Reporter Carl Bernstein is coming to town on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. to read from his recently published 648 page unauthorized biography A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton at The King’s English bookstore (1511 S. 1500 East, KingsEnglish.com). Bernstein once shared a Pulitzer Prize with Bob Woodward for his coverage of Watergate for The Washington Post. He is the author, with Woodward, of All the President’s Men and The Final Days, and, with Marco Politi, of His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time. City Weekly caught up with Bernstein by phone for this interview:
What has Hillary Clinton had to say about your book?
Hillary has nothing to say about the biography. The campaign at first—before they had read the book, before they had gotten the book and in responding to newspaper stories—said, “It’s old news.” And after that, they have been silent. She doesn’t read books about herself. I’m told that Bill has it. And I have little doubt that he knows that it is a fair and accurate. Meaning when I say that Bill Clinton knows that it’s a good book, you can see what the reviewers have said.
As an icon of journalism, you yourself have helped mold and shape the political landscape of our time, just as Hillary has. Do you see a kindred spirit in her?
No, I don’t see her as a kindred spirit. We have many acquaintances and friends in common. She doesn’t like journalism or journalists. It’s the reason she hasn’t read the book. She doesn’t like to read about herself; she doesn’t read the newspapers. At least, during the White House years and the gubernatorial years, she did not. She has things given to her to read by her aides.
Why did I focus on her? Because when I began in 1999, I was fascinated by the fact that Hillary was the only person to come out of the impeachment of her husband and the Lewinsky denouement with her stature enhanced. Everybody else was diminished immeasurably: the president, the Republicans in Congress, the Supreme Court which let the Paula Jones case go forward, the Republicans particularly who led the impeachment effort—many of whom later left Washington because of their own sexual hypocrisy. And Hillary, who had been pretty damaged goods during most of her time in the White House, suddenly became this figure of empathy and relative dignity and respect.
I knew that she was thinking about running for the Senate. And in fact, at the exact moment that Bill Clinton was being judged by the Senate, she was meeting with Harold Ickes in the White House (there’s a scene in the book about this) deciding whether or not to run for the Senate. But I thought, “This is a great story.” And here she is the best-known woman perhaps in the world and now she definitely is. Nobody knows who she is. What’s been so fascinating in the course of the years I’ve worked on the book is to see how the literature is so determined till now by a caricature. And our picture of her has been shaped largely by accounts by her enemies and opponents or by true believers and acolytes, a kind of hagiography.
And again, as you can see from those reviews, what I’ve tried to do is real journalism and real biography which is “the best obtainable version of the truth.” The result is there a great human portrait now that we have of a very compelling—whether you like her or not—she’s compelling because her life is so fascinating. You want to know what really happened in her life and it’s a remarkable tale.
What is the deepest, darkest secret of Hillary’s that you explore in your book?
I don’t think that it’s about deep dark secrets. I think you write a book to lay out what the facts are and not reduce it to oversimplified things like the deepest dark secret. I don’t mean that as a criticism. That’s the difference between doing the short newspaper story … you know, you want to avoid simple things like that in a book. What’s amazing to me is that, almost at every turn, the characters turn out to be wrong. To begin with, I was amazed to find that religion and family are really the foundations of Hillary’s beliefs from childhood through the Senate years and into the presidential campaign. So much of what she has done in her life is informed and motivated by her religious beliefs and by her elevation of family.
Religion? Family? That actually should make her beloved in a state like Utah, but it’s not what people see.
The point is that people really need to read about her. Here is this woman who may be the next president of the United States, and we need to have real biography about her. That’s what this is.
What took you so long to finish this book?
I am kind of famous for procrastinating and in this case, happily, it paid off (laughs). Aside from procrastinating, what happened was that by the time she was elected to the Senate, and in there for a couple of years, it was becoming apparent to me she was headed for a presidential run, and I thought, “Geez, this is an even better story than I thought,” and it just kept going on.
Was there any key part of the book that you were stuck on?
What I was stuck on was it took me a while to find the right voice. Once I found that, it all pulled together. That is often the case. Joan Didion has said that, in writing, we really find out what we believe. And that’s how, in my process, I go about structuring the work and my thoughts, by working it out on the page. Once I got the right voice, in the last draft, it went kind of fast.
What did you find out about you believe?
By “believe,” what I mean is what is important in our lives, how things fit together. One thing, for instance, is that there have been, in her life, secrets about embarrassment going back to childhood. Her father was really this sour, unfulfilled man who verbally humiliated and abused his wife, demeaned her …
What do you say to critics who have said there is not too much new information in your book?
It is new. Take a look at … starting in the first chapter, about her childhood. Totally different from any other biography.
I don’t think that is true at all. I think you need to read the book. If you take a look at what the front page stories were, starting with the fact that Bill Clinton had wanted to leave the marriage for another woman in 1989, to Donna Shalala, to Lloyd Bentsen talking about how they opposed Hillary’s appointment to head health care. It’s kind of an epic tale of a woman’s life. It’s not meant to be a news story.
What reviewers seem to agree on is that this is really a very different account because it’s based on people talking, for the most part, on the record, about who this person is and what she has done in her life. The book speaks for itself. That’s what a book is supposed to do. I refer people to the reviews, and the reason I put them up on my Website is that they lead people to the book, but the book has to stand on its own.
Look, you’re going to get a negative review, here and there, and sometimes you get lots of them. In this case, happily, they are very few and far between. Almost all of the reviews on my site stress the newness of the revelations and the coherence. What the idea of “the best obtainable version of the truth” is to give a coherent whole made up of the disparate parts and revelations and taking what has been out there and taking your own reporting, as in Watergate, and making that the impetus for a wholly new story. I’m perfectly happy to let the book speak for itself.
