"We didn't have this kind of biography in the year 2000, and the country has suffered catastrophically, because they didn't know who or what they were voting for in some instances."
-- Carl Bernstein, Paula Zahn Now, 6/7/06
BILL O'REILLY: I have to tell you, I still don't know what to make of the woman even after -- even after reading the book. That's how complicated this woman is.
CARL BERNSTEIN: That's terrific.
-- The O'Reilly Factor, 6/5/07
During his promotional tour for A Woman In Charge, his new biography of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Carl Bernstein has repeatedly told us that biographies like his are essential to choosing a president. But Bernstein's biography of a presidential front-runner should make clear the dangers of picking a president based on biography rather than policies and accomplishments.
Bernstein spent seven years researching and writing what he -- and others -- have described as the most comprehensive, definitive biography of Hillary Clinton. And yet, as his book tour has made clear, he doesn't have the first clue who she is. If Carl Bernstein can be so confused after so many years of study, why should any of us think we really know candidates most of us will never even meet? Bernstein's confusion about Clinton may be the best argument there is for choosing a president based not on who we think they are (or, even worse, who the media tells us they are) but based on what they will do, what policies they support, what policies they oppose, what solutions they offer.
During media appearances promoting his book, Bernstein tells us again and again that a central point of his book is that Clinton is inauthentic; a chameleon who hides her true self. At least 15 times in his television interviews promoting A Woman In Charge, Bernstein has referred to Clinton's "authenticity" or lack thereof. Bernstein has referred to Clinton as "camouflaged" at least 13 more times.
As "evidence" of Clinton's purported lack of authenticity, Bernstein points repeatedly to two things that he accuses Clinton of keeping secret: her father's purported abusiveness and her failure to pass the District of Columbia bar exam prior to moving to Arkansas.
BERNSTEIN: Well, this is a woman who's led a camouflaged life and continues to. And this book takes away the camouflage from her childhood in an abusive family situation -- her father humiliated and abused her mother; her mother had a horror of a childhood ...
Later, during an appearance on NPR, Bernstein accused Clinton of creating in her books a "self-mythology" of an "idyllic kind of childhood":
BERNSTEIN: Well, certainly that's the case if you read Hillary Clinton's supposed autobiography, Living History. It's contrary to what my reporting concluded. It's contrary to what other journalists have found, by and large. It's self-invention. It's self-mythology. Occasionally, even often, there's a kind of baseline truthfulness, but you're going to have to go somewhere else to get a straight story about her life than her.
BERNSTEIN: Well, let's just start with her childhood, which she describes in Living History as -- and in It Takes a Village as -- she had a Father Knows Best suburban, idyllic kind of childhood. In fact, her father was a deeply unsatisfied man, sour, unfulfilled, a martinet, used the rod on his children a little unsparingly, abused her mother.
So, according to Bernstein, Clinton's books presented a false tale of an idyllic childhood, when in fact, her father was unhappy and "used the rod on his children a little unsparingly."
But, contrary to his claims, Bernstein isn't blowing the lid off anything here; nor is he catching Clinton in a lie. Here's how Clinton described her father in her book, It Takes a Village, published more than a decade ago:
My father, not one to spare the rod, articulated and emphasized his expectations for us. ... Occasionally he got carried away when disciplining us, yelling louder or using more physical punishment, especially with my brothers than I thought was fair or necessary.
Ah, it's so clear: Clinton wrote that her father was "not one to spare the rod," when, in fact, according to Bernstein, her father "used the rod on his children a little unsparingly." She truly is a fraud, isn't she?
