April 12th, 2008
11:01 PM ET

Carl Bernstein's View: A Hillary Clinton presidency


Editor's Note:  Carl Bernstein is a CNN analyst and author of A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  He is also the author, with Bob Woodward, of All the President's Men and The Final Days, and, with Marco Politi, of His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time.  Here, he writes a commentary on the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. For an opposing viewpoint from former Clinton lawyer Lanny J. Davis, click here.


What will a Hillary Clinton presidency look like?

The answer by now seems obvious: It will look like her presidential campaign, which in turn looks increasingly like the first Clinton presidency.

Which is to say, high-minded ideals, lowered execution, half truths, outright lies (and imaginary flights), take-no prisoners politics, some very good policy ideas, a presidential spouse given to wallowing in anger and self-pity, and a succession of aides and surrogates pushed under the bus when things don’t go right. Which is to say, often.

And endless psychodrama: the essential Clintonian experience that mesmerizes the press, confuses the citizenry, confounds members of both parties in Congress (not to mention the Clintons themselves, at times) and pretty much keeps the rest of the world constantly amused and fixated.

Such a picture of Clinton Redux is, by definition, speculation. But it is speculation based on the best evidence at hand: the demonstrable and familiar record of Hillary and Bill Clinton coupled together in Permanent Campaign-mode for a generation, waging a continuous fight on the national political stage since 1992, an unceasing campaign for the White House, for redemption, for their ideas (sometimes) and for themselves (almost always), especially in 2008.

The basic dynamics of the campaign, except for the Clintons’ vast new-found personal wealth and its challenges, have been near-constant since they arrived in Washington: through Whitewater, health care, the battle of the budget, the culture wars, the tax returns released only under duress, the travel office, Monica, impeachment, the pardons and through Hillary Clinton’s often repugnant presidential campaign.

In many ways, the characteristic tone, secrecy, and resilience of the Clinton political march have been determined more by Hillary Clinton than by her husband, reflecting her deepest attributes and attitudes, fermented in recognition of the antipathy held against both of them, and often, the foul tactics of their enemies. As an aide put it (quoted in my book, A Woman In Charge: the Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton):

“She doesn’t look at her life as a series of crises but rather a series of
battles. I think of her viewing herself in more heroic terms, an epic
character like in The Iliad, fighting battle after battle. Yes, she succumbs
to victimization sometimes, in that when the truth becomes
too painful, when she is faced with the repercussions of her own
mistakes or flaws, she falls into victimhood. But that’s a last resort
and when she does allow the wallowing it’s only in the warm glow
of martyrdom—as a laudable victim—a martyr in the tradition of
Joan of Arc, a martyr in the religious sense. She would much
rather play the woman warrior—whether it’s against the bimbos,
the press, the other party, the other candidate, the right-wing.
She’s happiest when she’s fighting, when she has identified the
enemy and goes into attack mode. . . . That’s what she thrives on
more than anything—the battle.”

The latest transmutation of leadership in the campaign of Hillary Clinton for president –- Mark Penn’s departure or non-departure, be it window dressing or window cleaning –- is perhaps the best index we have of the more absurd aspects of her candidacy and evidence of its increasing bankruptcy.

The Clinton folks asserted to donors and reporters alike that this second “shake-up” in eight weeks at the very top of the campaign apparat represents some kind of great electoral moment, an opportunity for Hillary to state her case “more positively,” as if the negative approach had been forced on her; the beginning of yet another “turnaround” as if Penn, rather than Hillary (and Bill), has been the big problem. As if Penn were not an appendage of his two patrons, as if he were some kind of independent contractor twisting the candidate’s arm to do what comes unnaturally to her. The willingness of so much of the press, sensitized to the Clintons’ off-center complaints about one-sided coverage, to buy into this line is stunning.

In fact, the demotion of Penn –- like the departure of Hillary’s acolyte Patty Solis Doyle as campaign manager –- is a confession that, for all her claims of “experience” and leadership abilities, Hillary Clinton has now presided over two disastrous national enterprises, the most important professional undertakings of her adult life, both of which she began with ample wind at her back: the healthcare reform of her husband’s presidency, and now her own campaign for the White House. These two failures -– and the demonizing of her opponents in both instances –- may be the best indication of the kind of President she would be, especially when confronted (inevitably) by unanticipated difficulty and/or entrenched opposition to her ideas and programs.

