By Andy Feeney
The following books are discussed here:
Carl Bernstein, A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Vintage Books, 2007 and 2008, New York), 638 pages;
Jonathan Allan and Amie Parnes, HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton (Broadway Books, 2013, 2014, New York), 452 pages;
Doug Henwood, My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (Seven Stories Press, 2015 and 2016, New York and Oakland), 231 pages;
Peter Schweitzer, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich (Harper, 2015, printed in the United States of America), 243 pages; and
Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books, Macmillan Publishers, 2016, New York), 305 pages.
If the polls are right, Hillary Clinton will soon become the first woman elected President of the United States. Most progressives will undoubtedly be relieved by Donald Trump’s defeat — assuming he is defeated. But we vary dramatically in how we feel about Hillary’s likely victory. Many on the left, both inside and outside of DSA, will celebrate Hillary’s victory. Others will be appalled.
Dolores Huerta, a key activist in the historic United Farmworkers strike against California grape growers in the 1960s, and an honorary DSA chair, actively worked for Hillary in this year’s Democratic primaries. Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was another prominent Hillary supporter. There also were many others, especially among abortion rights advocates, leaders of international unions in the AFL-CIO, and older black and Latino voters.
On the other hand, actress Susan Sarandon, a supporter of progressive causes for a generation, until recently declared herself a “Bernie or Bust” activist. Some younger (and some older) DSA members including Dr. Cornel West have said they will to vote for Jill Stein and the Green Party rather than Hillary. Many well-known opponents of U.S. militarism, including journalist Chris Hedges and Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, reject her completely on the basis of her hawkish foreign policy instincts.
A few months ago, black progressive commentator Adolph Reed, Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, urged leftists to support this year’s Democratic ticket in roughly the same fashion that progressives in 1991 supported a notoriously corrupt governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, in a race for office against Klansman David Duke. The progressive slogan in 1991, Reed wrote in August, was “Vote for the Crook – It’s Important.” Similarly, he thinks, we need this year to “Vote for the Lying Neoliberal Warmonger: It’s Important.”
How can Hillary inspire such love as well as such contempt within the U.S. left? Is she a hero of progressive politics, as Dolores Huerta, John Lewis and many reproductive rights advocates believe? Is she a lying neoliberal warmonger? Is she a bit of both? Whatever the answers, her character and politics matter. What do they indicate about how she may act in the Oval Office?
Democratic socialists looking to explore these topics can quarry the entire Internet for answers, some of them plausible. But socialists with the leisure (and/or professional duty) to engage in serious reading about Hillary might begin with the books mentioned in this Washington Socialist review. Together they provide more than 1,000 pages of reporting and analysis about Hillary, her history and her character. There is an immense amount of detail in these books, appropriate for someone in active public life as many decades as Hillary Rodham Clinton. For Washington Socialist readers who want to examine one or more of these books, here are thumbnail sketches of them:
A Woman in Charge, which some critics regard as the best biography of Hillary to date, is by veteran investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, coauthor of the historic account of the Watergate scandal, All the President’s Men. In A Woman in Charge, published in 2007, Bernstein provides an account of Hillary’s life from her early childhood in a conservative, middle-class suburb of Chicago in the 1950s, through her sojourn in Arkansas as the wife of then-governor Bill Clinton, through her tumultuous years in the White House with him in the 1990s. The book concludes with an account of Hillary’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2000, some of her decisions as senator, and her preparation for a run for president in 2008.
Along the way Bernstein explores Hillary’s early life as the daughter of an intelligent and probably progressive mother and an opinionated, emotionally abusive and conservative father. From there he reports on her teen years as a Goldwater Republican, and her exposure to a Methodist youth minister who encouraged her to take an interest in social justice issues and encouraged her to attend a 1962 civil rights rally in Chicago where she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However troubled the marriage of Hillary’s parents might have been, both her mother and father strongly encouraged academic and other kinds of achievement on the part of their daughter. Perhaps as result, Hillary’s intelligence, hard work and good grades over the years got her admitted to then all-female Wellesley College, where she came into contact with young women from far more elite backgrounds, and where over the course of a few years her politics evolved from Goldwater Republican to progressive Democrat and opponent of the Vietnam War.
