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Charting the Historic Significance of Hillary Rodham Clinton (April 2017): First Lady, the White House Years, and Political Biography

By Angela Fritz

First Lady, the White House Years, and Political Biography

It is not surprising that the vast majority of works documenting Clinton’s twenty-five-year political career are biographies. With the work of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, and Robert Caro, political biography has shed its early association with political hagiography and has been given a new legitimacy in presidential scholarship by offering character studies that detail leadership style, personal ambition and shortcomings, and world perspective.

Many of the earliest political biographies on Clinton focus on her role as First Lady. Karen Blumenthal’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History and Donnie Radcliffe’s Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time offer an objective overview of Clinton’s early White House years. Both argue that Clinton’s expanded role in domestic policy served to blur and push the traditional boundaries of the position to forge an “Activist First Ladyship Role.” Barbara Burrell’s Public Opinion, the First Ladyship and Hillary Rodham Clinton offers an exploration of the public’s positive reaction to Clinton in her efforts to transform the role of First Lady. Burrell’s focus on public opinion polls is also important in tracing the early demographics of Clinton’s support among women, African Americans, and older voters.

In addition to general biographical works, Clinton’s involvement with domestic legislation, particularly heath care reform, is a central focus of early books. Just a week after President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Clinton was appointed to lead the Task Force on Health Care Reform. The most important work to analyze her role in this initiative is Haynes Johnson and David Broder’s The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, which outlines the politics of health care reform. This works offers an objective account of the shortcomings that led to the plan’s failure, with a special focus on the inner workings of the Health Care Task Force. Central to the book is an explanation of the organizational complexity of the task force, which included over 630 members arranged in eight teams and subdivided into thirty-four working groups, all of whom met in the Old Executive Office Building within the White House complex. In addition, The System documents the mobilization of special-interest groups, the development of the memorable “Harry and Louise” commercials, and the legal battles that emerged in opposition to the plan. The System is central in understanding the personal leadership of Hillary Clinton, the politics of health care reform, and the context of American politics in the 1990s.

Many of the books on Clinton’s years as First Lady analyze the role that presidential spouses play in shaping the image and politics of the presidency. Perhaps no other First Lady has played such a prominent role in her husband’s administration as Hillary Clinton. William Chafee offers an overview of this political partnership and marriage in Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal. Written as a “dual biography,” the lives of Bill and Hillary Clinton are told as parallel narratives as they work together in their political partnership. Through courtship, marriage, parenthood, and shared political causes, Chaffee’s book offers a window into how private lives explain personal character and political decision-making during the Clinton years.

Themes of political partnership between Bill and Hillary Clinton are also discussed in a variety of works written by “political insiders.” Among these works, Bob Woodward’s The Agenda tops the reading list. The Agenda documents the drafting and passage of an economic and stimulus bill in the first year of the Clinton administration. Woodward’s work borders on political exposé due to his use of unnamed sources and “deep background” research that dates to his Pulitzer- prize winning investigative reporting on Watergate and the Nixon administration. The Agenda is also unique in that Woodward was given unprecedented access to interview White House staff during the first year of the Clinton administration. As a result of this access, the publication of The Agenda was greatly anticipated by Washington insiders in the 1990s. Published in the second year of the Clinton administration’s first term, Woodward portrays a less-than polished staff, provides glimpses into the culture of the Clinton White House, and portrays the singular role played by Hillary Clinton in setting the political goals and domestic policy during the Clinton administration. Complementary to The Agenda is George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, which describes Woodward’s interview techniques as well as offers an inside look at the Clinton administration from a White House staffer’s perspective. As White House press secretary, Stephanopoulos presents a political memoir that details a Clinton White House where Hillary Clinton was central in influencing domestic policy. Offering a glimpse in the second term, Sidney Blumenthal’s The Clinton Wars document his role as adviser to the president from 1997 to 2001, with a special focus on the impeachment. In addition, The Making of Hillary Clinton: The White House Years is a new work providing a visual context of Clinton’s role as First Lady by Robert McNeely. Serving in the White House from 1992 to 1998 as the official White House photographer, McNeely had unprecedented access, and his work offers a unique visual history of Hillary Clinton’s early political career.

An overview of biographies on Hillary Clinton illustrates that she has been a controversial figure since she first emerged on the national political scene. These controversies include alleged improprieties due to the unwarranted firing of Billy Dale, the head of the White House Travel Office, and her involvement in “Whitewater,” which lead her, in January of 1996, to be the only presidential spouse to be called to testify before a federal grand jury. Since 1992, anti–Hillary Clinton books have become so numerous that they constitute a distinct subgenre in her bibliography, and include Peggy Noonan’s The Case against Hillary Clinton, James B. Stewart’s Blood Sport: The President and His Adversaries, and Dick Morris’ Rewriting History, Barbara Olson’s Hell to Pay, Christopher Andersen’s American Evita, and Edward Klein’s The Truth about Hillary. Rather than providing an objective account of her political influence, these works measure a segment of public opinion and opposition to her political career and presidency. These works are important because they document political opposition, public opinion, critical perspectives, and negative representations and stereotypes that will undoubtedly inform future historical-critical studies. In contrast to these works is David Brock’s Blinded by the Right, which details the conservative movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Brock, a journalist for The American Spectator, broke “Troopergate” and worked on the “Arkansas project,” which entailed traveling to the state to investigate then President Clinton’s alleged extramarital affairs. This work contextualizes the partisan politics of the 1990s by analyzing conservative media and a whole cast of ring-wing political characters, including Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde, and Robert Barr.

To date, Carl Bernstein has written the definitive biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman in Charge, a pre-election biography that contextualizes the Arkansas years and the White House years in an objective account of Clinton’s life. Bernstein had the advantage of time in assessing Clinton’s career as he exposes parts of her narrative that were not included in earlier political works. For example, Bernstein describes the Rodham household as less than picturesque, focusing on her father’s verbal abuse, depression, and marital tension, all of  which provides a distinct juxtaposition from Clinton’s idyllic description of her father in Living History. Taking six years to complete, Bernstein draws from over 200 interviews offering unique insight on the White House Task Force on Health Care Reform, Clinton’s vote on the Iraq War resolution in 2002, and a discussion of her strengths and shortcomings as expressed by colleagues, friends, and peers.

Works Cited