Clinton also described a sometimes harsh father in her autobiography, Living History:
My dad was a rock-ribbed, up-by-your-bootstraps, conservative Republican and proud of it. He was also tightfisted with money. [...] My father could not stand personal waste. Like so many who grew up in the Depression, his fear of poverty colored his life. My mother rarely bought new clothes, and she and I negotiated with him for weeks for special purchases, like a new dress for the prom. If one of my brothers or I forgot to screw the cap back on the toothpaste tube, my father threw it out the bathroom window. We would have to go outside, even in the snow, to search for it in the evergreen bushes in front of the house. [...] My brothers and I were required to do household chores without any expectation of an allowance. "I feed you, don't I?" Dad would say.
During my high school and college years, our relationship increasingly was defined either by silence, as I searched for something to say to him, or by arguments, which I often provoked, because I knew he would always engage with me over politics and culture - Vietnam, hippies, bra-burning feminists, Nixon. I also understood that even when he erupted at me, he admired my independence and accomplishments and loved me with all his heart. [...] I doubt anyone meeting my father or being on the receiving end of his caustic criticism would ever have imagined the tender love and advice he offered to buck me up, straighten me out, and keep going.
Bernstein also suggested to Today's Matt Lauer that, as part of her "camouflaged life," Clinton has kept secret her mother's own "horror of a childhood." Bernstein bragged that his book "takes away the camouflage." Yet right there on Page 2 of Living History, Hillary Clinton tells us:
I'm still amazed at how my mother emerged from her lonely early life as such an affectionate and levelheaded woman [...] In 1927, my mother's young parents finally got a divorce [...] Neither was willing to care for their children, so they sent their daughters from Chicago by train to live with their paternal grandparents [...] On the four-day journey, eight-year-old Dorothy was in charge of her three-year-old sister. My mother stayed in California for ten years, never seeing her mother and rarely seeing her father. Her grandfather [...] left the girls to his wife, Emma, a severe woman who wore black Victorian dresses and resented and ignored my mother except when enforcing her rigid house rules. [...] One Halloween, when she caught my mother trick-or-treating with school friends, Emma decided to confine her to her room for an entire year, except for the hours she was in school. She forbade my mother to eat at the kitchen table or linger in the front yard.
Again and again during his television appearances promoting his book, Bernstein points to what he claims is Hillary Clinton's false portrayal of an idyllic childhood. But Clinton's own books describe exactly the familial difficulties Bernstein claims to blow the lid off of.
Another of Bernstein's primary pieces of evidence that Clinton is inauthentic is that she kept her failure to pass the DC bar exam a secret. And how did Bernstein learn of the failure? He read about it in Clinton's book! In his own book, Bernstein writes: "Her closest friends and associates [...] were flabbergasted when she made the revelation in a single throwaway line in Living History." Despite having learned of the bar failure in Clinton's best-selling autobiography, Bernstein has repeatedly said on his book tour that Clinton's purported failure to disclose the failure for 30 years is evidence of her lack of authenticity -- suggesting that the failure is something Bernstein discovered on his own after careful sleuthing. In fact, he read it in her own book, leading us to wonder: If the fact that Clinton didn't previously discuss the failure is proof of inauthenticity, mustn't her disclosure of the failure in her autobiography be seen as evidence of her authenticity?
In his efforts to inflate the pedestrian story of Clinton's bar exam into something that reveals a window into her soul, Bernstein manages to confuse even himself. In his book, he wrote that Clinton's closest friends were "flabbergasted" to learn upon reading in Living History that she had failed the bar exam. But by the time Bernstein appeared on Today, the story had changed, and Bernstein told Lauer that "her friends were flabbergasted at" the bar failure "so that helped push her toward Arkansas."
Again and again, Bernstein tells us that Hillary Clinton is inauthentic because she kept secret her failure to pass the DC bar exam and her father's purported abusiveness. Whether those two things, if true, would in fact be evidence of a lack of authenticity is debatable at best. When you add in the fact that Bernstein learned both of those things from Hillary Clinton's own books, you have to wonder if there wasn't a better way Carl Bernstein could have spent those seven years.
