Hill street blues

It is Hillary Clinton’s lifelong discipline and self-control that comes across in both books, writes
Leonard Doyle

Hillary Clinton: Her way
by Jeff Gerth & Don van Natta Jr.
John Murray. Pages 438. £20.

A Woman in Charge
by Carl Bernstein. Hutchinson.
Pages 628. £25

Before casting her vote backing the war in Iraq, Senator Hillary Clinton was invited to read a top-secret intelligence assessment about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. She never bothered, and went on to give George Bush the authorisation he was seeking to invade. Six senators who read the report voted against the invasion. Had Hillary read the document, she would have learnt that the three pillars upon which the US was building its case for war were deeply flawed. There was no Al Qaida link to Iraq; Saddam did not buy uranium for a nuclear bomb from Niger, and the famous "aluminium tubes" were just that: relatively harmless tubes.

Instead of going to read the National Intelligence Estimate and make a considered judgement, Hillary Clinton had already made up her mind, it appears. As Senator for New York, she had to be tough, especially as she was preparing her 2008 presidential run. To do otherwise, she must have calculated, would have been fatal to the long-planned next stage in her career. That is the central finding of Jeff Gerth and Don van Natta Jr's biography. It goes to the heart of the conundrum about Hillary Clinton. Is she so ambitious, so keen to get back into the White House, that she was prepared to set aside the moral compass of her Methodist faith over such an important issue as war and peace? This is the inconvenient truth with which the Democrats struggle.

The other core allegation of Her Way is that even before her marriage to the serially unfaithful Bill Clinton, the two had a secret political partnership that would take them to the White House. It was their "20-year project" and they agreed, according to the book, that "the only way to achieve these goals was to do whatever it took to win elections and defeat their opponents. Bill would be the project's public face... Hillary would serve as the enterprise's behind-the-scenes manager and enforcer".

Later, while in the White House, Bill is said to have confided in his friend, historian Taylor Branch, his bold goal of spending 16 years in the White House: eight with himself in charge, and eight more for Hillary. Branch now flatly denies the story, but those who have followed the Clintons closely have little trouble believing it. We learn that Hillary started out as a Nixon-supporting Republican. Convinced that John F Kennedy cheated in the 1960 Presidential elections – helped by Mayor Daley of Chicago and mafia boss Sam Giancana – she went out with voter lists and found empty parking lots where there were supposed to be hundreds of Democratic voters. While fascinated by the civil rights movement, she nonetheless became president of the Young Republicans at Wellesley in 1965.

It was at Yale that Hillary was smitten by the bearded Bill Clinton, fresh from his Vietnam-dodging sojourn in Oxford. In 1973, they went on holiday to Europe, where Bill proposed marriage at Wordsworth's cottage in the Lake District. Hillary would refuse him 12 times – with the support of her friends, who knew of his straying ways. He returned to Arkansas to build his political career while she went to Washington to work for the Watergate committee to impeach Nixon. There followed a long argument over whether she should pack in a promising legal career and follow Bill to the hillbilly back-of-beyond. That is what she famously did, hitching a ride in her friend's VW Beetle and arriving in Fayetteville, where she taught at the University of Arkansas.

The issue of Hillary's unbridled ambition is also at the heart of Carl Bernstein's biography. She has been under such scrutiny that there are few enough new facts thrown up by this book. Nor did she grant any interviews to this half of the Watergate duo. Bernstein's book is nonetheless a remarkable and, on the whole, sympathetic portrait of Mrs Clinton.

He chronicles her youth in suburban Chicago under a domineering father who ran the household like an army boot camp. Later, an investment the Clintons made in a piece of land called Whitewater turned sour, leading to a politically-inspired criminal investigation that nearly destroyed Bill's first term of office. Bernstein deals in detail with Hillary's policy-making endeavours in the White House, notably the health care crisis. He also reveals the role she played in rescuing the presidency as the flames of the Lewinsky scandal threatened to engulf it. Hillary claims she was one of the last to know of Bill's philandering, even as she prepared to go on television to defend him and attack a "great right-wing conspiracy". It is her lifelong discipline and self-control that comes across in both books. That, combined with her grip on the issues and sheer competence, is what other Democratic candidates and the Republicans fear most.

— By arrangement with The Independent