You’ve studied her for a long time. Do you support her bid for president?
I don’t talk about who I vote for or support. My work is my work. I vote for candidates. But publicly saying who I support or don’t? No.
Based on what your research, if Hillary were elected president, what could we expect from her? How would her administration be different from her husband’s?
One, both Clintons would come to office, to the White House, with far more experience than they’ve had previously. And that experience is worth a lot in almost every area. Both in terms of how to win battles in Washington and the substance of governance and legislation itself. They have the benefit of the experience of eight years in the White House. This has never happened before if she becomes president. That would be the primary totally new element, and it would affect almost every dynamic of a Clinton presidency, the ability to look back at past mistakes of their own as well as past achievements. And that’s no small thing.
The other difference is that she would have to contend with the end of a war.
Also, economics have never been her strongest suit; they’re his strongest suit. And, in fact, they have somewhat differing economic views, including on free trade. If you read the book, you’ll see she had grave doubts at various times, especially at the beginning, about Bill Clinton’s economic plan which, of course, was the backbone of his achievements and the greatest economic boom in the history of the country. One of the surprises of the book is the extent to which Bill Clinton’s economic team, as one person said, was worried that Hillary’s health-care plan could drive the economic plan over a cliff.
The other thing is that they would start off presumably without anything left to investigate. I think it’s very clear by now that most of the investigations, if not all, of the Clintons’ were about embarrassments. They weren’t about anything that should ever have been subject to criminal investigation. They are embarrassments that had to do with their lives before they came to Washington. There are some exceptions, the Travel Office is an exception.
The other huge difference is that the key delineating line of the Clinton presidency is the suicide of Vince Foster in the sixth month. It caused Hillary to view the culture of the town and the press as truly murderous. It defined so much that came afterwards, and enabled so much that came afterwards, because there was this Pandora’s box of secrets that Clinton’s enemies particularly thought were a cauldron of dark bubbling horrors, when, in fact, they were about embarrassments that the Republicans were able to exploit.
Bill Clinton has always been a constant of Hillary’s process and Hillary has been a constant of his. That’s not going to change in a Hillary Clinton presidency. The difference is she is going to be the one making the ultimate decisions if she is elected, not him. That, too, is a big difference.
As a journalist in the ‘70s, you helped bring down a corrupt presidential administration. We’ve seen nothing like it since. Are presidents more moral and law-abiding nowadays or better at covering their tracks? Or are journalists asleep at the wheel?
You need to go to my Website and look at the two pieces I wrote for Vanity Fair about George Bush, comparing aspects of the Nixon presidency and the Bush presidency. Since the catastrophe of the war started to become apparent, basically the press—and especially reporters for The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker magazine—have done a great job of revealing the mendacity of this president and the men and women around him, the catastrophe and the disaster of his lack of competence and the misuse of intelligence, the manipulation of that same intelligence.
In the Nixon presidency, the system worked. The press did its job, the judiciary and a great judge did his job, the Senate did its job with the oversight of the Senate Watergate Committee investigation, the House impeached—voted articles of impeachment in the Judiciary Committee investigation, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Nixon was not above the law. And he had to turn over his tapes so it could be known what he had really done as president. His claims of privilege were not based on sound legal reasons but rather to continue to hide the truth. Ultimately, Republicans, led by Barry Goldwater, the great conservative, marched down to the White House and told Nixon he had to go or they were going to vote to convict him.
And obviously, in this presidency, there has been no congressional oversight. Nothing to stop this president from undermining the Constitution or perhaps breaking the law. It’s up to others to find out if he has broken the law. There hasn’t been a first step taken toward investigating what this president has done and the men and women around him. That includes while the Democrats have had majorities of both houses.
There has been no meaningful congressional oversight of the president. Meanwhile, we’ve had torture, suspension of the Geneva conventions. We’ve had domestic surveillance programs that judges have expressed horror about. It’s all still there. So the system hasn’t worked.
In terms of this presidency, I think these four newspapers particularly have been great. I think where the press has been lacking —- look, I’ve written and spoken widely about the shortcomings of the press over the last 35 years. But what that has to do with is a more general—broadcast particularly—diet of sensationalism, gossip and manufactured controversy. And the weird and the stupid and the coarse … witness that more attention is paid to O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton and Michael Jackson than matters of huge import happening at the same time. More journalistic resources are going into these other more frivolous areas quite often.
Any words for the alt-weeklies of the world? Do you read our papers?
I do actually. If I’m in a city, I will often take a look at an alternative paper. I read them in my neighborhood in New York. I wish the Village Voice were better. In the Bay area, you still have some really terrific journalism done by the alternative weeklies. In any city you go to, it’s a good way to learn about … it’s another way of looking at a town than the establishment press does. As is the Web now, obviously.
Any unmet career ambitions?
I might like to write fiction at some point. I’m a writer, not just a reporter. That’s another thing that those reviews have mentioned. And I’ve written part of a novel. I haven’t touched it years. But I’d love to go back to it at some point.
Did fortune and fame come too early to you?
You take what you get (laughs). But I mean, it is what it is. Look, there are times when I’ve handled it really well. And certainly early on, sometimes when I’m sure I handled it awfully. I’ve had a great life. A big life. And incredible opportunities … written these books … great subjects. Really, Woodward and I talk about it a lot. One of the really great things that’s happened to both of us is that we, for 30 years, have continually crisscrossed the country, speaking and meeting people and going into communities between the two coasts especially. You learn how fabulously diverse this country is and fascinating and different than the way it is often pictured in the media. The view from