Other evidence of Clinton's inauthenticity is in short supply during Bernstein's television appearances. On CNN, Paula Zahn quoted a passage from Bernstein's book that seemed to suggest that Clinton's faith is inauthentic -- but Bernstein quickly made clear that he does not believe that to be the case:
ZAHN: So, you write -- quote -- "There are people around her who believe she uses religion as a mask to cover her faults and those of Bill. The idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin, it allows her to excuse many things." Are you saying that you yourself don't think her faith is authentic?
BERNSTEIN: To -- to the contrary, I think her faith is absolutely authentic.
In his television appearances, Bernstein has repeatedly suggested that Clinton may be an inauthentic feminist -- accusing Clinton of "savaging" women alleged to have had affairs with her husband which "raises a very interesting question about her feminism." Clinton, according to Bernstein, "had them ruined." Pressed to explain who, exactly, Clinton had "ruined" or "savaged," Bernstein is unspecific, but points as an example to her law firm's representation of some of the women. Bernstein explained further in his book -- though without using the words "savage" or "ruin":
Four weeks before election day, Larry Nichols, an ex-employee of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, who had been fired for making almost 150 private phone calls to the Nicaragua contra leadership [Bernstein's wording doesn't make this clear, but Nichols stuck taxpayers with the tab for the calls], announced to the press that he had filed suit against Clinton, accusing him of using a "slush fund" as governor to conduct concealed affairs with five or more women. One was Gennifer Flowers.
The suit was an obvious attempt to damage Clinton not just in Arkansas, but in any future race for president. (Nichols was a surrogate for Clinton's opponent and longtime antagonist in the governor's race, Shef Nelson.) [...] At the behest of Betsey Wright and Hillary, Webb Hubbell and Vince Foster were then hired, by or through the campaign, to represent the women and obtain from the women their signed statements that they had never had sex with Bill Clinton. Some of the women were brought into an interview room to be questioned by Vince, Webb, and, on one occasion, Hillary. Two of the five women were prominent friends of Hillary and Bill -- both black -- and almost no one familiar with the case believes they were anything more than friends. But a line had been crossed, in appearance if nothing else: Hillary, or her law firm, or both were now acting as counsel to the women with whom her husband was accused of having illicit affairs.
That's it. According to Carl Bernstein's version, Hillary Clinton helped find legal representation for women who were falsely named in a politically motivated nuisance lawsuit. And based on this, Carl Bernstein questions Hillary Clinton's authenticity as a feminist.
Bernstein's televised explanations of Clinton's purported inauthenticity, however tortured, are admirably lucid compared to his take on whether Clinton broke the law. On Fox's O'Reilly Factor, Bernstein couldn't quite decide, taking five different positions in a span of only 64 words:
O'REILLY: Did she break the law?
O'REILLY: OK. Good, I like this. How did she break the law?
BERNSTEIN: She broke the law if, indeed, she perjured herself.
O'REILLY: Well, you just said she did break the law.
BERNSTEIN: No. The special prosecutor determined that she did not. So he did not file the charge.
O'REILLY: So you think she did. But the special prosecutor, Ken Starr, said no.
BERNSTEIN: That is co -- you know what? Let me be really straightforward. I don't think she broke the law. I think there was a time that she did not tell the truth.
BERNSTEIN: You know, I wasn't in the room.
As Bob Somerby explains, Bernstein's confusion is apparent in his book as well:
Bernstein discusses this incident [in which Hillary Clinton considered running for Governor in 1990] three different times -- and seems to explain it three different ways. On page 6, it's Hillary Clinton's anger and hurt which is said to have triggered thoughts of the run. On page 188, the Clintons are pictured working together, thinking about potential strategies for a Bill Clinton White House run. And on page 538, it's Bill Clinton's depression which seems to lie at the heart of this incident; Hillary Clinton "trifles" with the idea of running. Truth to tell, Bernstein seems to explain this episode three different ways.
