'Her Way' Takes New Approach to Clinton Story A new biography of Hillary Clinton raises several questions about her campaign for president. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, the authors of Her Way, discuss Hillary Clinton's career and campaign, and the book's frequently harsh account of the Clinton White House.
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'Her Way' Takes New Approach to Clinton Story

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Hillary Clinton is at the same time one of the most familiar and one of the most enigmatic figures in American Politics. As first lady, as the junior senator from New York and now as the early leader in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, we all feel as if we've known her for quite sometime now. And polls show many Americans have their minds made up for and against and not so many don't-knows.

The authors of a new biography argue that we've only heard two accounts, though, the story as told by Senator Clinton herself and the story told by her enemies. "Her Way" is an independence account reported by two investigative reporters of The New York Times, one former and one current, Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. They join us in a moment.

Later in the hour - well, we couldn't talk politics without the junkie - Ken Rudin will be here to flense the Senate votes on Alberto Gonzales in the immigration bill. And we'll have a classic tale of pork that stretches from Florida to Alaska. If you have questions for the Political Junkie, our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

But first, if you have questions about Hillary Rodham Clinton's past and what it tells us about what she might be like as president, our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta join us now from our bureau in New York. They're co-authors of the book "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton." And thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. JEFF GERTH, (Co-author, "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton"): Thanks for having us.

Mr. DON VAN NATTA JR. (Co-author, "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton"): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Good to be with you.

CONAN: Don Van Natta, let's start with you. One thing you're looking for is patterns of behavior. And one that you find throughout her life is a history of taking some small transgression, and for whatever reason, not letting it go and letting it develop into a big one.

Mr. VAN NATTA: That's right. That's happened repeatedly through Hillary's professional and political career. The first time we saw it was in Arkansas when she was an attorney. She actually was guilty of doing some, you know, low-grade bill-padding when she was at the Rose Law Firm. It only amounted to about $1,600.

But her concern about that and her attempt at maintaining a reputation of being considered one of the top 100 most influential lawyers led to the cover-up of that and that led right into the Whitewater investigation and her being hauled before a grand jury.

What we find repeatedly with Hillary is a reluctance to admit mistakes. She wants to maintain that carefully crafted persona that she is a person who wants to do great things for the American people. And anytime she trips up and makes a relatively small mistake, the tendency is to cover it up or to bury it, and it always leads into bigger problems down the road.

CONAN: And, Jeff Gerth, I think part of the elements of this is, well, her relationship with the truth.

Mr. GERTH: Well, we found there are two Hillarys, Neal. There is the Hillary who's articulate, well prepared, diligent, battle-tested. But then, there is another Hillary. And this one manifests itself when troubles arise or there's a bump in the road.

We looked at several examples in her Senate career, most particularly Iraq, where she, not only is reluctant to admit that she made a mistake in her original vote, but she's played fast and loose with the record, including her own record, in an attempt to sort of reposition herself and rehabilitate herself politically and appeal more now to the anti-war base of the Democratic Party. And in doing so, she's tried to pretend that she was actually against the war before she voted to authorize the war.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Playing fast and loose, as you put it, with her record. Isn't that what politicians do?

Mr. GERTH: Well, some politicians do, and they don't like voters or reporters to find it out. But I think it's also important to note that Hillary wants voters to judge her to be the best and the most qualified of all the candidates. And so, what we've tried to do in the book is simply shine a spotlight on as many aspects of her professional and political career, especially her record in the Senate, which is the best basis for judging her qualifications to be president. And voters can obviously make up their minds as to whether her attempts to bury her past are consistent with what others do or worse or less.

CONAN: And in that regard, Don Van Natta, let me ask you, this is not an authorized biography. You were not given cooperation by Senator Clinton.

Mr. VAN NATTA: No, Neal, we weren't. We sought cooperation from the very beginning. Before we even signed our book contract at the end of 2005, I phoned Howard Wolfson, a top aide to Senator Clinton, and told him about the project, and he sighed audibly in the phone, it was as if somebody had punched him in the gut, and said he'd get back to me. And that was the last time I ever spoke with him.

Loraine Voles, another communications person who works for Senator Clinton, met with Jeff and me over lunch, and she said that Senator Clinton had a heartburn about our project. And that was in the very beginning stages. But Senator Clinton just didn't cooperate with us, she had her people urge others not to cooperate with us - some of her friends and allies, as well as even other senators. Harry Reid, for instance, would not grant us an interview at the urging of one of Senator Clinton's top people.

So she tried to throw up some roadblocks, but despite that, Jeff and I were able to interview 500 people - many of them on the record, most of them on the record. And we also looked at thousands of previously undisclosed documents. And I really think we've put together a terrific portrait of the senator.

