Hillary Clinton's new memoir.

Hillary Clinton's new memoir.

Hillary Clinton's new memoir.

Reading between the lines.
June 12 2003 4:22 PM

Glam Girl

Meet Hillary Clinton's feminine side in her turgid new memoir.

Book cover

If Simon & Schuster really wanted Living History to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton's $8 million advance, they should have shrink-wrapped it like Madonna's Sex. Luckily for cheapskate browsers everywhere, the publisher didn't have that much foresight. Here's a quick guide for those too smart, too poor, or too impatient to wade through 528 pages just to mine the good stuff. (Warning: Whatever you do, do not sit down to read unless you've taken a powerful cocktail of caffeine, Ritalin, and modafinil.)

Walk into your local bookstore, pick up a copy at the display table, and turn to Page 441, which begins, "Bill told me that Monica Lewinsky was an intern. …" Read the whole Lewinsky account. Skip the next 22 pages, which deal with, among other things, a trip to China, a series of millennium-themed lectures at the White House, and the preservationist campaign, Save America's Treasures. Instead, flip to Page 464, the chapter titled "August 1998." Read all seven pages. If you're really pressed for time, begin at the very bottom of page 465, where it says, "Early the next morning, Saturday, August 15, Bill woke me up …" and stop reading somewhere on Page 469, sometime before Bill and Hillary go sailing with Walter Cronkite.

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Pick up again at "Impeachment" on Page 471. After a page and a half, Hillary writes, "Life moved on, and I moved with it." The next three paragraphs are, inexplicably, about peace talks in Ireland. Skip them. Stop reading entirely at the end of Page 473. Close the book.

Those who like romances may want to turn to Page 52 and read the 10-page chapter titled "Bill Clinton," which includes the college Hillary swooning over Viking Bill.

There. You've just gone through the most embarrassing bit of public reading since your German History professor assigned you Mein Kampf in college, but you're not out 28 bucks.

Have you missed anything?

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Even if you turned every page you wouldn't find a thing on Marc Rich, or the 1996 fund-raising scandals, or any indication at all of what kind of "pain" Bill had caused in their marriage before the Lewinsky scandal. The book is as comprehensive as a hubristic family Christmas letter: "I headed a panel on health care, and Chelsea and I traveled to India, and Bill went golfing with Greg Norman! Oh, and on a trip to Denver, two guys mooned us!" It's not much more than a timeline encrusted with uninteresting anecdotes.

In part, it's the book you would expect from Hillary—on-message, with laundry lists of her husband's accomplishments and references to her own importance in the White House, plus tirades against the evil Republicans who plotted to stop them. It's part policy brief, part presidential-campaign biography (her potential future one, that is), and part chronicle of the obstacles that faced a smart, ambitious woman during her climb to the top. In many ways, the descriptions of her life before Bill Clinton are the most interesting, even if, as a child and a young woman, Hillary Rodham was exactly the type of kid you would have imagined her to be: safety monitor in grade school, selected to serve on school committees by her high-school administration, president of her college government. She never wanted to be just a girl.

But she never got to be one, either. At least, not until she reached the White House. There, she finds that she's expected to embody the feminine ideal during a time when no one's quite sure what that ideal is. She complains about the "pressures on me to conform" to gender stereotypes while she was first lady of Arkansas, and she approvingly quotes Martha Washington on the difficulties of being America's first lady. ("I am more like a state prisoner than anything else.") But she also admits that being pigeonholed into the role of national hostess was a kind of liberation.

For example, after a trip to the hairstylist Christophe during the 1992 campaign, Hillary discovers the joys of fashion. Before: "For most of my life I had paid little attention to my clothes. I liked headbands." Or, even earlier, right before she meets Bill's mother for the first time: "I had trimmed my own hair (badly) to save money. I didn't use makeup and wore jeans and work shirts most of the time." But once she receives the attention of presidential-campaign stylists, she's as giddy as a participant on A Makeover Story or Fashion Emergency: "I was like a kid in a candy store, trying out every style I could. Long hair, short hair, bangs, flips, braids and buns. This was a new universe and it turned out to be fun."

Forget women's lib. This is girls' lib. This is some of the best stuff in the book—as Time clearly realized, because it took most of its excerpt from Hillary's accounts of her fashion awakening and her girlish account of meeting Clinton in law school. According to Hillary, her ever-changing hairstyle during the early years of the Clinton administration can be explained as a delayed adolescence. The young woman she describes, who disdained fashion and appearances, is nowhere to be found in the authorial voice of Living History. The new Hillary—whether out of a newfound sense of a security, or just the discovery of the pleasures of femininity—is, at times, unashamedly girlish. She worries about the size of her backside, and she jokes about gaining weight and dying her hair. She drops designers' names like a would-be Bret Easton Ellis: Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, a coat by Connie Fails, "my designer friend in Little Rock." In Pakistan, she notes that she and Chelsea wore a "local form of dress called shalwar kameez, a long, flowing tunic over loose pants that was both practical and attractive." (Hillary's was red, Chelsea's "in a turquoise green that complemented her eyes.") She compliments Jackie O for her stylishness: "impeccably dressed, wearing silk pants in one of her signature colors—a combination of beige and gray—and a matching blouse with subtle peach stripes." At one point, the woman whom Republicans tarred as a radical feminist who wanted to obliterate all distinctions between the sexes goes so far as to embrace a controversial brand of difference feminism, writing, "Fashion is a universal feminine touchstone."

Some will think this is calculated—that the coldly rational Hillary Rodham Clinton knows that she was most popular during her husband's administration when she was cast as the betrayed housewife, and now she's trying to play up her feminine side to win popularity points. And who knows, maybe that's the truth. But there's another possibility: In the book, Hillary writes about the frustration she experienced during her early years in the White House, when the country assumed that the first lady—and by extension all women—had to be "either a hardworking professional woman or a conscientious and caring hostess." Why couldn't she be both?

She doesn't admit it, but it took a while for the senator from New York to realize that she could be, and that being both was fun. A lot more fun than reading Living History, in fact. Save your money, and skip to Page 441.