What the First Lady Saw

Why Hillary Clinton's Living History will be a deadening read


It's time for a heightened stage of security alert—for the nation's readers. Is there a color above red on that stupid Department of Homeland Security scale?

Yesterday came reports that on June 9, Hillary Clinton's memoir, Living History, will hit bookstores like so many Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This may be good news for the former First Lady and current junior senator from New York. She can finally cash the last installment of her record-setting $8 million advance and get back to her primary full-time gig of shilling for her Empire State constituents. (As she did with her previous books and her god-awful and thankfully never-seen newspaper column, Clinton claims that she personally wrote her own memoir—a claim which if true is perhaps the most stunning admission of literary moonlighting on the taxpayers' dime since William Faulkner ran the Oxford, Mississippi Post Office while perfecting his writing and drinking skills.)

But there's every reason to believe that this book will simply be the latest episode in what's shaping up as Clinton's tedious, hectoring, and ultimately unreadable roman fleuve that already includes Dear Socks, Dear Buddy (think Cujo meets Millie's Book); An Invitation to the White House (Mrs. Dalloway meets Advise and Consent); and, most famously, It Takes a Village (Baby and Child Care meets Lord of the Flies). This last volume was aptly dubbed It Takes a Police State and It Takes a Bureaucracy for its insistence that child-rearing should be every bit as rule-bound and soul-sapping as working for the Internal Revenue Service. That Clinton won a Grammy for a spoken-word version of the book is an indicator of just how rotten it really is.

To be sure, Clinton's publisher is wearing a poker face—and putting plenty of chips on the table, too. The initial print run of Living History will be a stunning 1 million copies. "We think the book is absolutely fantastic, and we are convinced that there is a tremendous public appetite for this book based on our advance orders," David Rosenthal, head of Simon & Schuster's trade division, told The Washington Post. And the New York Mets- (or is it Yankees?)-loving Clinton herself knows a thing or two about selling suspect product to a skeptical public. "My publisher kept saying you can't say that much," she told the Post, figuratively hiking up her skirt while trying to hitch a ride by the side of the road. "It's not meant to be a history, it is a memoir, and I tried to express my feelings about everything that happened during those eight years."

So why will Clinton's White House memoir be a boring, dull disappointment? (Remember, you read it here first.) Early indicators include the publicity mill that is cranking up to speed (hence yesterday's news). This is more typically a sign of a horse that needs to be flogged across the finish line than of a confident thoroughbred that will win the race with ease. As Thomas Pynchon and others could tell you, long-awaited, blockbuster publishing events rarely pan out the way they're supposed to.

More to the point, though, is this: Spell-binding memoirs, especially by political figures, are based on revelation; the form is inherently confessional. While Clinton certainly has access to first-rate material—both in terms of politics and in terms of a one-handed read—her entire public persona is built upon obfuscation, privacy, and stoicism in the face of public humiliation. Seneca himself caved under pressures far lighter than those generated by the revelations of Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinski, not to mention Travelgate, Whitewater, and the Vince Foster suicide. Such personality characteristics hardly mark her as exceptional in politics—indeed, they are the tools of the trade. But no one wants to read a memoir by a politician who doesn't take off the mask, and it doesn't seem as if Clinton's will be slipping any time soon. Occasionally, a politician can engage the public with a boilerplate political tract—Barry Goldwater managed this difficult trick with The Conscience of a Conservative—but Clinton's political program is already widely known and several volts short of electrifying.

Which means her only route to reader interest is going tell-all. She may or may not be the "congenital liar" that William Safire once swore she was, but does anyone really think she's more likely to dish now that she's a sitting senator and future presidential candidate? Although accounts of her emotional life have found their way into public view, it's unfathomable that she will discuss such material in a way that will satisfy the reading public. What will she really have to say about her relationship with a husband who is a serial philanderer and an embarrassment even to many of his defenders? Very little.

As important, it seems equally unlikely she will be discuss her husband's political legacy with candor, even as she says this will be the meat of the book: "I was very privileged to live history in the White House for eight years… It's about those White House years; it's not about me being a senator."

But at this time, Bill Clinton's great political legacy has been to hand over total control of the federal government to the Republicans—a result that was unthinkable the day he took office. Along the way, he managed to balance the budget and effectively destroy the Great Society's liberal welfare system, two goals that had never been high on liberals' or Democrats' to-do list. This occurred in large part due to Bill Clinton's first-term stumble with nationalized health care, a disaster that owed much to Hillary Clinton's massively bungled efforts.

Will the woman who was quick to blame everything short of bad weather on "the vast right-wing conspiracy" deliver a book worth dragging to the beach? The smart money—if not Simon & Schuster's—isn't taking that bet.