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Hillary's Turn: Inside Hillary Clinton's Improbable Senate Race
by Michael Tomasky. The Free Press, 291 pages, $25.
Buy the book from Amazon.com and help Democrats.com here.

Reviewed by Susan Faludi
Republished with permission of the author

Oh goodie, just what we need: another book on Hillary. No First Lady has inspired the pulping of more timber since...well, since the last ex-First Lady to take New York: Jackie O. Consider the parallels. Hillary's admirers showered her with $190,000 worth of (belatedly reimbursed) flatware; Jackie's admirers showered her with millions of dollars worth of rubies, diamonds, yachts, and private islands. Hillary clinched an $8 million book deal with a publisher; Jackie clinched a $26 million deal with a shipping magnate's estate (and later a cushy job at a publishing house - she wasn't even required to show up). Jackie was immortalized by a stained dress; Hillary humiliated by one.

Okay, maybe not so similar after all. But the allure, for the publishing and media industries, is the same: No one knows who they are. The mystery woman schtick worked famously well for Jackie, whose enchanted hagiographers projected into the empty O every flattering fantasy that the Feminine Mystique ever produced. Hillary, on the other hand, finds herself on the receiving end of everybody's projected phobia about "powerful" womanhood. But whether applied to Good Witch or Bad Bitch, the basic operating principle for an aspiring author remains the same: Taking as your subject a mega-famous but blank-slate public figure makes for a damned easy book project. You don't have to interview her - or anyone else for that matter. There's no annoying research, no boring tape transcription. You can just free-associate, as long as your free associations accord with what the anointed talking heads are saying about her on the chat shows - which is not generally a problem since most of the "authors" are talking heads.

Chatterer Peggy Noonan, for instance, admits she had her last, most meaningful encounter with Hillary Clinton when they brushed past each other at a mutual friend's funeral two years ago, but that hasn't stopped her from writing a book (The Case Against Hillary Clinton) based on made-up dialogue, in which the First Lady appears as both a "pathological narcissist" and a schizoid "Sybil" who "appears to be disturbed." Sister telebabe Laura Ingraham (The Hillary Trap) has probably had about as much contact with Hillary Clinton as you, but she is happy to attest that the ex-First Lady is responsible for cruddy schools, rampaging adultery and a surge in witchcraft. Nor does former-Monicagate telebabbler Barbara Olson (Hell to Pay) require evidence to assure us that Hillary is "angry, bitter, obsessive, and even dangerous," and a supporter of international terrorism (well, what self-respecting witch wouldn't be?).

So it comes as a shock to open the latest Hillary tome and find actual reporting. Michael Tomasky has chosen not to add to the slag heap of apocrypha and ephemera so assiduously piled up by the previous Hillary dirt dishers. He is silent, for instance, on the question of young Hillary's body odor while dating Bill, a matter of mighty significance to intrepid inquisitor Christopher Andersen (Bill and Hillary). Instead Mr. Tomasky, a veteran New York political reporter, went out and plied the dying craft of journalism. The result, Hillary's Turn, is a straightforward, evenhanded account of Ms. Clinton's successful Senatorial campaign, neither credulously admiring of Hillary Clinton nor of the media that has so woefully misconstrued her.

The press and its pollsters and "experts" speculated and forecast and gasbagged - and more often than not, the prognostications "ended up being dead wrong," [248] Mr. Tomasky writes. They said Hillary had a huge "woman problem," but she won the woman's vote by more than 20 points (pollsters had earlier forecast she'd lose it by exactly that much). They said this "radical" urbanite would never win GOP-dominated upstate New York, but she wound up taking ten upstate counties that Democrats generally write off and a stunning 47 percent of upstate voters (most Democratic candidates in New York, by contrast, would be grateful for a third).[282-283] They said that once Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race, minorities wouldn't be inspired to turn out for her. But they turned out in huge numbers, and she took 85 percent of the Latino vote, more than 90 percent of the black vote. They said she would have to reveal the private Hillary and discuss her marital woes, but she won over the electorate by keeping her mouth shut about her personal life and focusing on the nuts and bolts of sewage lines and power-plant installations. They said the stench of Whitewater and Travelgate and Monicagate would alienate voters and the most Hillary could hope for would be a squeaker of a victory. But the Washington scandalmongering had little impact and in the end she won convincingly, 55 to 43 percent, a ten-points-plus victory that rates in this era, as Mr. Tomasky points out, as a landslide.

