Wash. Post review misrepresents, conflates allegations in Clinton books

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN & JULIE MILLICAN

In a June 10 Washington Post review of two recently released books about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) -- Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. (Little, Brown & Co.) and A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein (Knopf) -- author Kevin Phillips misrepresented both books' contents and falsely conflated their purported findings. Indeed, in noting the assertion in Her Way that Bill and Hillary Clinton "sought and planned for sequential power: eight years in the White House for him, then eight years for her," Phillips wrote that, according to Gerth (whose name is misspelled as "Gersh" throughout the review) and Van Natta, "this long-term plan has actually been set down on paper and confirmed by a former senior Clinton administration official." But while Gerth and Van Natta do assert in the book that, by 1993, the Clintons planned a two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, at no point in the book do they purport to have written evidence or cite an "administration official" for the claim. In fact, the only evidence they offer of Hillary Clinton's long-term presidential ambitions is a second-hand account of a conversation between Bill Clinton and historian Taylor Branch - an account that Branch has disputed. Moreover, as Media Matters for America noted, Gerth and Van Natta did not defend the claim in recent media appearances.

Additionally, Phillips suggested that both Her Way and A Woman in Charge establish that Hillary Clinton had entertained the "possibility" of becoming president herself as early as 1992. Phillips wrote that, "[i]f you credit the thrust of these two volumes," when Hillary Clinton defended her husband against allegations of extramarital affairs in 1992 and 1998, "she was defending not just his presidency in these appearances but the possibility of her own." In fact, as Media Matters noted, Bernstein's reporting appears to contradict Gerth and Van Natta's claim that, by the early 1990s, Hillary Clinton had planned to become president. According to Bernstein, until 1999, when she decided to run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, Hillary Clinton had "repeatedly told" longtime friend Diane Blair "that she had no interest in elected office."

From Phillips' review of Her Way and A Woman in Charge:

In Her Way, New York Times reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gersh [sic] have painted the couple's unprecedented duality of skill and ambition even more boldly. The Clintons, they claim, sought and planned for sequential power: eight years in the White House for him, then eight years for her. Whether the authors' evidence holds up -- denials have already been reported -- remains to be seen.

[...]

If a common theme exists, it is that Hillary Clinton, who has been "first partner" and then "first lady," and often the iron fist of their joint success, now aims, with her husband's collaboration, to become the ultimate "woman in charge." To Van Natta and Gersh [sic], this long-term plan has actually been set down on paper and confirmed by a former senior Clinton administration official. If these allegations hold up, such a pursuit of family power is unlikely to further her White House prospects.

[...]

If Hillary Clinton did not know exactly what her husband was up to with Paula Corbin Jones and Monica Lewinsky, she was well-acquainted with his modus operandi, and in her role as chief family strategist had taken the lead in dealing with the Gennifer Flowers scandal.

Sometimes she even interviewed women to get them to sign denials of having had sex with her husband. And the American public saw her dissemble in television appearances in 1992 and 1998, denying her husband's culpability with respect to Flowers and Lewinsky. If you credit the thrust of these two volumes, she was defending not just his presidency in these appearances but the possibility of her own.

In Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta allege that the Clintons purportedly forged a "secret pact" in the 1970s to put Bill Clinton in the White House and expanded the "pact" in 1993 to include a presidency for Hillary Clinton after Bill Clinton's two terms. But in writing that the Clintons' "long-term ... pursuit of family power" was "set down on paper and confirmed by a senior Clinton administration official," Phillips appeared to confuse Gerth and Van Natta's sourcing for the claim that the Clintons had originally planned on a presidency for Bill Clinton with the authors' support for their claim of an expanded plan after Bill Clinton was elected that included a Hillary Clinton presidency. Indeed, Gerth and Van Natta source the first allegation to former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, who has neither confirmed nor denied the account since the book's publication, and an anonymous "former Clinton administration official." Gerth and Van Natta also report that "[o]ne of Bill's ex-girlfriends," Marla Crider, claimed to have seen in the mid-1970s a "personal letter" from Hillary Clinton to her husband that "talked about all of their future plans ... political plans." Presumably, this is the written evidence cited by Phillips in the review. However, Gerth and Van Natta do not quote Crider saying that the letter she reportedly saw contained specific details about a "plan[]" for either of the Clintons to become president." Nor do Gerth and Van Natta suggest that the alleged plan for Hillary Clinton to become president existed prior to the 1990s.

The source of Gerth and Van Natta's assertion that the Clintons' purported "twenty-year project" was expanded in 1993 to include "eight years as president for him, then eight years for her" is actually a disputed secondhand account by former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden and her husband, John Henry, of a conversation they reportedly say they had with historian Taylor Branch. In the conversation, as described by Crittenden and Henry, Branch allegedly recounted a conversation he had with Bill Clinton in 1993 in which Clinton said both Clintons planned to become president. In Her Way, Gerth and Van Natta write:

By the summer of 1993, the ways of Washington, sometimes called Potomac fever, had not dissuaded Bill or Hillary. According to one of their closest friends, Taylor Branch, they still planned two terms in the White House for Bill and, later, two for Hillary.

Branch described the plan to two Washington friends, John Henry and Ann Crittenden, over a barbeque dinner at a rodeo in Aspen, Colorado, that summer.71 The president would frequently talk with Branch, a well-respected historian and author, about his place in history, and shortly after he was elected president, Branch said, Bill asked him to begin recording "diary sessions"72 as part of an oral-history project.

Branch had just come from one of those sessions, a marathon late-night chat with Bill at the White House, where the two men had talked as they stood on the back balcony, looking toward the Washington Monument. Now in the cool mountains of Colorado, Branch told his friends about the Clintons' presidential plans. The bold goal of sixteen years in the White House took Henry's breath away. "I was shocked,"73 he said. [Pages 128-129]

Associated endnotes:

71. Author interviews with John Henry and Ann Crittenden in 2007. Branch, in an interview with one of the authors in 2007, said, "I don't remember" the conversation but "I'm not denying it." He acknowledged that he knows Henry and Crittenden and that he has been to Aspen many times. But Branch declined to discuss Hillary or Bill, saying it was "stupid" to do so in light of the fact that he was doing his own book on Bill's presidency.

72. Julie Bosman, "Historian Plans Book from Chats with Clinton," New York Times, March 22, 2007, El; author interview with Taylor Branch in 2007. Bill Clinton, in his autobiography, says the oral history project began in late 1993. (Clinton, My Life, ii.)

73. Author interview with John Henry in 2007.

However, in addition to Branch's statement in the endnotes that he "do[es]n't remember" the conversation with Crittenden and Henry, a May 25 Washington Post article reported that "Branch said that 'the story is preposterous' and that 'I never heard either Clinton talk about a 'plan' for them both to become president.' "

As Media Matters noted, in a recent media appearance, Gerth and Van Natta dodged discussion of their claim that the alleged "pact" between Bill and Hillary included two terms as president for her. Indeed, when asked about Branch's objection on ABC's Good Morning America, Gerth simply pointed out that the allegation that the Clintons devised a "plan" in the 1970s that included a Bill Clinton presidency "has not been refuted." Additionally, while Van Natta defended the first claim in a June 4 entry on the Huffington Post weblog, he ignored the dispute surrounding the second allegation.

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