One million copies printed, 600,000 sold, 500,000 more on the way. Evidently, it's the fastest-selling nonfiction book in history. The Washington Post and others have
One million copies printed, 600,000 sold, 500,000 more on the way. Evidently, it's the fastest-selling nonfiction book in history. TheWashington Post and others have called this phenomenon "Hillary Potter," but ... I don't know. I have not sighted a single copy of Sen. Clinton's Living History in the wild. Not one. Not even in the places where you see the Harry books or the Oprah and Kelly ones. No one's reading it on the Stairmaster, no one's reading it on the subway. (I just did a sweep of Starbucks: nope.) I know my focus group is only New York, but still. Only 147 customers have reviewed it at Amazon.com, and one of them says she borrowed it, so that's only 146. Where are all those books? Who, besides Michiko Kakutani, is reading them?
Living History: Everyone's talking about it, but no one's talking about it. It's all ink, no buzz. No one's saying "Did you read the part where... ?" (We all already read "the part where," leaked by the Associated Press on June 3.) No one's saying, "Waitwaitwait, don't tell me, I Tivoed it but I haven't watched yet!" It's not like Bridget Jones, which we walked around quoting. It's not like The Satanic Verses, which we bought on principle and left on display, bindings unbent, on our coffee tables. So, where are those one million books, and who on earth is reading them? Is this some sort of vast left-wing conspiracy?
Well, kind of. We all know this is a 562-page campaign speech — one whose sales figures have Republican knickers in a twist — and I'm not sure there's reason to get huffy about that. Beyond that, I'm guessing that jillions of people bought the book out of curiosity not extinguished by the leak — not, say, a burning desire to finally get to the bottom of Travelgate. They probably flipped straight to page 466 ("There had been an inappropriate intimacy... "), dutifully turned back to the beginning, and then couldn't get past page 11.
Why? Because the writing is so, so very bad. I know this is a nation that got past page 11 of The Celestine Prophecy, but still. (And there are some high points, which, to be sporting, I'll cite soon.) But as I read Living History, gripping a red pencil as one bites a rag during emergency battlefield surgery, all I could think of were the (paraphrased) words of Dorothy Parker: This book is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force.
Bad writing — leaden, cliche-laden, charmless — is, in this case, a serious charge. People are making the wrong demands of this book, just as they have long made the wrong demands of Hillary. (As she herself writes, in a rare moment of eloquence: "I have never been as good or as bad as my most fervid supporters and opponents claimed.") We shouldn't be shocked that Hill's shilling: duh. We shouldn't feel slighted that her description of her marital dynamic is, well, concise: none of our business (never was). Call this book a "selective memoir," but what else did — or should — we expect?
Well, I, for one, expect a good read. And I believe that a good read can be satisfying without being sensational, candid without being crass, revelatory without being Real World: White House. (Much, dare I say, like the autobiography of Clinton's First Shaman, Eleanor Roosevelt, which I dashed out and bought in a fit of pique the other day for a chaser.) All it takes is a good writer, or a good ghostwriter. And if you're someone who can get Maya freaking Angelou on the phone, you have no excuse.
Actually, Living History reads more like a college admissions essay than a campaign speech. To encapsulate pretty much everything: "I was shocked and discouraged, but I overcame this challenging setback and gained valuable experience." Clinton writes "I learned... " and "I realized... " enough times to form the basis of a drinking game. She is practically unable to describe her family and childhood — which actually includes some great David Lynch moments, such as her mother's rather Flowers in the Attic upbringing, and her peers' hobby of pedaling their bikes through DDT spray — without waxing ho-hum-homiletic about how, say, the Rodhams' "spirited, sometimes heated" dinner-table discussions taught her that everyone's opinion matters, blah blah blah.
Extreme Readers who make it through the first section will face an even tougher challenge when Hillary gets to Wellesley: "What I valued most about Wellesley were the lifelong friends that I made and the opportunity that a women's college offered to stretch our wings and minds in the ongoing journey toward self-definition and identity. We learned... " (Here's where I nod off and miss my stop.)