It is exactly under such circumstances that she usually resorts to the worst excesses that mark her in full warrior-mode - and all its scorched-earth, truth-be-damned manifestations. Bosnia, anyone? Smearing the women involved (or even thought to be involved) sexually with her husband. Responding to Barack Obama with the same mindset, disdain, and arsenal as she did Karl Rove and Lee Atwater, as if Obama’s politics and methodologies were as mendacious and vicious as theirs–and her own. Tax information kept secret (in 1992 to hide her profits from trading in cattle futures; in 2008 to shield the identities of Bill’s foreign clients.) A campaign that openly boasts of throwing “the kitchen sink” at her opponent.

What you see is what you get: Hillary’s cynical view of the larger interests of the Democratic Party, exhibited in her 3 a. m. red telephone ad. And her simultaneous, incongruous suggestion that Barack Obama –- notwithstanding his supposed lack of national security qualifications to be commander-in-chief -– would make a good vice president on her ticket.

And, yes, a sense of entitlement that veritably shouts, “Look, because I believe in good things, and because of all I’ve been through, I deserve to win this.”

And yet, there is no denying that, compared to the Bush years, the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency, in which she was an elemental force (and generalissimo in the often successful fight against the forces of “the vast right-wing conspiracy”) are prodigious, marked by peace and prosperity, whatever the price of the Clintons’ methodologies and personal failings.

In projecting what a Hillary Clinton presidency would look like, there is the conundrum of her senatorial tenure and what had appeared to be a surcease in her Pavlovian resort to trench warfare: a period in which -– until the day drew near for her to announce her presidential candidacy –- she seemed (to her oldest friends, certainly) happier and more at ease, and straightforward in her public dealings, and less guarded, than at any point in her life since she followed Bill Clinton to Arkansas.

Hillary Clinton’s unique star power, her performance as a senator and fundraiser on behalf of her party are what gave legitimacy to the idea that she might be a credible presidential candidate: all premised on her changed demeanor in the Senate years, compared to her embattled tenure as first lady. As a steward of her state’s interest, and a patient student of senatorial compromise and collegiality, she was widely commended by former skeptics in Congress and the press.

True, her most revealing moment as a senator of national consequence was the vote she cast to authorize George W. Bush to go to war, which she’s been trying to explain since with dubious credibility. (“If I knew now what I knew then,” etc.) Twenty-one of her fellow Democratic senators had no doubts about what Bush intended, and voted against the authorization.

The second most revealing moment was her endorsement of legislation to make flag-burning illegal, the kind of pandering she once attacked right-wing Republicans of practicing. Meanwhile, she and her husband have regularly misrepresented their own postures and statements in the run-up to the war, as well as Obama’s record, with Bill Clinton claiming to have been against the war from the start, and Hillary saying she has consistently been more adamant in her opposition than Obama -– except for the matter of his single “speech” against the war before it started.

The assumption of many senatorial colleagues, former Clinton aides, and reporters (including this one) was that her presidential campaign would be much different from the one she and Bill Clinton waged through the White House years.

In A Woman in Charge, I wrote about her ability to evolve, observable especially in the years before she met Bill Clinton and in the Senate: to learn from her mistakes. Events have proven me wrong on that count.

The 2008 Clinton campaign, in fact, has been an exercise in devolution, back to the angry, demonizing, accusatory Hillary Clinton of the worst days of the Clinton presidency, flailing, and furtive, and disingenuous; and, as in the White House years, putting forth programs and ideas worthy of respect and deserving of the kind of substantive debate she claims she wants her race against Barrack Obama to be based upon.

Bill, meanwhile, has taken up Hillary’s old role as defender and apologist, with disinformation and misinformation, but (far less effectively than she defended him). Also with near-apoplectic tirades that have left their friends worried and wondering.

In the process of their search-and-destroy mission against Barack Obama, the Clintons have pursued a strategy that at times seems deliberately aimed at undermining Obama’s credibility if he becomes John McCain’s opponent — heresy in the view of an increasing number of the Clintons’ former suppporters and aides, a suprising number of whom now back Obama.

The choice ahead -– in Pennsylvania, and the remaining primary states, and for the super delegates, and perhaps even the arbiters of a deadlocked convention -– is clear enough at this point, at least in terms of what the 2008 Clinton campaign is about: the Clintons - plural. Theirs is a campaign for Restoration to the White House, not simply the election of Hillary Clinton. Theirs is, has always been, a joint enterprise, a see-saw routine in which the psyches and actions of each balances the board according to the personal dynamics of the moment.

