Carl Bernstein isn’t really excited to answer our questions. He’d rather we just read his book. Out in paperback earlier this month, A Woman in Charge is a life-spanning look at Hillary Clinton that has been called “fair,” “solid,” and “reliable.”
As for that other high-profile look at the life of Hillary Clinton — her self-penned Living History — Bernstein is not a fan.
“The problem with Living History is that it has huge omissions,” he says. “It’s meant to be in part a campaign document as well as a memoir.”
He says that when measured against the journalistic standard of the best obtainable version of the truth, it fails.
“It comes up short because its objectives are more political than literary,” he says. “The description of her childhood is a perfect example. Her description of her childhood really minimized the difficulties in her household and the picture of her father is more that of a likeable curmudgeon than what most others who encountered him found, which is to say a sour, unfulfilled man who verbally abused and demeaned and diminished her mother.”
Those stories and others fill A Woman in Charge. While Bernstein was refused interviews with Bill and Hillary, he wraps the story in first-person accounts by everyone from childhood friends to White House insiders.
“I was lucky because I began this while the Clintons were still in the White House and the idea of Hillary running for president seemed almost an absurd notion, giving that he had just been impeached and she was just considering a run for the Senate,” he says. “So people were much more willing to speak openly and on the record with me.”
As Bernstein continued his research, Hillary’s path became clear, especially after the release of Living History and her early years in the Senate.
“When she wanted to be a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to me that was the strongest indication she was going to seek the presidency,” he says, noting she needed credentials on foreign policy to overcome Bill Clinton’s trouble with the draft that had impacted his credibility on military issues.
“If she was going to successfully run for president, she was going to have to do something there,” Bernstein says.
Clinton’s frank, emotional diner moment in New Hampshire, where she teared up while talking about the struggles of the campaign trail, has been considered a turning point for the campaign, but Bernstein says the whole thing has been over-hyped.
While it’s hard to say whether the moment was calculated, Bernstein says it was certainly inflated by the media in its suggestions that she rarely shows emotion.
“Anger is an emotion,” he says. “And she shows anger often.”
The most important aspect of the campaign is the ugly direction the race has turned, he says, labeling Obama’s campaign as “vague” and Clinton’s as “fast and loose with the truth.”
In particular, he notes the recent exchange over race, in which Hillary said the Civil Rights movement needed Lyndon Johnson in the White House to succeed.
“These are two people who have understood the role and tragedy of race in America, perhaps better than any white politicians of prominence of our time,” Bernstein says of the Clintons. “For them to have said that and continue to argue about this question about what Martin Luther King Jr. did or didn’t do and what Lyndon Johnson did or didn’t do, it’s very surprising.”
In the end, even Bernstein, who spent years chronicling her life, doesn’t know what to think of Clinton.
“She is someone with hugely appealing abilities and skills, but there is a constant unwillingness to allow herself to sometimes be seen … never mind. Like many people she’s got two sides to her. In this campaign, we’re seeing both.”