The most telling moment of Bernstein's media blitz may have come during his appearance on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360:
COOPER: What surprised you most, then?
BERNSTEIN: How unknown the real Hillary really is and how nuanced and complex and contradictory within herself she is.
The biggest surprise for Carl Bernstein was finding out that Hillary Clinton is not a one-dimensional caricature of a person; that she is complex and nuanced. That she is "human," in other words. Bernstein's shock at finding this out tells us far more about him and his profession than it does about Clinton.
When Bernstein says that biography could have saved us from the "disaster of this last presidency," he couldn't be further from the truth. The 2000 campaign -- and subsequent contests -- didn't suffer from a lack of the kind of psycho-babble mind-reading Bernstein touts; that type of "analysis" has been all too common in the media's coverage of recent campaigns. Bernstein repeatedly refers to Clinton's purported lack of authenticity as one of the key things his book teaches us about her -- and one of the key questions we should consider before casting our vote. But fetishizing "authenticity" -- or, rather, the illusion of authenticity -- is nothing new. The news media's decision that George Bush was authentic, and the brown-polo-shirt-wearing Al Gore was not is, in large part, why we went to Iraq on inauthentic pretenses. Their decision that a man who had mislead the nation into war is authentic, and John Kerry is not is, in large part, why we remain in Iraq today. We don't need more of this ridiculous approach to the candidates, we need less.
As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explained today:
You may not remember the presidential debate of Oct. 3, 2000, or how it was covered, but you should. It was one of the worst moments in an election marked by news media failure as serious, in its way, as the later failure to question Bush administration claims about Iraq.
Throughout that debate, George W. Bush made blatantly misleading statements, including some outright lies--for example, when he declared of his tax cut that ''the vast majority of the help goes to the people at the bottom end of the economic ladder.'' That should have told us, right then and there, that he was not a man to be trusted.
But few news reports pointed out the lie. Instead, many news analysts chose to critique the candidates' acting skills. Al Gore was declared the loser because he sighed and rolled his eyes -- failing to conceal his justified disgust at Mr. Bush's dishonesty. And that's how Mr. Bush got within chad-and-butterfly range of the presidency.
The problem with the Bernstein-style focus on personal biography and "authenticity" is not that "authenticity" is a bad thing, of course. The problem is that it's a catch-all for whether or not journalists like the candidates; it's that it is a completely subjective attribute, being measured by a group of people who have been spectacularly wrong in assessing it in recent years. Meanwhile, if reporters would just fact-check the verifiable claims candidates make -- such as Bush's claim about his tax cuts -- we'd have a far better understanding of which candidate is truthful than we do after reading endless columns about who wears brown pants and what that tells us about their relationship with their father.
Bernstein insists that having more "biography" in 2000 would have saved us from the results of the 2000 election. But the type of biography Bernstein has written about Clinton -- and the type he touts in his media appearances -- wouldn't have helped at all. Knowing more of George W. Bush's relationship with his father wouldn't have been nearly as useful as knowing about how he governed in Texas and how he behaved in his business career. Yet Bernstein, who devoted only a few pages to Hillary Clinton's Senate career, would presumably have given short shrift to the mundane details of how Bush ran one of the nation's most populous states.
As we speed toward another presidential election, Bernstein-style focus on personalities and speculation about "authenticity" is again carrying the day. The nation's leading news organizations devote more attention to the size of John Edwards' house than to Mitt Romney making a clearly false claim about one of the most basic elements of the United States' decision to invade Iraq.
Based on Bernstein's book tour, it seems he would have his colleagues tell us more about Edwards' house and less about Mitt Romney being either shockingly ignorant of the circumstances in which the United States went to war, or shockingly dishonest about them. If those are his priorities, we can only hope he spends the next seven years researching his next book, rather than actively covering the campaign. We anxiously await his 2014 expose of all the things Barack Obama cleverly kept secret by hiding them on page 12 of The Audacity of Hope.