A long-time associate of the Clintons, with whom Hillary has consulted in their quest to return to the White House, said early in her campaign: “She has a very plausible case for president. She had an eight-year super-graduate course in the presidency, a progressive platform…” He paused, and added: “[But] I’m not sure I want the circus back in town.”

That is what the Hillary for President campaign has become: the whole Clinton three-ring circus, with little evidence that moving back to the White House will alter that most basic fact.

– Carl Bernstein

Filed under: Barack Obama • Hillary Clinton • Raw Politics
soundoff (226 Responses)
  1. Nick M

    Thanks Carl you state what America already knows.We are tired of the War,Economy,Housing and Trade we are Bitter.WE need change.Not Drama.

    April 15, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  2. Marko in Vancouver

    Mr. Bernstein (or perhaps Mr. Cooper is listening ...), instead of a rhetorical diatribe expressing your point of view, it would be interesting if you engaged in some real journalism and, for example, wrote a story that backed one of your unsubstantiated accusations. For example, show me stats and numbers and examples of people who have been thrown under the bus. Or interview leading HRC backers who have switched to the Obama camp and find out why. Prove to me that what you assert is true, rather than expecting me to believe your assertion simply because you brought down a President many years ago. Are there any real journalists left in America, or just bitter axe-grinders?

    April 15, 2008 at 7:19 pm |
  3. Mel

    Thank you Mr. Carl for your shiny opinion. At least some body is realizing how she is dangerous for this country we put it on her.

    April 15, 2008 at 6:41 pm |
  4. Flavia of San Mateo, CA

    Thanks for an interesting and entertaining article.

    I too think that Hilary reveals only what she thinks the voters want to see. I thought she was too antagonistic and divisive when I watched her in the debates, and now she has a tone like a yoga instructor, soothing and calming and nurturing. I don't think that's the true Hilary at all.

    Obama has a blue print for what he will do if elected. It's on his website. For those who say he's clueless, they should read that. He is not ill-prepared. He is what this country needs.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:58 pm |
  5. Jen

    I must say at 1st I wasn't sure who I would vote for. Considering the presidents we've had in the past, I actually liked the Clintons. But after seeing Hillary on tv and how negative she was, I couldn't help but go for Obama. And it seems like with each passing day she gets worse. So thanks for this article because this is exactly how she would act in the whitehouse and I can see how difficult things might be when working with her.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  6. Marko in Vancouver

    As a Canadian, I watch the US political bloodsports with a mixture of awe and amusement. You folks sure know how to conduct a tussle. But as much as you all seem to feel that one candidate or the other is Lucifer incarnate, let me just say that I think all three candidates at present would make excellent choices for leader of the free world. I have no doubt that America is moving in a very positive direction, and the entire planet will benefit in the coming years, regardless of who is chosen on Nov. 4. However, getting back to Mr. Bernstein's so called "comment", this is nothing more than old-fashioned copywriting at its best. Excellent sales letter, Mr. Bernstein, but it saddens me to think that this kind of rhetoric could be presented as journalism. You reached deep into your trash bag and pulled out every conceivable negative slight against Ms. Clinton. Thank God that so-called journalists don't select the leader, but the good people of your amazing nation.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Christy

    I am supposed to be Hillary's perfect constituent-a mid 40's white woman. I started out as a solid supporter and have watched with dismay as she crumbled before our eyes. She is lying, deceitful, self-centered and grasping. I will bet that if Obama is the nominee, she will undermine his campaign rather than support it. Yes, I would like to see a woman president in my lifetime but I will not vote for her if she is the candidate. I will stay home. Our country can do so much better than the Clintons.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:17 pm |
  8. Lauren

    Clearly, Bernstein has milked his biography for all he can and the only way he can enjoy more personal gain from Hillary’s campaingn is to draw attention to himself by flip-flopping as he does in this article.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:17 pm |
  9. Bob

    Obama's compaign is soooooooooo much smoother than Cinton's. Financiing, positive undertones, consistency, nobody's been thrown under the bus!.... he's come out of nowhere and beaten her head-to-head when nobody was giving him a chance just a few months ago.