Never a fiery rebel as an undergraduate, the young Hillary Rodham nevertheless did her senior thesis at Wellesley on the community organizing philosophy of Saul Alinsky, who may have influenced her future political evolution with his dictum that successful social change is ultimately about the successful organizing and marshalling of power, not merely the advocacy of ethical virtue. At her 1969 graduation ceremony at Wellesley, Hillary gave a commencement address that voiced the growing radicalism of her classmates and the dissatisfaction they felt with key institutions of American life, including the universities themselves. The eloquence of at least some of her words won her a mention in Life magazine later that year.
She went on to attend Yale Law School during a period of revolutionary ferment on campus and became involved in editing, if not founding, an alternative law school journal at Yale that focused on social and racial justice issues, as well as antiwar protest. As Bernstein sees it, during her first year at Yale Hillary played a pivotal role in maintaining dialogue and negotiations between the moderate student left and the Yale administration, particularly during campus demonstrations focused on the New Haven trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale and the furious student reaction against the killings of antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970.
Also in 1970, Bernstein notes, Hillary was one of many progressive students invited to attend a League of Women Voters youth conference, where she met several other young progressives who became lifelong friends and supporters, including civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, future gay rights activist David Mixner, radical scholar Peter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman, a civil rights organizer who was soon launched a new organization, initially called the Washington Research Project, to promote the welfare of poor and minority children. Eventually this would evolve into the Children’s Defense Fund.
At Marian Wright Edelman’s invitation, Hillary moved to Washington for the summer and did research on the problems facing children of migrant farm workers, for hearings on child poverty then being chaired by Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.). It was at some of these hearings, Bernstein reports, that Hillary met classmates from Yale who were doing summer internships for large corporations and who were sitting on the other side of the table from the children’s welfare advocates. Hillary expressed contempt for their choices, Bernstein indicates, telling them “I’m not interested in corporate law. My life is too short to spend it making money for some big anonymous firm.”
Yale Law School is also where Hillary Rodham met Bill Clinton. After a short period of mutual awkwardness, the two soon entered into an apparently life-long love affair that has featured a great deal of arguing and some real conflict between them, as well as the problems generated by Bill’s repeated sexual engagements with other women. However, Bernstein considered the relationship still solid as late as 2007, even after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Along with Bill, who helped recruit her, Hillary in 1972 did volunteer work in Texas for the antiwar George McGovern campaign for president. In that capacity she did diligent work in tough neighborhoods of San Antonio registering Hispanic voters on behalf of McGovern. From Bernstein’s account of these years in her life, it seems easy to see why Hillary today might have passionate black and Hispanic supporters, some of whom have been with her for decades. It is also clear from his account that while some of Hillary’s Yale classmates found her aloof and a little formidable, others were impressed even then by what they thought would be her illustrious political future, as well as her capacity – in private, anyway – for humor, friendship and camaraderie.
When Bernstein turns to Hillary’s decision to move with Bill to Arkansas and help him pursue a political career there, A Woman in Charge turns more nuanced. One possible pivot in Hillary’s political development occurred during Bill’s unsuccessful race for the House of Representatives in 1974, when his campaign was approached by a lawyer representing dairy interests in a certain Arkansas county who promised to swing the county for him in exchange for certain favors. Hillary vehemently opposed the deal as unworthy of the campaign, Bernstein writes. On Election Day, Bill then did surprisingly well across the state and nearly won the election – except for that particular county. Arguably, the experience would lead Hillary to be less choosy in the future in raising cash for political campaigns.
It is also in Arkansas that Hillary, after a stint at teaching law at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, eventually became the first woman partner in the state’s most important corporate law firm, the Rose Law Firm, a job that would ultimately lead her to serving on the board of Walmart, among other companies. It also was in Arkansas, during Bill’s successful run to become governor, that Hillary met the controversial campaign consultant Dick Morris, a genius at plotting political campaigns based on polling data, who would repeatedly play important roles in the Clinton’s lives over the next two decades.
