Carl Bernstein and the Real Hillary Clinton

It took Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame eight years to write “A Woman in Charge,” his new in-depth biography of the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. But by most critical accounts, it was time pretty well spent. Los Angeles Times reviewer Ron Brownstein called the book, drawn from interviews with 200 of Clinton’s colleagues, friends and enemies, “a model of contemporary political biography.” I talked to the former Washington Post reporter Thursday by telephone from New York City, where he was stuck in a traffic jam on his way to LaGuardia Airport.

Q:  In 100 words or less can you describe Hillary Clinton’s personality and character?

A: No. That’s why I wrote a book … that turns out to be 620 pages, including 80 pages of notes. But I’ll give you some attributes. She’s infinitely complex. She’s guarded, secretive. She is at times authentic and at times woefully inauthentic, which I think is a problem for her campaign, though she is showing signs of going back to the authentic Hillary Clinton, who is far more interesting than when she camouflages and guards herself to the point where we have no view of the real person there — who is passionate, extremely bright. The religious dimension is absolutely essential to understanding her. Family and religion are the two cornerstones of her character and her belief system.

Q: Is the family/religious aspect one of the more significant things that we don’t know about her or are different from the picture of herself she has presented?

A: The other day, she talked about not wearing religion on her sleeve and it’s true. She never has. And yet, the first person I talked to who was close to Hillary Clinton said, “You have to start with her Methodism,” and I believe that is true. It is the constant of her life since she was a small child. She went to church, she went to Sunday school. But more than that in the 10th grade she became very influenced through a youth minister at her church to the early philosophers of the church and the real social gospel of John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, in all the times you can, wherever you are.” She has said, “That’s why I’m comfortable in this church.” What she found — and has continued to believe — is a melding of what she sees as Christ’s essential message with a social responsibility.

And so there is a melding of the political and the religious. There are those whom I talked to, among them some of her and her husband’s principal aides, who believe she uses religion in a self-righteous way to justify her actions and to cover over some of the character flaws of herself and her husband. And there are equally many or even more people who know her who find it probably her finest attribute because it provides a constant framework of both political and religious belief in a very high-minded way. As one person said to me, “Bill Clinton has always had his eye on the ground level of politics” -– though he too is very religious in his way, though a very different way; much more concentrated on sin and forgiveness -– “and Hillary Clinton has always looked heavenward.”

Q: Are her politics as radical or leftist as her enemies claim?

A: No — and they never have been. Two of the chapters in the book about her time at Wellesley and Yale are about how she constantly was learning about radicalism, brushing up against radicalism, sometimes empathizing with some people and goals that at the time might be considered radical and at the same time firmly rejecting radicalism at virtually every point that she rubbed up against it.

She did her senior thesis at Wellesley on the great radical organizer, Saul Alinsky, and concluded that his methodology was faulty. She then went to work in the summer of her second year in law school — the summer after she had met Bill Clinton — for the premier radical law firm on the West Coast, perhaps in America, Treuhaft Walker and Burnstein. It was headed by Bob Treuhaft, the husband of the late Jessica Mitford, the writer. Two members of the firm, as Treuhaft told me, had been members of the Communist Party. The firm was known for its defense of the Black Panthers, of radicals, of left-wing labor leaders. It was accused of communist ties. But once again, she rejected radicalism.  She said it at Wellesley to her first boyfriend, and I quote this in the book: “You have to be able to win to be effective in politics.” To be effective at politics, the way she sees things, you have to be able to win elections. That precludes radicalism because radicalism has a different approach, usually.

Q: Is there much of the old “Goldwater girl” in her still?

A: Yes, there is, because she described herself in a letter that she wrote in college to her Methodist youth minister as a “mind conservative and a heart liberal.” I think that is a great description that remains very valid. One of the things she said in her famous commencement address at Wellesley, which has always been commented upon for its rebuke to Senator Edward Brooke for his failure to give proper attention to the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, was about how the old conservative values inform so much of what she described as the politics of her generation. … She has a very interesting mix of the personally conservative and … liberal political beliefs in terms of social policy. But her own values are very conservative, as everybody who knows her recognizes.