Even Sen. Clinton's descriptions of authentically dramatic moments are mightily affectless. Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, she writes, "filled me with grief and rage." On joining the House Judiciary Committee staff to help research the grounds for Nixon's impeachment: "I was on my way to one of the most intense and significant experiences of my life." Can't even count how many times she was "devastated." ("Drink!") She reports Paula Jones' lawsuit like Reuters: no personal reaction whatsoever, not even annoyance. Heck, even Christmas just "came and went." And when her husband gets elected the President of the United States of America? "Though I had expected a victory, I was overwhelmed." What?! Give us just one moving-day "Holy shit! I live in the goddamn White House!," Sen. Clinton, and I will give you my vote.
The book has a sense of humor — but not, mind you, a grasp of humor. Clinton doesn't quite get how hilarious, how totally Tracy Flick in Election, her high school self was — I mean, Little Miss Rodham was co-captain of the Safety Patrol. And here's what she says about getting mooned in Denver: "I had to laugh at such an irreverent and unforgettable addition to my carefully planned spousal itinerary." Would that the senator could kill a GOP bill the way she can kill a joke.
All right, you want to know more about the Bill and Monica stuff already. But you know what? I really don't. Believe me, I'm not above it; I subscribe to Us Weekly. But I'vealways thought that wondering what their marriage is really about, furrowing our brows over "why she stayed," is kind of like wondering if Mulder and Scully would ever hook up. Boring, and beside the point. (For one thing, surely Hillary's long known about her "Viking's" [p. 52] conquests; Monica, tactically, was just his dumbest.) Bottom line, women — for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer — have stayed with men far less interesting, brilliant, and charismatic who offer far less than presidential perks. Next question?
What interests me is how she gets through it. I guess the obvious answer is, she simply does, because she simply must. But I do think she explains herself elegantly and convincingly on this topic (aside from this grammar calamity: "Like an internal mantra, I repeated to myself, 'The issues, the issues.'"). "The more I believed Starr was abusing his power, the more I sympathized with Bill — at least politically," she writes. "Privately, I was still working on forgiving Bill, but my fury at those who had deliberately sabotaged him helped me on that score." This, I buy. Her fury at the political machinations is the surge of adrenaline that gives her the superhuman strength to survive the personal betrayals — kind of like the hiker who cut off his own arm. And the terseness that elsewhere robotizes her prose serves her well when she handles Gennifer Flowergate with genius dispatch: "He told me it wasn't true." Period. Six words, volumes spoken. Well put, counsel.
More good stuff: Gingrich's mother calling him "Newty." On inauguration night, the Gores and the Clintons passing around a bottle of vodka discovered in a forgotten White House kitchen. Strom Thurmond hitting on Chelsea (over and over, forgetting that he just did). Hillary's genuinely stirring speech at the U.N. women's conference in Beijing. Being served moose lip soup by Boris Yeltsin. A bizarre Rehnquist gay moment ("Chief Justice William Rehnquist arrived in the Senate chamber [for Clinton's impeachment trial in] ... an outfit he had designed, down to the chevrons of gold braid on its sleeves... He said he got the idea from the costumes in a production of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera Iolanthe.")
Also, Bill Clinton is an adorable dad, especially when Pennsylvania Avenue becomes an empty nest. He makes excuses to linger in Chelsea's dorm room (such as tinkering with the bunk bed) when they take her to Stanford; Hillary sometimes catches him just sitting in Chelsea's old bedroom, "looking around wistfully."
These high, low, and really low points of Living History make me miss having someone fully human — flaws and all — running the show, make me miss the sadly old-fashioned gravitas, inspiration, charisma, and wonkiness of true leadership, of public figures as bright as the spotlight shining on them. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days, makes me want to curl up and finish Eleanor Roosevelt's autobiography. It actually makes me want to act on this 562-page campaign speech. And vote Bill Clinton for mayor of New York.