CONAN: Did she have reason to believe that you might not be especially fair to her, that you might have a bias?

Mr. GERTH: Well, I think the explanation that Loraine Voles gave to us for the reason why she was having - being anxious about our book was that she didn't like the notion of two investigative reporters looking into her record. That's how it was described to us. So that's what we'll go with.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. Our guests are Jeff Gerth, who you just heard, and Don Van Natta Jr. They're the co-authors of the newly published "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton." 800-989-8255, that's our phone number. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And let's start with Carl(ph). Carl is with us from Trenton in - is this? Not Trenton, New Jersey, I take it.

CARL: (Caller): No, North Carolina.

CONAN: North Carolina. Go ahead, please.

CARL: Traffic(ph) as always. Why should we really worry about Hillary Clinton's past and any type of things like that? We have present politicians who we really don't care what they did in their youth or in their past. I mean, as long you're a good, sound intellect, shouldn't that be a primary qualification for president?

CONAN: Don Van Natta?

CARL: I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Oh, thanks for the call.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Yeah, no, that's certainly one qualification. But I think another is Senator Clinton's record in the Senate. And no book has taken a close look at that. We devote nearly half of our book to her Senate record, and go into quite a bit of detail, not just about her Iraq vote, but her policies on energy and global warming and the way she administers her Senate office. And that's, to me, that's just as important a qualification as intellect.

CONAN: And in terms of what she has done, though, she gets credit for a couple of things that you analyzed in a bit greater depth than most other looks at Senator Clinton's life. And that was going back all the way to Arkansas, her role one the Public Education Commission. Her husband, then the governor, assigned her to this. It was, in a lot of ways, the predecessor of her assignment looking into the health crisis when her husband was elected president. But she was seen as very effective in that role.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Yes, she was. And she touts that as her - one of her achievements in her resume for president. And even some of her fiercest critics, such as Dick Morris, the political consultant and now one of Hillary's most vociferous enemies, gives her credit for having done a good job on the education effort. And both Bill and Hillary Clinton cite that as one of the reasons why she's a - she was asked by her husband to head up the health care reform effort in 1993 when he was president.

CONAN: And health care reform did not turn out so well as we all remember. Nevertheless, Don Van Natta, she also gets good marks from a lot of people saying she's an effective senator, belying her reputation as an ideologue. She works well with people on both sides of the aisle.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Yeah. Now, that's absolutely true. She's - gets very high marks from many people in New York State, people who were skeptical about her moving into the state and running for the Senate. She traveled the state as she campaigned in 2000 on her listening tour. She's very good at the retail politics, at constituent services, and gets very high marks for that. What I would submit is - just as important to look at, though, in judging her qualifications to be the next president - is the way she's handled issues that a president's going to handle, such as national security, and that's where her evolution on the Iraq vote is so important.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the line. And let's go to Pat(ph). Pat with us from Portland, Oregon.

PAT (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.

PAT: All right. My question is why is it that it's such a medial point and a contention with both D's and R's that the Clintons, and maybe Hillary in general, have such as conscripted kinds of political ambition.

CONAN: Yes. A lot of people responds to the fact that, you and others report that she has ambitions. Well, she's running for president. They say, duh.

PAT: Right. And these things are well seated early in life. And don't we kind of encourage that people set up the underpinnings as well as forming, like, the seminal foundations from early on. So it seems somewhat counterintuitive, in my mind at least, that people would criticize that, well, she has the grandiose plan for the presidency.

CONAN: Jeff Gerth, doesn't everybody who wants - runs for president, aren't they ambitious?

PAT: Yeah. I mean…

CONAN: Now, Jeff - I'm hoping for an answer from Jeff.

PAT: My definition is that it is grandiose.

CONAN: Go ahead, Jeff.

Mr. GERTH: Yes, of course. It's hard to imagine somebody running for president and not having ambitions. Let me say two things to that. Number one, we do disclosed in the book, coming from the mouth of President Bill Clinton to Leon Panetta, his chief of staff, the idea of a 20-year project that was hatched before the Clintons even took their marital vows. They took political vows. And the idea was that they would reshape the Democratic Party and capture the presidency.

I think what's interesting about that is that; first of all, the remarks by President Clinton were in response to a question by Panetta about why they used Dick Morris all these years. And what President Clinton said was, we had this project, and to accomplish our goals we needed to align ourselves with someone who knew our enemies, the dark side, so to speak.

And what that shows is an interesting insight into the philosophy and modus operandi of the Clinton political machine, if you will, and that is that, you know, we'll do whatever it takes to accomplish our goals. And if it means getting in bed with our enemies or relying on a Dick Morris, then so be it. That's what we have to do. And we come forward with that idea into the present and show how Hillary's philosophy in the Senate has been similar to this, sort of, poll-driven pragmatism.