A third major part of Bernstein’s book covers Bill’s successful 1992 campaign for president, Hillary’s role in helping him to dodge accusations of sexual infidelity that might have scuttled his electability, and the Clintons’ subsequent service in the White House. Bernstein indicates that Hillary’s secretiveness regarding the White House press, questions regarding alleged conflicts of interest involving her work for the Rose Law Firm in the 1980s, her initially ham-fisted social relations with the Washington insider social world, and the secretiveness and self-righteousness that marked her efforts to shape a health care reform bill for the Clinton administration all were politically damaging to the Clinton administration during Bill’s first term.
However, Bernstein notes that she displayed a stunning mastery of the intricacies of the failed health care reform package when questioned about it by Congress, and he concludes that during Bill’s second term in the White House, Hillary saved the Clinton White House from disaster, in part by rallying White House insiders to fight back against Republican efforts to impeach her husband and in part by providing Bill with crucial emotional support. Bernstein then goes on, rather briefly, to examine her career in the Senate from 2001 through early 1970, with a brief mention of the liberal criticism she faced for supporting legislation giving George W. Bush authority for the Iraq invasion in 2003.
HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, first published in 2014, is a work by Jonathan Allen, award-winning reporter for Bloomberg News, and Amie Parnes, senior White House correspondent for The Hill. A Los Angeles Times review quoted on the back cover of the 2015 paperback edition of HRC calls it “A character-driven psychodrama, chockablock with sweaty descriptions of its players,” while the Christian Science Monitor review excerpted inside the front cover finds it “A thoroughly reported and well-written chronicle of Clinton’s comeback and her tenure at the State Department.” Both cover blurbs are a little exaggerated.
It’s questionable just how “sweaty” this book is, and it makes no mention at all of an issue of concern to many on the left – Hillary’s apparent acquiescence with, if not approval of, the 2010 coup in Honduras that overthrew left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya, and the subsequent murder of Berta Cáceres, an Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights activist who had the gall to criticize the coup publicly. This book also reports little if anything about alleged conflicts of interest involving corporations making big contributions to the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative while Hillary served in the State Department.
On the other hand, Allen and Parnes do report at some length on Hillary’s apparently central role in coordinating a number of different governments, most of them European and Middle Eastern, in the 2010 military actions that brought down Muammar Qaddafi’s government in Libya. In the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led up to Qaddafi’s overthrow and death, the authors write, Hillary was clearly in charge: “Libya was truly Hillary’s account, and it was on track to be the success that defined her legacy … If all went right, Libya would be the jewel in her crown.”
Allen and Parnes report that in discussions with Libyan rebel Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the Libyan Transitional National Council, that occurred before the Libyan operation, Hillary “wanted to be sure that the United States wasn’t betting dragged into a revolution that would replace Qaddafi with either chaos or another government that didn’t respect the rights of out-of-power groups.” But of course, everything in Libya did not go right, and chaos did engulf Libya following Qaddafi’s downfall, and the book contains some coverage of the 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy at Benghazi and the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans there.
On a more positive note, Allen and Parnes consider the partial restoration of democracy in Burma/Myanmar, and the military junta’s decision to release Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, to have been one of Hillary’s unheralded triumphs. The U.S. and other Western market democracies had long imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar to punish the military junta for their violations of human rights, the authors observe, but Hillary opted for a “smart diplomacy” that offered the generals a relaxation of the sanctions in return for democratic reforms. The mixture work of sanctions and incentives apparently led the generals to relent, whereas sanctions alone had not.
A striking if brief section of the book discusses how Hillary, following her defeat by Obama in the 2008 presidential primaries, resolved to get up to speed on his campaign staff’s successful use of social media for political ends. At the State Department, accordingly, Hillary created a two-person innovation team consisting of a youngish veteran of Obama’s social media outreach team for the 2008 election and a young tech-savvy veteran of the George Bush administration and gave them free rein “to explore the intersection of technology, not just in theory but in practice.”
Their two-person innovation team, Allen and Parnes report, “eventually grew to number more than one hundred strong across the State Department’s various bureaus … They were a special forces unit of sorts for Hillary, and their efforts were directed at projects as benign as setting up social media accounts for State in various countries and as insidious as providing tech tools and training for rebels in Middle Eastern countries.”
