Sunday, September 11, 2005

# Posted 10:30 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

LIVING HISTORY, PART I: HILLARY AS REPUBLICAN. I've been on something of a Clinton kick lately, what with my post about Hillary's electability and my review of First in His Class. And now I'm half way through Hillary's autobiography, entitled Living History, which I'm going to start reviewing here.

When you read a book by an (undeclared) candidate for President, you have to lower your expectations. You have to prepare yourself for the faux candor, the boring anecdotes and a one-sided account of just about everything. In fact, you can write an entire book review that focuses entirely on those shortcomings. But someone has already done that, so I'm going to have to write about something else.

My review begins with a question: Given the inevitable restraints on the candor of a White House hopeful, what would the ideal campaign trail memoir consist of? Although one-sidedness is not considered a virtue among scholars, the measure of a good trial lawyer is to present a narrative so compelling that its one-sidedness becomes irrelevant. By the same token, a campaign trail memoir should craft the candidate's life experiences into a compelling demonstration of the candidate's ideology and program of government.

Think of it this way: Candidates for public office often rely on a handful of soundbites and slogans to win over the electorate. If given three, four, or five hundred pages to make the case for themselves, the candidate should be far more persuasive. In spite of conservative predictions to the contrary, Hillary's memoir has sold over a million copies. Never again will she have the chance to make her case in such great detail.

So, does Hillary succeed? Although I won't pass final judgment until I've finished the book, my sense so far is that Hillary has failed. While reading the (Bill) Clinton bio, First in His Class, the funadmental question I asked was what Clinton stood for. Or more broadly, what does it mean to be liberal or Democratic? That book's focus on Clinton's personality made it hard to assess his ideas-- which is precisely why I was hoping that a book written by a Clinton would be informative on that count.

Sadly, Living History isn't. To some degree, you can chalk that up to the ghost writers. But for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that Hillary played a fairly significant editorial role in terms of deciding what this book was going to be about. If she had a clear set of ideas about the purpose of government, I think it would've found its way into the book.

One thing I can say with a fair degree of confidence is that Hillary certainly doesn't want anyone to think of her as a liberal now days. In the first three hundred pages of the book, she never uses the 'l'-word to describe herself, her husband or any of their policies. If you look in the index, there are no entries for 'liberal' or 'progressive' or anything similar.

In contrast, there are a good number of entries for 'conservative' and an extraordinary number of entries for 'right wing', which is Hillary's preferred way of describing her opponents. I find this contrast especially interesting since Hillary herself was once a passionate Republican. More than just a rank-and-file voter, Hillary was a self-described Goldwater Girl and president of the Wellesley College Young Republicans.

Then, within the space of just over a year, Hillary travelled all the way across the political spectrum to become a left-wing Democrat who went up to New Hampshire "to stuff envelopes and walk precints" for Gene McCarthy. This dramatic evolution should have provided Hillary-as-author with the perfect vehicle for describing why she is Democrat and what the party stands for.

Instead, Hillary provides a one-paragraph explanation. In college, she started reading the New York Times, "much to [her] father's consternation". In addition, her political science professors pushed her to "examine [her] own preconceptions just when current events provided more than enough material".

At minimum, this account is certainly plausible. Hillary certain wasn't the first young Republican converted by liberal professors and a liberal newspaper. But the real question is how. What are the arguments and ideas that Hillary found so persuasive? If she herself was converted, shouldn't she now be able to serve as a winning evangelist?

With regard to specifics, Hillary writes that
"during [her] freshman year, [her] doubts about the [Republican] party and its policies were growing, particularly when it came to civil rights and the Vietnam War."
If I were a Republican in 1968, I would've noticed that southern Democrats were the most vicious opponents of civil rights and that a Democratic president was responsible for the quagmire in Vietnam. On the other hand, left-wing Democrats were at the forefront of both the civil rights and anti-war movements, while Republicans weren't. The question, then, is why the latter fact was more important to Hillary than the former.

Unfortunately, we don't find out. In fact, we don't even get much sense of why Hillary opposed the war in Vietnam, which she describes as unconscionable and unwinnable. Given the formative impact of the war on both young Hillary Clinton and on the Democratic party as a whole, you would hope that Hillary would go into greater detail. But she doesn't, even though one of the most important challenges facing the Democratic party today is to apply the lessons of Vietnam to the situation in Iraq.

If I may be allowed to speculate, I might suggest that the Democratic party is so divided on the subject of national security precisely because it has never come to terms with the legacy of Vietnam. On the one hand, it is determined to avoid any more quagmires. On the other hand, it is just as afraid of being branded as soft on national security.

Yet Living History is not much better when it comes to providing a Democratic platform for domestic policy. As a Goldwater Girl who read the Arizona senator's seminal work, The Conscience of a Conservative, Hillary probably had some fairly sophisticated thoughts about the importance of strong markets and limited government.

But where did they go? One might infer that Hillary's conversion to the McGovernite left (she worked for him in Texas in 1972, alongside Bill) entailed a wholesale conversion to the state-heavy social policies of the left, in addition to its stance on the war and civil rights. Although it might be a little embarrassing now for Hillary to explain exactly why she supported the McGovern economic agenda, you'd think that she could at least make the case for a more, moderate Clinton version of that agenda.

Perhaps she will in the final two hundred pages of the book. But I am already well past the part about Hillary's drive for national healthcare and there was little reflection there about the proper relationship between our markets, our society and our government.

So, in closing, one might ask what can fill five hundred pages of memoir if not a real discussion of the issues? Anecdotes, of course.
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