CONAN: And we'll discuss more of that when we come back. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We'll get to the Political Junkie and his take on Senate votes on the attorney general and immigration a little bit later in the program.

If you have questions about the week in politics, e-mail us now talk@npr.org.

But right now, we're talking with - about one of the new biographies of Hillary Clinton. Don Van Natta and Jeff Gerth co-wrote "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton." What, from Hillary Clinton's past, might tell us how she might act as president?

Give us a call. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Susan(ph). Susan with us from Providence, Rhode Island.

SUSAN (Caller): Hi. Yes. I have a question about the issue of Hillary's vote on going into Iraq. If, in fact, she made a decision based on the best information she had at the time, why does she need to apologize for that? Why aren't we demanding apology from the people who went in without the appropriate information?

CONAN: Well, I heard her rivals in the Democratic primary, at least some of them, has certainly demanded that Hillary come forward on this and admit that her vote was a mistake. Senator Edwards…

SUSAN: (Unintelligible) based on the information she had.

CONAN: I understand. I was just putting this in context for other listeners who might be as not up in this as you are Susan. And that, indeed, Senator Edwards has led that charge. Don Van Natta, was it a - is this a political mistake? Is this something that she feels boxed-in by?

Mr. VAN NATTA: Well, it's certainly a risk. She is hoping she can get the Democratic nomination and - without admitting that it was a mistake, because she's made the calculation that it would hurt her in the general election to admit it was a mistake.

But I want to take exception to one thing that Susan said. Hillary did not do all of her homework prior to making this vote. She did not review the pre-war -all of the pre-war Iraq intelligence. She had available to her a classified 90-page National Intelligence Estimate that was available to all 100 senators in the 10 days before the vote. And she did not read that.

Now, Hillary has said the Iraq vote was the most difficult decision of her career, the most important decision of her career. And she did not take the time to read that. And the reason why it's important, Neal - and I want your listeners to hear this - is that she, on the Senate floor, when she voted for the Iraq war made a direct link in her statement between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

Now, if she had read the NIE, she would have known that there were questions in the intelligence community, major questions about any link. People like Senator Bob Graham read the NIE and he never made that link and he voted against the war.

So, Senator Clinton is trying to make the argument to the American people that she's the brainiest senator, the most qualified person to be president and yet she didn't do homework that she needed to do, we assert in the book, prior to this very important decision.

CONAN: And she disagrees with your analysis of this?

SUSAN: Well, I - it isn't that I disagree, it's just that…

SIEGEL: I wasn't talking about you, Susan. I was talking about Senator Clinton who disagrees with that analysis, but…

SUSAN: I just want to say that if anybody watched the debates from New Hampshire last week, there - she wasn't the only who voted that had admitted to not reading the entire 900 pages.

CONAN: Right.

SUSAN: So other of the candidates should be taking to task for the same thing. And you probably don't (unintelligible)…

CONAN: That's a good point.

SUSAN: …but I haven't decided who I'm voting for yet.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Susan, that's a - that's a very good point. Only a half a dozen senators read the NIE, which is an astonishing fact.

CONAN: And Senator Graham, who you mentioned, was - maybe had the advantage having been the chairman of the Intelligence Committee so knew what was in it. So anyway, Susan, thanks very much.

SUSAN: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

Let's go now to - this is Cynthia(ph). Cynthia in Vernon, New York.

CYNTHIA (Caller): Hi, Neal, and the authors.

CONAN: Hi.

MR. NATTA: Hi.

CYNTHIA: I appreciate that you took a question from a constituent of Senator Clinton. And I'm 77. I've been voting for senators from New York State since 1950. And the author makes a good point when he says the administration of the - senator's office needs improvement. There's a field office here in Syracuse. When I go there, Senator Clinton's office is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. There's an order out on the door that no appointments are made there and you have to make a telephone call.

So anyway, but the other - an important, important thing is that if she wants to, you know, run for president, fine. She should resign and we should have a senator to represent us from New York State. And she never said anything during the sanctions when she was so - she was very - is concerned about the children and everything. She never said anything about all of those little Iraqi kids who died during the sanctions. So I for - you know, I think it is a shame.

CONAN: Sounds like you're not planning to vote for her.

CYNTHIA: No. I mean, you know - no, I'm not.

CONAN: It's interesting. Thanks very much for the call, by the way, Cynthia.

Let me ask you, Jeff Gerth, is she stealing time from her constituents to campaign for president?