    I may be voting for McCain, but I'm rooting for Clinton to win the Democatratic Primary because she's a mess.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  10. Emma MacKenzie

    I had been a strong Hillary Clinton supporter and advocate until very recently when my mind, conscience, political values, and gut feelings (not to mention my long-term hopes and wishes for the United States and my fellow Americans) could not justify my continued support for her. The main reasons are the negative and scary things that she has revealed about her true self during her campaign - through her conduct, her statements, and her actions.

    It behooves us to be aware and mindful of the pitfalls that reveal themselves in all political candidates, and it behooves us to be thankful that they are revealed for us to our benefit.

    Hillar Clinton's recent statement in a televised interview that the Democratic Party ("to put it bluntly," as she said) is out of touch with people unveiled her arrogance and narcissism (in the psychiatric definition of the term), not to mention several other things, like the fact that she was lying to serve her own purposes during the interview, at the expense of the entire Democratic Party. Please note how she spoke about Kerry and Gore during the same interview.

    At this point, I'm not supporting any candidates, although I have been a Democrat all my life, like my parents and going all the way back to my great-great-grandparents. Two of my uncles were Congressmen.

    Thank you, Mr. Bernstein, for your courage in stepping forward. Your timely analysis reveals several important facts about Hillary Clinton as a politician, which when viewed in context and seen as a pattern, show the tremendous risks to our nation if she becomes a president.
    Thank you very much!

    April 15, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  11. Mike

    I am struck by how articulate and intelligent she is. On the other hand, and this is a big hand, she thinks the rest of us are fools. I cannot fathom how she could tell and re-tell the story about the Bosnia landing. Similarly, I think Barrack has to get a grip on his words as well.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:15 pm |
  12. Greg

    Very well put. I have been saying from the start that one Clinton in the White House was enough. I also think that Obama isn't a good choice either, In fact this is the first year since I began voting back in the 70's that I feel we don't have a good choice for president. I will vote in the election but it will be for the lessor of two evils. Everyone is too focused on getting a woman or a black into the White House and not on the real issues. I hear all three candidates stating what the problems are in America but none of them have clear plans on what to do. Mccain just wants to hit the problems head on and plow his way through, no matter what the outcome. Clinton and Obama say they have a solution but it is always "the American people need to do something about it" They need to spell out what their plans are. Good luck America. We are going to need it.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  13. Gina Mayfield, Ohio

    What a phenomenal article carl! Very true and well written. This is a very misguided woman who only cares about herself to win and not the people. I am for a woman for president but such a woman would have to have integrity and character and morals and be likable! All of her flaws through her campaign have made her "UN" Electable!!

    April 15, 2008 at 4:13 pm |
  14. alex

    wow, i would expect him of all people to know that all politicians are full of arrogant self-grandioseness. how else could they withstand the force of the public personal attack machine?
    of the three she is most likable. the others are everything he says about her plus condescending, and lacking in productive promise.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:11 pm |
  15. ralph davis

    Sen. Clinton, in my opinion, is a part of the old establishment. Change for some means, my replacing you and doing about the same old things as before, only will a new icing on the same old cake.
    Yes, the Clinton years in the White House saw some good times and bad. But, you can be sure, if Sen. Clinton becomes president, it will be an extention of the former Clinton presidency.
    We need someone out side the box.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  16. Barbara

    Thank you, Mr. Bernstein for stating the obvious. You know what they say about common sense, it's not really common. Hillary Clinton is constantly proving that she will do anything to win, I believe she is dangerous because of her capability to incite.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:08 pm |
  17. Amy

    Anderson, Carl, why, in all these months, has no one addressed the following in the media?:

    Hillary is claiming her greatest experience to be that as spouse to the president she was involved in policy, negotiations, etc.

    But Hillary is also claiming that if she becomes president her spouse will not be involved in her administration so we should never think if we vote for her we're voting for Bill Clinton as well.

    Does she think we're stupid?

    April 15, 2008 at 4:07 pm |
  18. Rob

    Carl Bernstein, you are correct! Another Clinton presidency will keep this country divided in a time that we need to stand together.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:06 pm |
  19. phil

    He sounds like a Republican to me. If we get out of Iraq we'll have chaos and if she gets elected we'll have chaos. I find it very interesting that Carl wants to "vent" at this time. He is one of the many wanna-be "serious talking head pundits" when it's plain to see that he carries some kind of ax to grind. I kinda feel sorry for him as he seems eager to stand at the front of the line and throw the first rock at any potential Hillary Presidency. Get a real job Carl. You haven't had much to offer since the one and only worthwhile thing you ever did.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
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