, author of Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time. “She wasn’t the type who would lie awake nights worrying if anybody liked her….” Later on, Mrs. Clinton’s brother, Hugh, explains that while his sister can indeed be as tough as nails, “that’s just her business face. You know, like your game face when you play football.”

When the Radcliffe book arrives in stores this September, it will become the third biography in quick succession about a First Lady who has done more to reshape American political life than any woman since Eleanor Roosevelt. Preceding the Radcliffe biography was Judith Warner’s Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, and Norman King’s Hillary: Her True Story. While the Radcliffe and Warner books have much to commend them, as a group, they are as intriguing for what they don’t tell us, as for the exceptionally detailed — and sometimes repetitive — descriptions of watershed moments in Mrs. Clinton’s life.

Readers who want to know, for example, how the young Hillary Rodham escaped from conservative Park Ridge, Illinois, to emerge four years latter as a budding activist from Wellesley College will not be disappointed. Nor will anyone be short-changed who is still curious about Mrs. Clinton’s decision to forsake the promise of a lucrative East Coast legal career to “follow my heart” to Little Rock for what ultimately became a lucrative Arkansas legal career. Likewise, feminists who want reassurance that HRC is truly one of the faithful will delight in her comment, after punching out a neighborhood bully at age four, “I can play with the boys now!”

All three biographies devote considerable effort to describing Mrs. Clinton’s work at the Rose Law Firm, her impressive shepherding of education reform as First Lady of Arkansas, and her cool-headed response to the Flowers accusations on 60 Minutes during the presidential campaign. Along the way, admirers of Mrs. Clinton will be mesmerized by the impressive accumulation of evidence suggesting that this extraordinary woman who is a heart-beat away from the president doesn’t just walk on water — she glides serenely above the waves.

Although all three rely to some extent on secondary sources (the King book, it appears, does so almost exclusively), the Radcliffe biography is helped by a time-frame that extends through the first 100 days of the Clinton Administration, and two personal interviews with the First Lady — the first during the 1992 presidential campaign, the second after the election. Radcliffe, a reporter for the Washington Post, does bring some new details to light; a few are trivial, some are significant. We learn, for example, that the young Hillary was a baseball fanatic who knew the 1927 Yankee batting order by heart. We also learn of her ambiguous reassessment of Saul Alinsky, one of several social activists, theologians, and social philosophers who helped shape her social conscience and approach to activism. Most intriguing are her current thoughts about Richard Nixon — a president her work on the House Judiciary Committee legal staff helped drive from the White House — as “someone who had serious conflicts within himself,” whose resignation she believes was “humiliating and profoundly painful” and sufficient atonement for the sins of Watergate.

Some readers might be amused by the prominence Radcliffe gives to Nixon, who appears in both the first and last chapters. “She was thinking of Richard Nixon, and also about Chelsea’s cat,” Radcliffe tells us in the opening sentence of the book, setting the stage for a discussion of Mrs. Clinton’s work on the impeachment legal staff and, moving ahead twenty years, the “preemptive” attack on Mrs. Clinton by Nixon that emboldened Republicans to paint her as the greatest threat to family values since Murphy Brown. The last chapter has Mrs. Clinton musing about Richard Nixon once again, this time in a more conciliatory fashion. The lesson to be learned from Nixon, Mrs. Clinton says, is “to always ask yourself: ‘Am I seeing this problem. . . from the prism of my own experience. . .and blocking information that might be painful or contradictory?”

What the Radcliffe biography gains in some areas, it loses in others. The Warner book, despite being rushed into print in time for the Inauguration, is more expansive in its treatment of Mrs. Clinton’s life in Little Rock and her role during the 1992 presidential campaign. Though both books are marred by an admiration for the First Lady that borders on reverence, each author is candid about her enthusiasm. The reader knows what she is buying. Both biographies are credible works of journalism.

The same cannot be said for Norman King’s effort, Hillary: Her True Story. Incredibly, the first sentence of the first chapter has King renaming Hillary Diane Rodham as Hillary Victoria Rodham (Victoria is actually Chelsea’s middle name). This faux pas grand mal is a clue to the level of scholarship at work throughout the book. Most annoying is King’s habit of rarely identifying the source of his material. Too often the reader is left wondering who, if anyone, King interviewed, and which quotes are being borrowed from other sources.

In a sample of his technique, King writes, “Although she was trying to keep her professional work distinctly separated from her life as first lady of Arkansas, she found it daunting and not always possible to make the proper separation. She said, ‘I think that any responsible choice that a woman makes, if she does it with commitment, is going to be difficult.'” Did Mrs. Clinton say that to King? Eleanor Clift? Socks? At a time when personal interviews with the First Lady are paraded around like trophies by journalists with the same intensity that Moses showed after receiving exclusive rights to the Ten Commandments, we can only guess that if King had interviewed Mrs. Clinton, he would have modestly confessed to such privileged access. He does not.