Q: What is the most troubling thing you found out about Hillary in the course of doing your book?

A: I wouldn’t single out a particular aspect. I think there are some tendencies — one toward the inauthentic. But a trouble with truth-telling, I would think, is the constant aspect of her time in public life that is most troubling.

Q: Are these big truth-shortages or little ones?

A: Here I would urge people, when they read this book, they will see that this is a sweeping narrative about a huge life and a huge roller-coaster ride, both for Hillary Clinton and the nation, as she has brought us along with her. And that through it all are problems with being truthful. Much of it is related to obfuscation rather than outright lying. If you look at a footnote I’ve written in the book about her so-called autobiography “Living History,” I say that it’s not a reliable tale in terms of the life she has actually lived. … It is a constant problem she has had in public life, even down to the way she tells the story of her childhood.

Hillary’s childhood, she has described in “Living History,” her so-called autobiography, in almost idyllic terms. She calls it a “Father Knows Best” environment. In fact, her father was a sour, unfulfilled man who humiliated her mother verbally. People who visited the house wondered why Dorothy Rodham, her mother, did not leave the marriage. 

I quote her lawyer at great length about how she was not forthcoming in responding to the press and to some of the investigations. And at the same time, you can not separate her difficulties with truth-telling from the siege she was under in the White House years and the Arkansas years from the press and in the White House years from an out-of-control special prosecutor (Kenneth Starr) who was determined to indict her. She was terrified of indictment, and the effort by the special prosecutor to indict her, which ultimately he failed in, was outrageous.

Q: Did you like Hillary Clinton more or less after you finished this book?

A: I found her more sympathetic in many ways and less sympathetic in other ways. I think the depth of her character, and her formation, and her values that have been inculcated are much more compelling than perhaps I understood when I began. I also think she, particularly in this presidential campaign, has regressed toward something she had a tendency to do when she was in the White House — and that is to surround herself with an apparat who have little interest in context or the truth and much more interest in dealing with obstacles in an aggressive way that often is counterproductive as well as self-defeating.

Q: What kind of a president would she make?

A: That’s why I have written this book — for us to know. That’s why I have written this book, because she’s the best known woman in the world and until now we have known very little of who she really is. By getting to the people who have known her best, through her life, and talking with them mostly on the record, we now have a real story of her life. That is what good reporting and biography are really about — the best obtainable version of the truth — certainly a concept that I would not apply to her own writings about her life in “Living History” and “It Takes a Village” and other self-invented pieces of biography.
We need to know the past to comprehend what kind of president she might be. There’s never predicting what kind of president somebody is going to make for sure. One thing is very interesting: if she were to win the presidency, she would go into the office with more experience of really understanding the presidency and the White House than any of our previous presidents, probably, because even more than a vice president she was intimately involved and knew everything going on in the White House for eight years. That’s a very unusual situation. And she believes in good things, for the most part; she really believes in good things.

In her campaign, they keep stressing in many of their statements that the way to look at Hillary is to look at where she stands on the issues in this campaign and not to look at the past. Well, I believe that the best indication of how someone is going to do as president is how she lived her life. Now, for the first time, because these people who knew her the best have talked to me, there is a real narrative of her life; now we can look at the past and voters can make real judgments based on a true record.

We need biography to choose the president. If we had had biography in 2000 — real biography that was the best obtainable version of the truth about George Bush — I don’t think he would be president and I don’t think we would be in the catastrophe that we are in today in the United States and the world with this disastrous presidency. Now we have real biography about Hillary Clinton and I hope we have it about all the candidates.

Q: Did you enjoy writing this book?

A: Absolutely, absolutely, because it’s finding out who somebody really is and researching and learning about a life and its hidden corners and making sense out of a whole life. This is one of the great lives of the 20th century and 21st century, so it’s been a great opportunity, and it’s been fun.

Q: Knowing what you know now about Hillary Clinton, if you had the deciding vote in the 2008 race, would you vote for her?

A: I’d have to see how she had conducted her campaign up until the Monday before Election Tuesday. But I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, is my point, nor would I embrace it.  I want to see what she does for the rest of the campaign.