The art of ghost-reading
If I write really, really fast, maybe I can get in on the Hillary book thing before it's over. I've got to hurry, because it looks like the Hillary book thing is scheduled to stop this weekend when the new Harry Potter adventure goes on sale. That works for me: How many extended fantasies can readers handle at the same time? Anyway, CNN is already running a poll on which of these yarns, Hillary's or Harry's, people plan to buy. Harry was way ahead last time I checked (well, it was the only time I checked), so you can see that I've got no time to waste.
In fact, I've got no time to read the book. Does that matter? I don't see why it should. Hillary didn't actually write her own book, so why should I read it before joining the public chorus about it? Think of me as a ghost-reader. Anyway, I did read most of the notorious Associated Press wire that caused a scandal because it broke the publisher's embargo and revealed the book's big scene. (I'm supposed to characterize that scene here, but it involves a private matter between the Clintons and is none of your business.) The AP story also included the book's most quoted line, which thus far appears to be the book's only quotable line. It's a finely honed sentiment that may well land Hillary in future editions of Bartlett's. That line is, I think, "I wanted to wring his neck."
Great line, of course, but I actually prefer novelist Laura Moore's version. Romance writer Moore was one of several novelists invited by The New York Observer to "assess" Hillary's book; Ms. Moore responded with a rewrite of the book's most famous scene. "In my line of fiction," Moore writes in an introductory note addressed to Hillary, "we call it the 'black moment': the moment of crisis between the heroine and hero, when they discover that their love and trust are in jeopardy." Got that? Okay, here's some of Moore's rendition of "I wanted to wring his neck":
My mind reeled from the blow of his softly stammered words. Stunned, I stared uncomprehending. A wave of dizziness assailed me and I thought I might be sick. Fighting against the sudden nausea, my fingers clutched at the bed sheets. A distant region of my brain registered the fact that here I was in our bed, the one Bill and I had shared countless nights, his warm, wonderfully familiar body pressed against mine. It had been a place of joy and refuge where we had lain and whispered dreams in the dark. Now it was horribly transformed into an icy field of lies.
I think that captures the purple spirit of the Clintons' public personae about as well as it can be translated into prose, and I am therefore prepared to argue that the Moore passage is at least as authentic as Hillary's supposed "original." That is, reading Moore is, in my self-serving opinion, a better credential for writing about Hillary than is reading Hillary. Now, that wouldn't be true if anyone, anywhere regarded Hillary as the author of her book, but no one does. Normally, that wouldn't matter, especially in Washington, where no one is accused of having written his or her own book. But Hillary is as special in this way as she is in so many others.
At this point I should retell the story of Hillary's earlier book, It Takes a Village, the issue of that book's authorship, and what it has to do with the new Hillary book. But I don't have to do that any more than Hillary had to write her own stuff. The estimable Gregg Easterbrook, a levelheaded fellow when he isn't writing about SUVs, has already done it
"Once again," writes Easterbrook,
Clinton is presented as the author of what is actually a ghosted book. The world learned that Barbara Feinman Todd wrote "It Takes a Village," because the publisher inadvertently issued a press release announcing the true author; Hillary threw an ego fit and demanded that all reference to Todd's existence be removed from the book and its press materials, which was presented to the world as if it were the product solely of Clinton's late-night labors. This time around, the pages of "Living History" thank three people—the much-admired former White House speech writer Alison Muscatine, veteran ghost Maryanne Vollers and researcher Ruby Shamir—who are assumed to be the actual authors. But the cover and the frontispiece still boldly state, "by Hillary Rodham Clinton."
"Living History" is a 562-page book. A work of that length would take an average writer perhaps four years to produce; a highly proficient writer might finish in two years, if working on nothing else. Clinton signed the contract to "write" the book about two years ago. About the same time, she also was sworn in as a member of the United States Senate. Clinton took an oath to protect the Constitution and to serve the citizens of New York. So in the last two years Clinton has either been neglecting her duties as a United States Senator—that is, violating her oath—in order to be the true author of "Living History," or she is claiming authorship of someone else's work.
There are a number of notable revelations in Easterbrook's account, but the most startling of them to me is that Hillary's book, which turns out to be called Living History, is 562 pages long! No wonder I don't have time to read it.
Besides which, I lived this history, too, and I don't see much profit in re-living it within the frames of reference provided by Hillary's ghosts. Of course, there can certainly be merit in reading the work attributed to public figures: We may be able to learn something important about the fitness of those "authors" for ever higher office, and their desire for greater involvement in our own lived histories.
But do I need a long book with Hillary's name on it to decide how to cast her in what remains of my history? No. To tell you why not, however, I do need another writer who will express articulately what I do not have the time to express myself. In this case, that author is Berkeley economist and former Clinton Treasury official Brad DeLong. He writes:
My two cents' worth—and I think it is the two cents' worth of everybody who worked for the Clinton Administration health care reform effort of 1993-1994—is that Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to be kept very far away from the White House for the rest of her life. Heading up health-care reform was the only major administrative job she has ever tried to do. And she was a complete flop at it. She had neither the grasp of policy substance, the managerial skills, nor the political smarts to do the job she was then given. And she wasn't smart enough to realize that she was in over her head and had to get out of the Health Care Czar role quickly….
Hillary Rodham Clinton has already flopped as a senior administrative official in the executive branch—the equivalent of an Undersecretary. Perhaps she will make a good senator. But there is no reason to think that she would be anything but an abysmal president.
My ghostly thanks to Ms. Moore, Mr. Easterbrook, and Prof. DeLong. Wonder what they make of the new Potter book?