Bernstein steps back into spotlight

[17 October 2007]

By Geeta Sharma-Jensen

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)

MILWAUKEE—You have a lot to live up to when you are part of a duo instrumental in changing White House history, have a movie made about your newspaper reporting that brought down a president and then write two bestsellers about the politics of the time.

Carl Bernstein has come close this year. He is back in the limelight with a book about a woman who’s aiming for the White House. “A Woman in Charge” is the biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton to read today—and it comes at a time when the world is watching Clinton prepare a run for the presidency.

Seven years ago, when Bernstein started the book, however, he had little idea that Clinton would represent New York in the Senate or that she would become the early leader for the Democratic nomination for president. Nothing was certain. He began the project because he was fascinated by Hillary Clinton. And now he finds his opinions of her changed—for the better, even though at times, he says, it is impossible to be sympathetic with her.

“After the (Bill) Clinton impeachment (in 1998-‘99), I was fascinated by the idea that everybody involved in that was diminished but Hillary Clinton’s stature was enhanced,” Bernstein said as he hovered over a cup of cappuccino at the Pfister Hotel Cafe downtown. “During the first six years she had been increasingly damaged goods—and all of a sudden she was the one person who seemed to emerge from this horror with some enhancements as a person. ...

“I thought, here’s this person, the most well-known woman in the country, and we certainly don’t know much about her. Her story has become a caricature told by enemies and her own airbrushing, which is not nefariously misleading but its omissions are gargantuan, as it is Hillary as she sees herself and wants to be seen.”

As Bernstein became immersed in his research, however, he says it became obvious to him that Clinton was thinking of the presidency. “I thought, here’s a story,” he recalled. “I thought she’d be the first woman to successfully run, and who’d have a chance of being nominated.

“What’s interesting now is that the excitement of that fact has been somewhat undercut by a black man (Barack Obama) running against her and saying he is the agent of change and she—the Clintons—are shopworn. But she’s run a very good campaign, (especially) in terms of this unexpected competitiveness. And it’s by no means over.”

Bernstein said he strove to be “judicious, fair, balanced and above all, contextual” in his book. And he is pleased with the timing of the publication. “This is certainly the right time for the book,” he said. “If we had had a real biography of George W. Bush when he was running, I don’t think he would have been elected. I think we missed the boat on that one. There were a lot of hints from people who knew him in Texas, but no real biography.

“The hope of my book is to give people the opportunity to understand who this person is and weigh for themselves whether they want to give her the opportunity.

“She certainly has attributes that would make her a good president. But you can’t look at her in isolation, without looking at him (Bill Clinton). The Clintons hope, if they are lucky enough to get back to the White House, that the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated. They are both people who learn from their mistakes. ... She has a program. She knows where she wants this country to go.”

Bernstein, 63, is promoting his book on a national tour that included a stop in Milwaukee.

“A Woman in Charge” is an unauthorized biography, but Bernstein, who painstakingly researched and reported the story, was able to gain valuable access to Hillary Clinton’s closest friends, among them Diane Blair, and to archival materials. His storytelling style also makes the biography accessible to general readers.

“It took me a long time to find the right voice for the book,” he said. “The hardest thing was that it was a story that was still changing.”

“A Woman in Charge” shows a sensitive Clinton, one affected by the dismissive way her father treated her mother. Her actions were often prompted by embarrassment and fear of humiliation, which sometimes mean “a difficult relationship with the truth.” Yet she was politically savvy and protective of her husband’s sexual wanderings.

Bernstein also reveals Clinton’s strong religious foundation—she’s a Methodist—something she does not wear on her sleeve. And he explores her fortitude and refusal to allow her marriage to end when Bill Clinton, saying he was in love with another woman, wanted to leave the marriage. She refused to grant him a divorce, instead pushing to work things out. They stayed together; there was never any doubt that they loved and love each other, Bernstein says.

“She was able to do that (keep the marriage together) because this is a love affair. That’s the other thing, this is a love story, each is the other’s brightest star.”

Bernstein says his opinions about her changed as his research proceeded. “I found more things to like that I had not been aware of,” he said, adding that she grew and changed.

She is no longer the vulnerable woman who gave up her career and followed Bill Clinton to Arkansas.

“Today she is a woman in charge of her own life as she’s never been when she went to Arkansas,” Bernstein said. “There’s an ease, a sense of assurance about her. She’s been a very good representative for her constituency. She has won the collegiality and respect of members of Congress and the Senate. She enjoys what she does and she’s in charge of her life as she’s never been—because her life, up to now, had been tethered to (Bill Clinton). Now, you are seeing the relationship balance change. She is in charge of her life.”

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