Hillary invited executives from “Twitter, Google, Cisco, and the like” to a private State Department dinner” in 2010 shortly before delivering a major foreign policy speech on internet freedom. “In reaching out to the executives of the tech giants, Allen and Parnes suggest, Hillary believed “that a partnership between the government and American companies could help both the execution of foreign policy and the expansion of American business opportunities.”
At the same time, in building up the social media capabilities of her team at State, she was laying the groundwork for a more technically savvy political campaign in the event she would run for President again, and in cases in which the State Department team deployed social media tools to help women and children in extreme situations overseas, Hillary also was exploring the use of electronic technology to serve her “religion-inspired commitment to social justice.”
On a somewhat less idealistic note, HRC discusses the sometimes tense relations between the Clintons and their supporters and the Obama White House at certain points during Hillary’s service at the State Department, and outlines the efforts that Hillary and, to a greater extent, Bill made to reward the loyalty of Democrats who had remained committed to Hillary during the 2008 primaries while punishing several of those who had abandoned Hillary’s campaign for Obama’s. In this way, as one Clinton loyalist in the Democratic Party said to the authors, Bill helped to demonstrate that there is a certain price to be paid for crossing the Clintons, a lesson that many Democrats might want to remember as the campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination got underway.
Ironically, this book went to press before Bernie Sanders surfaced as a significant factor in the 2016 Democratic primaries. There is no mention of him in the index, although there are some brief references to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By 2013, the authors write in an epilogue, “populism was in and the establishment was out in both parties,” and liberals disappointed with Obama’s performance in office were considering Hillary as likely to continue his policies and were looking to Warren as a possible challenger to her.
Yet at least by the time the first edition of HRC was published, Allen and Parnes predicted that if and when Hillary did decide to compete for the presidency in 2016,
“She would run as a Clinton-style centrist who believes that government, business, and the nonprofit sector must all thrive. She would run as a shrewd manipulator of the levers of government who understands how to maximize dollars with public-private partnerships and how to get agencies that seem always to be at odds on the same page. She would run as an advocate and practitioner of smart power, the use of all forms of America’s influence, from persuasion to pulverization.”
In their Afterword, published in the 2014 edition, they concluded that “Throughout her time at State and as a dilettante philanthropist and corporate speaker, Clinton and her allies have built a sprawling empire of a campaign – a government in waiting designed to exploit the deepest fault lines in the Republican Party, from America’s role in foreign policy to whether the government should be involved in supporting U.S. businesses.” Whether this analysis still holds today in light the Sanders campaign and the Trump candidacy, two big surprises of the 2016 campaign season, is obviously a question Allen and Parnes could not have anticipated in 2014.
My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency, by leftwing financial and economics writer Doug Henwood, is a fairly harsh critique of Hillary’s career, albeit one that avoids prurient speculation about her marriage. Throughout her decades in public life, Henwood writes, Hillary has been subjected to “vicious sexist attacks … they’re vile, and have no place in any political critique.”
He adds that while his book points out many inconsistencies and other flaws in her political record, “I … want make clear from the first that Hillary is not The Problem.” According to “all orthodox measures, she is a highly intelligent and informed member of the political class. That’s the problem,” Henwood writes. To wit, “Hillary is a symptom of a deep sickness in the American political system, produced by the structural features designed to limit popular power that James Madison first mused about in The Federalist Papers and that the authors of the Constitution inscribed in our basic law.”
Due largely to rising economic inequality and the contradictions it has introduced into U.S. capitalism, Henwood continues, “we desperately need a new model of political economy – one that features a more equal distribution of income, investment in our rotting social and physical infrastructure, and a more cooperative ethic.” A little thought about the challenge suggests that given her history, Hillary is unlikely to play a “promising role” in bringing such a new political economy into being.
In My Turn, Henwood quickly surveys a wide array of incidents and issues over the course of Hillary’s career in which she showed apparent signs of hypocrisy, moral callousness and political opportunism, as well as bad judgment. Several of these involve her stint at the State Department and the operations of the Clinton Foundation, as well as her association with Bill’s decision on welfare reform and the crime bill in the 1990s.