"In this bitterest and most partisan political season in years, with a presidential election limping into December, and with elections all over America decided by mere handfuls of votes that were contested and recounted," Mr. Tomasky writes, "it's ironic that it was Hillary Clinton, one of the nation's most polarizing figures, who ran a race that transcended virtually every line that divides New York voters." [282] By breaking with the conventional constituency calculus for the state, and stitching together a new coalition of white upstaters, minorities and city slickers, she contributed to having "changed historical assumptions about politics in New York State that have held sway since the New Deal."[283]

Of all the ways the media miscalled this race, the most telling was this: They presumed that Hillary Clinton couldn't win unless she won their support. She had to woo them by making the rounds on their TV shows and cozying up in personal tête-à-têtes; otherwise, a snubbed media would guarantee a humiliating defeat. And lord knows we heard plenty during the campaign about the all-mighty, take-no-prisoners New York press (testimonials generally issued from that same press). Well, journalists sure didn't get their facetime. "She gave the media less access and satisfaction than any candidate I've ever seen,"[15] Mr. Tomasky says. And the unrequited lovers sure expressed their resentment. "The relentlessly negative press," Mr. Tomasky reports, "scrutinized everything she did in a way it had for no other candidate in memory."[127] His tally of the "editorial assessments" [288] of New York's leading daily newspapers found that all three ran more antagonistic than friendly pieces. Murdoch's Post, naturally, outdid them all, with 212 piss-on-her items and only seven that might be deemed "positive."

None of that mattered. In fact, Mr. Tomasky concludes, Hillary won because she tuned out the air waves and the punditry: "In refusing to acknowledge the elites' expectations about who she was and media's ideas about how a candidate should accede to their demands, she made each seem sort of irrelevant, and she discarded a fair amount of her famous baggage."[289]

She refused, as well, to tailor her strategy to polls. When a campaign consultant urged her to respond to the "emotional" needs of some suburban women, who in focus groups complained that she should "share" more and appear less "controlling," [191, 194] she shrugged off the advice and stuck to hitting the issues.[210-211] She kept trudging around the state with her notepad in hand, conducting policy discussions directly with the electorate in her endless trips to tiny upstate towns, community halls, and black churches, as many as seven of the latter in New York City every Sunday for weeks on end. "If there's any larger lesson in her victory," Mr. Tomasky writes, "it may repose in exactly that fact: she succeeded by ignoring the demands of the intelligentsia and the clamor of the media." [288]

In that, she was quite alone. What other nationally prominent candidate of the past election cycle turned such a blind eye to the polls, the focus groups, and the received wisdom of the media - and ran so ploddingly, earnestly, Jimmy Stewart-ly, on the issues...and won big? Or let me put that another way, in gender terms. Who ran a more traditionally "masculine" race than Hillary Clinton? And by that, I don't mean she was a ball-buster, the canard usually hiding behind attacks on her femininity. Her campaign played out in an old-fashioned "masculine" key to the extent that it was based on slogging daily hard work; it didn't coo and bat its eyes at the voters, it didn't trot out the family pictures and talk about "what's in my heart," it didn't resort to the whole Hallmark "personality" package that has been (unfairly) labeled the "feminization of American politics."

By those terms, who was more "feminine" than the high-profile male candidates on the hustings this past year? The presidential contenders appeared to be competing for the Miss Congeniality tiara - that is, when they weren't vying for a slot on "Queen for a Day": Dubya with his "compassionate conservative" doe eyes as moist as a Duncan Hines cake; Al with an I-wuv-you-all hand permanently sutured to his heart; John McCain, who trotted out the I-was-a-helpless-POW sob story so often that his nauseated rival finally accused him of "playing the victim." It's worth noting that one of the few contestants for the Oval Office not auditioning for the matinee weepies was the only woman in the race: Elizabeth Dole.

