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The Truth About Hillary:

What She Knew, When She Knew It,

and How Far She'll Go

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to Become Presiden t

By Edward Klein

Sentinel, 305 pages, $35

Sent abroad by Queen Elizabeth to tend England's mercantile fortunes in the latter decades of the 16th century, Sir Thomas Gresham soon found Her Majesty's charge maddeningly difficult. In several quarters, garishly decorated and gullibly accepted lesser currencies, no matter how valueless, tended to supplant and debase the redoubtable pound sterling, usually with disastrous results for everyone but the purveyors of the worthless scrip. Gresham's terse report to the Queen -- "Bad money drives out good" -- soon became known as Gresham's Law, and an obligatory warning in monetary affairs.

What a pity Sir Thomas did not live to see his principle resplendent in 21st-century publishing, where ballyhooed but substanceless tripe is passed off as serious political writing in much the same way. He would have found the equivalent of some counterfeit Caribbean or quick-run-up Barbary note in Edward Klein's ironically titled rant, The Truth About Hillary.

If ever a subject cried out for substance, for the sound currency of informed and critical discourse, it's Hillary Rodham Clinton. Arguably already the most powerful woman in the history of U.S. politics, she is far and away the front-runner for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008, and by any odds a formidable national power, if not a future president. Behind her trails a history like no other in the nation's political annals -- eight now turbulent, now locust-feeding years in the White House as what most serious observers agree was often a veritable co-president with her paradoxical husband, and 20 more years before in some of the murkier regions of politics both in Nixon-era Washington and then the provincial but emblematic morass of Arkansas.

Not least, she presents in her tortured marriage and mixed persona, and in the volatile clash of allegiance and abhorrence she inspires in her celebrity, a fascinating portrait of the deeper cultural tides, the relentless merging of the personal and political, that mark the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. What a symbolic figure this formidable woman offers the authentic journalist or historian! What a telling target she gives the serious critic from any point on the political spectrum! Klein, who belongs to the infantile right, gives us none of it. In unrelieved pulp prose, all that rich history and current gravity reduce to cliché, innuendo and thinly disguised bigotry. Put aside the tawdry if predictable publisher's hype that preceded the book, mainly the irresistible sensation that Bill Clinton "raped" his wife to give them a child to enhance their public image. Klein's monotony of the shallow and snide makes us forget even that chunk of smut.

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It all begins, of course, with the requisite pop psychology, unencumbered by evidence or expertise, that Hillary emerged from her Chicago suburban childhood under a damaged mother and martinet father with a profound narcissism, a well-fortified sense of entitlement and destiny that pervades a "soulless" life and politics of ruthless opportunism. "God approves of her, and . . . therefore she can't do anything wrong," Klein gleefully quotes the wife of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan." Thank the Deity, one might add, that we don't have that sort of pathology already in the Oval Office, where God could be whispering to the occupant to attack Iraq or pursue some other divine purpose. But of course Klein does not dither with such abstract ironies.

The story rolls on through little Hillary punching childhood playmates when she doesn't get her way, Wellesley College with radicals (gasp!) and lesbians (gasp!) behind every bush, the pairing at Black Panther- and communist-infested Yale Law School with Bill Clinton, the "needy narcissist," in an expedient, politically motivated relationship in which his promiscuity is simply another career challenge, her early Washington connections with the practitioners and exploiters of "liberal guilt," and on through her tenure as a ceaselessly scheming, coldly calculating political wife and sometime "crook" in the Arkansas governor's mansion.

Before you know it, fewer than 100 short-sentence pages in, we are in the White House, surrounded by "Clintonistas" and more of those ubiquitous lesbians. Klein's trembling homophobia sometimes makes the page shake, only to be exceeded by his reactionary cartoon-strip portrayal of "radical left-wing political philosophy," "feminist" as synonymous with "radical bomb-thrower," and assorted other anathemas for any insidious tendency toward social conscience.

That Hillary "urged her husband to govern from the political left," as Klein writes of the first administration, will come as headline news, of course, to any knowledgeable observer of the Clinton years, marked in the main by a refracted regime's sheer disarray, its retreat rightward on a dozen issues from health care to NAFTA to campaign finance to foreign policy, and the ultimate surrender to reaction in welfare reform, economic policy and other issues. If you seek Bill and Hillary Clinton's presidential monument, look around at George W. Bush's Washington.

But then Klein seems, sadly, a functional political illiterate who can't even read the tourist map. It's never more embarrassing than when he broaches (and it's fleeting, to be sure) questions of real history -- as in whether John F. Kennedy might have ordered political assassinations (gasp!) of foreign leaders. Most of the time, we are safely within the author's wont: Hillary's "seedy" friends, her "consigliore," her "sexless" "spinster" look, the lesbians, the lesbians, and of course her endlessly restyled hair.

Klein purports to take us well past the White House into her election to the Senate from New York, all rippling with her ravenous ambition, ominously inexhaustible supply of contributions, the perpetual "radicals" around her, the rivalry with Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, and her early strategy for reclaiming the White House. But through it all, we learn far more about her Botox treatments and hair styles than her Senate record or the inner politics, much less following the money.

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Not that there isn't some redemption in the root canal of reading this. Klein is a former foreign editor of Newsweek and editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, relatively invisible if powerful positions. That a figure of this mentality and ability could rise so high in such mainstream institutions gives us a considerable clue about the inner emptiness of U.S. journalism. As those hip, dangerously radical "Clintonistas" would say, there's no there there.

Like his credentials, however, the book is hardly all Klein's fault. Penguin, with its venerable tradition and still distinguished list, should be ashamed to have let this out over their name. It's scarcely a secret that U.S. publishing is too largely in the hands of crass merchants who have left informed editors and serious, probing political writing even more the exception. Books like this, vastly oversold and overbought, blare the intellectual decay.

The desperately needed scrutiny of Hillary Clinton, her gifts and limits, the substantial potential and the crippling compromise, will still have to rely on the relatively thin literature out there. I gladly exclude my own work on this haunted couple, now 10 years in the past, to recommend books across the political range, from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's The Secret Life of Bill Clinton to Rich Lowry's Legacy to Meredith Oakley's On the Make. Hillary awaits her serious biographer along with her political destiny.

The folly here with Klein is not only the added debasing of the dialogue, but most immediately the missed opportunity to reveal something meaningful before the story is done, and thus to give a woefully uninformed public at least a little more to go on. The stakes are vast. Hillary Clinton is and will be for some time a major protagonist in the struggle for the soul of liberal democracy in the United States. Who she was and is as a matter of character as well as root politics, what she really believes, her capacities and her limits, all go to the outcome of nothing less than a crisis of leadership in the United States -- and thus a momentous issue for the world at large.

As before Klein's screed hit the bestseller lists, however, you are on our own in this. Observing Gresham's Law in its literary variant, don't look for the human or political reality in worthless partisan currency. As Sir Thomas advised Elizabeth, the very realm is in the balance.

Roger Morris served on the National Security Council under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and is the author of Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America. He is writing a book on U.S. covert policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

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