'Have you seen the L.A. Times review?" chortles Carl Bernstein, even before his visitor has sat down. It's Monday afternoon in Bernstein's office on the Upper East Side, and the review of his new Hillary Clinton biography, A Woman in Charge, hit the Internet only a few hours ago. " Mazal tov is right! I tell you, about twice in your life you get a review like that." He begins to read from a copy his assistant has printed off. "...it stands as a model of contemporary political biography. ... After Bernstein, it is difficult to imagine the need for another book on the first five decades of Clinton's life."
He looks up, beaming. "Never forget that Woodward and I got creamed on Final Days, but that's a long time ago."
Some have already said the same thing about Bernstein's new book. To wit: What's the point of yanking ourselves back into the icky sticky era of Arkansas state troopers and Hillarycare and the meaning of "is," when matters of U.S. national politics are now so grave, when enemies are at the gates or hanging around JFK Airport, and more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are wearing targets on their backs? In so many ways, both the optimism and peculiar pathologies of the Clinton era feel like a long time ago.
But Bernstein is a card-carrying citizen of long-time-ago land, if not in reality than at least in the popular imagination: Some part of him is fixed in the early seventies and will forever be so, which is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that he, like Hillary Clinton, knows how tough it can be to extricate oneself from a famous partnership. The blessing: Even with the dozens of Hillary bios written over the years, a new Bernstein book demands notice simply because it comes from one half of the Hydra-headed investigative beast that once brought down a sitting president.
And here's what's important to remember: Yes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported shocking stories that sparked headlines around the world.
At its root, though, their work was dedicated to the notion of - as Bernstein likes to say of journalism - "the best obtainable version of the truth." And A Woman in Charge makes a strong case that all of the other biographies of Hillary failed in that simplest of aims.
"Hillary Clinton does not want to be scrutinized, and never has," says Bernstein, banging a meaty fist on his L-shaped desk.
"I could see how opaque and unknown she was, and how other writers had tried to grapple with this problem, and they could get little pieces of the puzzle, but they were never strung together coherently - because she didn't want 'em! And the Clintons have opposed every effort to depict - her, especially - accurately. And if she doesn't have a hand in the process, she and her people and her acolytes and the Clinton apparat go after it. And it's unfortunate, because she's better than that, and I think it ends up diminishing her."
Neither of the Clintons sat for an interview with Bernstein, which he claims they had long promised to do. Their absence rankles him, both as a reporter who recognizes the book would have been richer if they'd participated, and as a civilian who seems to want to believe in Hillary's potential, but is held back by doubts that need addressing.
"I think it speaks volumes - of her, especially," he says. "Bob Barnett [Bill's lawyer] when I started on the book, said, 'Don't do this book, nobody'll talk to you.' I said, 'I don't believe you, and that makes me want to do it all the more.'
"I think in the end [Barnett]and a few others prevailed - that it would be a bad idea for them to talk to me. I think it was a really bad mistake on their part."
That may be, for the portrait that emerges in the 550-plus pages is ambivalent about Hillary, lauding her strengths (loyalty, intellect, pluck and a Methodist impulse to improve the world) as well as her weaknesses (arrogance, secretiveness, skittishness and her lack of authenticity). Bernstein spent almost eight years on the book, securing long, on-the-record interviews with Hillary's closest childhood friend and some of her closest adult friends. He offers reasons for empathy - A Woman in Charge is probably the first book to paint Hillary's emotionally abusive childhood in such detail - that are balanced out by astonishing anecdotes about her willingness to cover up Bill's philandering, and her talent in avoiding blame.