Thursday, September 5, 2013

Living History - Hillary Rodham Clinton


Way back at Christmas, I picked up a stack of books from the second-hand store where my mother-in-law works.  Their inexpensive prices convinced me to a grab a few for which I normally would not have paid.  While I get most of my new reads from the library, it can be so nice to own a book and not ever have to worry about when it's due.  That applies especially in cases like this, where the book is one I won't be tearing through in under a week.

Living History chronicles Hillary Rodham Clinton's life up through her years as First Lady.  The memoir is a bit dated now; it was published in 2003.  Clinton has been and continues to be a polarizing figure in American politics.

As with any memoir, the contents must be taken with a grain of salt.  No one can view their own life with complete objectivity.  Critics of the book have labeled it one long campaign speech.  Since Clinton is a politician, after all, there must be some element of truth to that statement.  There are moments where the reader can see her sidestepping a sensitive issue or approaching it with an heavy dose of political correctness.  Just as you can see the polish, however, there are also moments rich with sincerity of emotion.

Clinton has led a fascinating life.  I was immediately astonished at her credentials.  In many ways, and I admit this thought process was probably formed by my years living in politically conservative circles, I have often seen her as a First Lady who wanted to butt in the political side of the White House.  Turns out, she was immensely qualified to do just that.

Clinton enjoyed a successful career in the law prior to her time in the White House.  She graduated from Yale Law School, which is where she met Bill.  While most of her legal work focused on family law and children's rights, Clinton also served as an advisor to the House Committee on the Judiciary during Watergate and Nixon's resignation.  Upon Bill's inauguration in 1992, Clinton terminated all her work outside the White House; this included her law work as well as her positions on the boards of several organizations including that of Wal-mart.  

As a complete White House history nerd, Clinton's account of her years spent there fascinated me.  Clinton was the first First Lady to have a coveted office in the West Wing.  The Clintons viewed her role as an advisory one.  Political opponents have long cited this as unprofessional. Now that I have a better understanding of her work experience, though, I see no reason why the President should have neglected his intelligent wife during the most important time in his career.

Clinton devotes a large number of pages to the various political attacks on her family, both before and during their White House years. Clinton, understandably, paints herself and Bill in the best light possible.  She does admit they could have done things better at certain points; mistakes are mostly chalked up to inexperience or naivet√©.  I do not view them as entirely innocent in every fight - no one is.  Still, families in the public eye face far more personal opposition in life than most of us will ever dream of.

Clinton herself received a good deal of negative attention during her involvement with health care policy.  During Bill's first term, she adopted health care reform as her pet project.  Ultimately, the bill failed.  Broad changes would not be made until nearly twenty years later under President Obama - changes which are controversial in their own right.  After the political failure, Clinton toured Southeast Asia with daughter Chelsea; they rode an elephant in Nepal.  Upon seeing the media response to the two events, campaign strategist James Carville commented, "'You spent two years trying to get people better health care and they tried to kill you.  You and Chelsea rode an elephant, and they loved you!'"  What an unequivocal description of the modern American media.

Clinton also talks extensively about her experiences overseas.  She has played a prominent role in the development of womens' rights around the globe.  She also traveled frequently in her role as First Lady.  These opportunities brought her into contact with some of the most influential and most intelligent people on the planet.  It also exposed her to a wide expanse of cultures and global problems.

On a trip to Eastern Europe, she spent time with President V√°clav Havel of the newly formed Czech Republic.  As they discussed the differences in various forms of government, including communism, she took these words of wisdom from the President,
"Havel...believed that globalization often exacerbated nationalistic and ethnic rivalries.  Rather than uniting people in a common global culture, a mass culture in which everyone wears the same jeans, eats the same fast-food and listens to the same music doesn't inevitably bring people closer.  Rather, he argued, it can make them less secure about who they are, and, as a result, lead to extreme efforts - including religious fundamentalism, violence, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide - to validate and retain distinct identities."
This passage resonated strongly with me.  There are many reasons for the state of global affairs; I will not endeavor to discuss them here.  This idea, though, offers a counter-cultural perspective. We spend so much time trying to make everyone the same so they get along; what if we are only sabotaging our own efforts.  We should celebrate our differences and learn to disagree amicably rather than force conformation through the erasing of individuality.

Most accounts of a person's life contain an element of surprise.  Reading about C.S. Lewis left me astonished at the facts of his love life.  Clinton's memoir surprised me in its depiction of her spiritual life.  Again, living in strongly conservative circles leaves you with some false impressions of political liberals.  Among these is the fiction that a person cannot simultaneously be a Christian and a Democrat.  Now, I do not want to get into a debate over politics or the state of Clinton's eternal soul.  I'm merely expressing that I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of faith she demonstrated in her writing.

Clinton has been a lifelong practicing Methodist. Her youth pastor had a strong influence on her during her teenage years.  During her years as First Lady, she had a women's prayer group that met weekly at the White House.  Throughout the book, she references sermons and doctrine from the Methodist church.  Her discussion of religion is continually one of those issues that is clouded some by her need for political correctness.  She also mentions other religions and words of wisdom that can be drawn from them as well.  Ultimately, though, she ascribes to Christianity for her own beliefs.

She does not spend much time talking about the details of the Lewinsky scandal - understandably.  She does, however, recount her struggle with forgiveness in the aftermath.  As an scorned wife, she faced an intense inward battle.  She cites several experiences that assisted her in those tough times.  A private concert by Stevie Wonder brought healing through music and a meeting with the Dalai Lama included both political and emotional benefit.  Clinton also references the impact of a sermon by Paul Tillich.  He says, "...sin and grace exist through life in constant interplay; neither is possible without the other."  Clinton took this sentiment to heart and, ultimately, chose a path of reconciliation with her husband.

Clinton is not the best writer.  Her words are often stiff or overly factual.  Her tone lends itself more to reporting or speech writing.  This fault can devolve into a laundry list of people and events at times.  Still, she gets her point across and her heart shines through in small bursts.

I am so grateful that I chose to pick up this book at that little second hand store last Christmas. The Clinton administration falls into that period of history I was too young to understand but so recent I didn't learn about it in school.  This book, along with some other recent choices have given me a much better understanding of how current affairs came to be current.

Besides all of that, it looks like this woman may very well be launching a rather important political campaign in the near future.  My candidate research has gotten an excellent head start with Living History.

Do you enjoy reading memoirs of political figures?  Do you find them to be genuine or too much like extended campaign speeches? 

Pages: 592
Date Completed: August 23, 2013

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