There are a few other short-comings in the King book, not the least of which is a lack of discretion in deciding which secondary sources to use and then belatedly name (or not name at all). One such occurrence involves his discussion of the Clintons’ marital life in Little Rock. According to King, an “informant” has Hillary “storming out” of her husband’s office, with Bill Clinton at the top of the stairs yelling, “I’m still the governor here, bitch, and don’t you forget it.” King waits twenty pages to tell us that his “informant” is none other than the National Enquirer. In the next paragraph, he refers to “the story” in which Chelsea supposedly breaks down in tears and asks, “Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy love you anymore?” Chelsea’s plaintive question and Bill Clinton’s macho tirade were both featured in the December 8, 1992, National Enquirer article, “Hillary Clinton: How I Saved My Marriage.”

Setting aside the King book, we are still left wondering how much we really know about Hillary Rodham Clinton. The details of her public life — her legal career, the evolution of her social and political philosophy, her adroit balancing act as mother, wife, and career woman — such details are plentiful and recounted by friends, family members, and colleagues with such a reassuring redundancy that we are convinced of their verisimilitude. Yet, for all the talk of “multifacetedness,” Mrs. Clinton comes across in these biographies as rather one-dimensional. Beneath the impression of relentless dynamism, there is little to suggest a woman of profound psychological depth or complexity.

After dispatching her neighborhood bully at age four, we never again see the young Hillary shed a tear or react with emotional spontaneity to trauma or conflict. Not a word is written about crisis or confrontation with her parents or her brothers. Nor is there a hint that she endured the anguished longing and introspection found in most teenagers. It’s as if the young Hillary popped out of Dorothy Rodham’s womb a fully-formed adult, briefcase in hand, ready to battle injustice wherever she found it. Growing up in an environment that Radcliffe describes as “straight out of Ozzie and Harriet,” she appears frighteningly well-adjusted, the beneficiary of an “idyllic” but dreamless, fearless world.

Events that might shed some light on the development of her social consciousness also point towards a view of Mrs. Clinton more as social engineer or technocrat than inspired populist. Personal encounters with the poor and other victims of social injustice are safely staged and consists primarily of a few trips to Chicago with her youth minister, Don Jones, and a “baby-sitting brigade” for the children of migrant farm workers. Later at Wellesley, and then at Yale, her political gestation occurs in vitro: she absorbs second-hand news of assassinations, war, and political deceit. Although her biographers suggest a connection between Mrs. Clinton and the existentialism of her mentor, Don Jones, we get the impression that hers is an intellectual existentialism, not one born of a consuming personal angst.

Given that she has just stepped onto the world stage, it would be premature to conclude that Mrs. Clinton is a simple personality. What we can say is that she — and her biographers — have revealed little more than the outer life of someone whose lifelong work for social and political change makes us suspect there is more. Even after granting Mrs. Clinton the “zone of privacy” she claimed during her 60 Minutes interview, a reader might expect that after 750 pages of biography someone would have left behind at least one anecdote to suggest that Mrs. Clinton doesn’t live solely in a world in which, as E.M. Forster put it, “anger and telegrams count.”

In these sanitized versions of Mrs. Clinton’s life, her friends and family members, while perhaps believing that they are protecting the First Lady, perpetuate the stereotype of Mrs. Clinton as aloof and unemotional. We inevitably end up with a portrait of a woman who never lets down her guard, who always wears her game face, who ultimately is unknowable, certainly to others, and perhaps more ominously, to herself. In the classic left-brain, right-brain paradigm, Mrs. Clinton is portrayed as stubbornly left-brained: rational, cerebral, self-righteous, lineal. She rarely, if ever, is described by friends or family members as creative, innovative, emotional, empathetic, intuitive, introspective, sensual.

We should count our blessings, perhaps. Richard Nixon, that glumaceous figure Radcliffe uses like bookends to contain her portrait of Mrs. Clinton, drowned the idealism of an entire generation in the eddies of his psychological complexity. We all eventually paid the price for his deceitfulness, paranoia, and insecurity.

If there’s a rush to idolize Mrs. Clinton, it might be the First Lady — not truth — which suffers most as a consequence. Certainly, these biographies bring us more than detritus: much of what we learn about Mrs. Clinton is important. On an intellectual level, there’s little confusion about what she stands for and what she has accomplished. What’s missing are those personal artifacts that tell readers she shares not only their aspirations for a good and just society, but also their pain, their fears, their dreams.

No doubt it will be awhile, if ever, before we have an answer about Mrs. Clinton, but ultimately we end up asking: is this a woman who dreams?

Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time, Donnie Radcliffe, Warner Books, NY, NY. Hardcover. Available September, 1993. $17.95
Hillary: Her True Story, Norman King, Birch Lane Press, NY, NY, Hardcover. 1993. $19.95.
Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, Judith Warner, Signet, NY, NY. Paperback. 1993. $4.99.

Published by

Frank Marafiote

Frank started the Hillary Clinton Quarterly in 1992 and has been "keeping up with Hillary" for more than 25 years. Recently retired, he worked in advertising and communications and also taught marketing courses several times a year for a local university.

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