Along with Bernstein, whom he quotes in several places, Henwood adds that during her work in 1993 on the Clinton administration’s failed health care reform bill, Hillary badly alienated the centrist Democratic Senator Patrick Moynihan, whose committee would have been an important one in the fight for health care reform, by what Moynihan perceived as her self-righteousness and political ruthlessness. He is dredging up such stories from her past, Henwood writes, as “an important antidote to liberals’ fantasies about her as some sort of great progressive.” To Henwood, “she is basically a standard-issue mainstream – or, as we used to say in bolder times, bourgeois politician. This book is meant to refute all the extravagant claims from her supporters that she is more than that.”
Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, is by political conservative Peter Schweitzer. According to Henwood’s account in My Turn, some of Schweitzer’s claims in this book have been shown to be factually inaccurate, and Schweitzer is known to have certain biases. Nonetheless, Clinton Cash points to some apparently grievous conflicts of interest involving the Clintons and major donors to the Clinton Foundation.
In his introduction to this book, Schweitzer professes only to be looking at “financial transactions involving foreign businesses, investors, and governments.” He expresses special concern about the Clintons receiving favors or financial contributions to themselves or the foundation from entities in “countries like Russia, India, and the United Arab Emirates, where there are major foreign policy issues at stake.”
However, one of the most disturbing chapters in Campaign Cash describes the Clinton Foundation’s role in relief and reconstruction efforts in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake there, many of the companies that he describes as apparently benefitting from sloppy management of the Haitian relief effort are based in the United States. In his chapter “Disaster Capitalism Clinton-Style,” Schweitzer argues that efforts to rebuild Haiti following the earthquake “were largely controlled by Bill and Hillary Clinton” and “have been a failure.” Other chapters of the book critique alleged misdeeds by Bill and/or Hillary relating to Columbia, Nigeria, South Sudan and the Congo, among other places.
Listen, Liberal!, by progressive gadfly author Thomas Frank, is not solely focused on the careers or the actions of Bill and Hillary Clinton, but it does contain a sharply worded chapter, “It Takes a Democrat,” in which Frank argues that Bill Clinton in the 1990s pushed through a host of different conservative measures, ranging from the NAFTA trade treaty and welfare reform to the partial deregulation of the financial industry, that no Republican president could have foisted off on the public.
Unlike some left-leaning critics who have accused Bill and Hillary of selling out their ideals for money or political expediency, Frank argues that they, as well as a whole generation of corporate-friendly Democrats they resemble, instead have been motivate at least partly by a shared class consciousness arising from their positions as highly educated professionals. Like Barack and Michelle Obama and like many of the Democrats that Bill appointed to Cabinet positions in the 1990s, Frank notes, Bill and Hillary both graduated from some of the most elite schools of higher education in the English-speaking world, including Yale, Wellesley College and the University of Oxford.
As high-status graduates from such high-status institutions, Frank contends, the Clintons and their closest friends and political associates are inclined for reasons of class interest and status to believe in meritocracy, in the notion that better educated people with higher grades from more prestigious schools have a right to higher levels of income. This makes them temperamentally predisposed to accept rising levels of income inequality in society, Frank continues. It also inclines them toward a surprising degree of conformist thinking, since they are inclined as highly educated people to dismiss ideas coming from people with lesser levels of educational attainment as being inherently implausible.
To Frank, it follows that the most common cure for poverty, income inequality and unemployment that these educational elitists tend to recommend for the nation is one involving better education and the reform of the public schools. Their common admiration for intellectual complexity has made “New Democrats” such as the Clintons more sympathetic to Wall Street hedge fund managers because the hedge fund managers, too, regularly deal with intellectual complexity. And to Frank, it follows further that New Democrats such as the Clintons automatically admire new technology and prescribe it as a cure for economic ills, even when many of the new technologies that Silicon Valley is developing today have the potential to replace human labor with automation in industry after industry, thus raising the specter of chronic or rising unemployment levels.
Members of our DSA chapter’s Socialist Book Group chose to discuss Frank’s book at our last meeting in October, and some of us found parts of the book to be exaggerated or misguided. As an alternative perspective on some of the ideas and impulses that may be guiding Hillary and members of her administration over the next few years, however, this work has some interesting points to ponder.
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