In the Senate race in New York, frailty's name was, similarly, male. First we had Rudy, whose irrational, petulant outbursts suggest that men do get PMS after all - and on a weekly basis. Mayor Giuliani's campaign arc went from hissy fits, to self-esteem monologues about "my emotional state" and doing "what is right for me," to a swan song in which he invoked "love"[172, 179] of family and kiddies a dozen times. The sugar headache hardly abated with the advent of Rick "Smiley Face" Lazio, whose bulldog confrontation with Hillary on the debate platform might not have shocked so if he hadn't already cast himself as a let-me-lick-your-hand lap dog (tempting us to echo Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep: "Get up Angel, you look like a Pekinese").

We call the prevailing form of politics "feminized" because it accords with the prevailing, condescending view of the feminine as a warm bath of treacly, smoochy emotional manipulation, though it's a pool many men have paddled in. An early warning of this climate change was Robert Redford's 1972 The Candidate. On the surface, it's about how a lefty legal-aider, the rebel son of the former governor of California, is stripped of his integrity in a Senatorial race in which he must stifle his convictions and resort to hollow mantras ("Bill McKay for a better way!") to get elected. More deeply, the movie announces the dawn of the era of feminized politics. McKay's wife calls it right from the start: "He's got the power," she says, by which she means that he's a sex object - and that's where power now resides. "He's not gonna get his ass kicked," the candidate's ex-guv dad assures a dubious Teamster official. "He's cute." Drop the lefty message, and this could have been a film about our new president and his pop.

With some frustration, Mr. Tomasky wonders why Hillary Clinton never used the emotional arrows in her quiver. Even on the occasions where her opponents handed her the perfect opportunity with an outrageously unfair attack, she never expressed "personal" [121-122]rage. The inability to fake outrage on demand was Michael Dukakis' notorious undoing. Pressed for the millionth time to answer the "who are you" question, Hillary Clinton wilfully tempted the same confession-hungry fates: "I don't know if that is the right question. Even people you think you know extremely well, do you know their entire personality? Do they, at every point that you're with them, reveal totally who they are? Of course not."[201]

Hillary Clinton's race reversed the route taken by Mr. Redford's McKay - away from the up-close-and-personal ornamental demeanor of modern politics and toward the dowdily utilitarian public servant of the past. The whole campaign, pollster Mark Penn tells Mr. Tomasky, was based on "a theory that she could get from celebrity to candidate, and that she could make that leap just through hard work, through doing."[229]

Which fit who she was all along. As Mr. Tomasky smartly notes, Hillary Clinton never really exemplified baby-boom self-glorification[8]; she always had more in common with the social reformers of the 19th century women's movement, for whom social improvement, not solo performance, was paramount. In the course of the race, she genuinely transformed herself - into a more confident, effective candidate. While Al Gore frantically changed his suits to suit the experts, Mr. Tomasky notes, "Hillary paid no attention to the experts at all, and so managed to remake herself in a more authentic way.... And if some people found this new Hillary less fascinating and controversial than they wanted her to be, that was fine by her." [288-289]

"Fascination" was a Camelot stratagem, and in Hillary Clinton's ascent we may have witnessed the first crumblings of the house that Jackie built. It was Jackie's son who was supposed to inherit the mantle of junior Senator from New York. But he is dead; the magazine he created to advance celebrity as the coin of the national political realm is foundering; and the Kennedy in-laws are left with little to do but traipse to the Republican White House theater to watch a bit of the JFK legacy on celluloid. Meanwhile, Hillary is getting down to work. We can thank at least one workaday journalist for showing us how she did it.

Susan Faludi is the author Stiffed (Morrow) and Backlash (Crown).