Column: The Hillary we see
WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton is our national Rorschach test. What you see says more about you than it does about her. Whether the inkblot depicts a menacing monster or fluffy cloud depends on your pre-existing perspective.
So it is with the fascinating trove of documents from the late Diane Blair, Clinton’s closest friend, unearthed by the Washington Free Beacon. The conservative website plucked the most unflattering tidbits from Blair’s archives, but the least newsworthy. Voters perceived Hillary Clinton as “ruthless” during the 1992 campaign? Big whoop.
In fact, the Blair papers — the University of Arkansas political scientist was working on a book project before her death in 2000 — offer a more multifaceted portrait of the once first lady and perhaps future president.
Hillary Clinton emerges as hard-edged and acerbic, self-pitying and resentful. And, yes, ruthless — not always a bad quality. “Most people in this town have no pain threshold,” she tells Blair after her husband’s impeachment. No one can say that about Hillary Clinton.
But she also comes off as smart and erudite (the documents read like a Blair-Clinton book group); insightful about the foibles of the capital and its inhabitants; relentlessly tough and disciplined, in stark contrast to her husband; and, alongside the ruthlessness, tender toward family and friends. Blair’s real-time reporting, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, illuminates the enduring mystery of the Clintons’ marriage and how it survived his serial straying.
From the administration’s start, the papers show Hillary Clinton alternately railing against the stupidity of Washington and accepting the imperative of accommodating its infuriating ways. In one passage that offers a great title for a Washington memoir, Blair writes, “I told her I’d been bonding w. creeps, she said that was the story of her whole past year.”
Some of the railing: “I’m not stupid; I know I should do more to suck up to the press, I know it confuses people when I change my hairdos, I know I should pretend not to have any opinions — but I’m just not going to,” Clinton tells Blair. “I know how to compromise, I have compromised, I gave up my name, got contact lenses, but I’m not going to try to present to be somebody that I’m not.”
Except, of course, when she does, curbing her tongue and ramping up the charm. As in Clinton’s wooing of lawmakers as she introduced her health care plan. “She’s begun to see that they don’t really care about the issues but want to feel they’re part of the process,” Blair observes of Clinton and Congress. “So she’s slobbering over their ‘craft’ as she testifies.”
Clinton is equally disdainful of, and similarly determined to manipulate, folks like me. “HRC says press has big ego’s [sic] and no braisn [sic] and they’re just going to have to work them better,” Blair writes in 1993.
Clinton’s frustration with the operations of her husband’s staff is not news, but it surfaces here with the white-hot fury of a wife constrained by her role.
“HC furious at BC ruining himself and the presy [presidency],” Blair writes in May 1994. “She keeps trying to shape things up, knows what’s wrong, but he can’t fire people, exert discipline, punish leakers.”
Still, in the midst of this continuing exasperation, Blair depicts touching moments of mutual concern. There is Bill Clinton in 1993, “tenderly hugging and thanking HC for sucking up to all those ego’s [sic].” There is Hillary the following year, “furious” at Bill as they work on the State of the Union but “fixing him tea so he can talk.”
Which helps explain Hillary Clinton’s tortured, contradictory reaction to the Lewinsky scandal. “She is not trying to excuse him,” Clinton tells Blair in a post-impeachment phone call. “It was a huge personal lapse.”
And yet: Lewinsky was a “narcissistic loony toon” and Bill Clinton was trying to extricate himself. The affair was “gross, inappropriate behavior,” but also “consensual” and not “sex within any real meaning.” Hillary does not blame herself, but “thinks she was ... not sensitive enough, not free enough of her own concerns and struggles to realize the price he was paying” of constant public attack.
In the end, Bill Clinton “has been her best friend for 25 years ... the’r econnected [sic] in every way imaginable.” He “has done brilliant things as president.” So “she’s in it for the long haul.”
Remarkable self-delusion or impressive loyalty? As I said, she’s our Rorschach test — and this set of inkblots isn’t the last.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.