Mr. GERTH: Well, inevitably, any sitting congressman or senator who's running for president is - it's a zero-some game and you only have 24 hours in the day. So of course, she's not devoting as much time to her constituents as she could. I was struck by Cynthia's remark about the sort of inaccessibility of the senator's office because that hits on one of the findings of our reporting, which is that in her years as the Senate - in the Senate, Senator Clinton has operated in a fairly secretive, inaccessible fashion and even not followed the rules in terms of disclosing some of her staff members and ensuring that they adhere to the rules of the Senate.

So - and we quote a Senate ethics expert as sort of saying that the senator's staff had a cavalier attitude towards following the rules. So Cynthia has sort of hit on something that's drawn out in more detail on our book.

CONAN: Yet in terms of other constituents have said that, in fact, they were very pleased with the way she responded to their concerns and indeed her standing between her first election as senator and her second election as senator in places like Vernon and Syracuse, New York was - considerably improved the second time around.

Mr. GERTH: Absolutely. She won by about two-thirds, I believe, the second time around, though she had a very ineffective and weak opponent. But there's no question that she is a popular politician in her home state.

CONAN: Let's next go to Hugh(ph). Hugh's with us from Oakland, California.

HUGH (Caller): Sounds like anybody who is currently in office - if they don't have time to do their current job, like, they shouldn't run for president. It seems to me that the timing of the book might be considered prejudicial against Hillary. There's been eight years since she was in co-power with her husband, plenty of time to release analyses. It seems a little bit curious that both your book and Bernstein's book are both being released during the election when no other books are being released on any other politician on - of either party.

And I haven't made up my mind who I'm going to vote for. But it does seem a touch of prejudicial and smacks of right-washing, equal to green-washing by large companies who want to be considered green, makes one wonder whether journalists don't want to be considered less liberal than they are sometimes generalized to be.

CONAN: Don Van Natta, why don't you try that one?

Mr. VAN NATTA: Well, we took on this project, at least I did, in large part because after I read Senator Clinton's 2003 autobiography, "Living History," it raised in my mind more questions about Senator Clinton than it answered. I was struck - getting back to that ambition question earlier, and I want to make the point, Neal, because I think it's important that it was not that - we don't criticize the Clinton's ambition at all.

But in her autobiography, Senator Clinton does not describe a single ambitious impulse. She reports that in 1999, when she decided to run for the Senate, it was really by popular demand. She tells a quaint story about a high school girl whispering in her ear at an event in New York State, or New York City, dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete. And this was the theme of an event at a high school. And she advances the story that that's a big reason why she decided to throw her hat in the ring when in fact, she was thinking of running far earlier than that.

Again, there's nothing wrong with it. But I was struck by that. And that's one reason why we took on this project. Senator Clinton has said herself that she's the most famous person people don't really know. And a friend of hers of 35 years told us she's a challenge even to her friends.

I'm an investigative reporter, so is Jeff. We have 42 years combined experience at the New York Times, what a great challenge to try to explain and unlock some of the mysteries of Senator Clinton in a book at a time when she's running to be the first woman president of the United States. That's why we took on the project.

CONAN: And Jeff Gerth, just in terms of the timing, I assume your publisher was also interested in having a book out just as the campaign heated up?

Mr. GERTH: Well, absolutely. I should point out to the caller that there are other books out there. There's been a book that's come out on Rudy Giuliani and, you know, would people rather the books come out after the election season is over and it's too late to have the knowledge and information to help inform you and your vote? This is, you know, the way democracy should work, the more information the better. People are obviously free to make of it what they want.

HUGH: Well, of course. And I don't disagree at all with somebody coming out with an investigative book on any candidate. I'm just saying that it's curious - the timing of the release and that it's only on one candidate. Too bad we don't have information on all the candidates at approximately the same time.

Mr. GERTH: I agree totally with that. It would be great if we had investigative biographies of all the major candidates.

HUGH: Thank you.

CONAN: Hugh, thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get Peter(ph) on the line. Peter with us from Iowa City.

PETER (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

PETER: I was just wondering if you talked biographically her conversion from Goldwater Girl to community activist, and I think she's representing the Black Panthers by the early 1970s or involved in that. Just how sincerely do they, do the authors view that shift. Because it seems to happen really quickly and, of course, it happens in college, but could you just talk about that period of her life in general?

CONAN: Yeah, Don Van Natta, there's a great quote you have, she's heading off to Wellesley, one of her advisers saying, you're going to turn into a Democrat and a liberal. And she was insisting, no, no, no, that will never happen to me.

Mr. VAN NATTA JR.: No, because she was a Goldwater Girl because her father was a rock-ribbed Republican. But when she did go to Wellesley, the Vietnam War was heading south and she started reading The New York Times, something that actually annoyed her father quite a bit, and she got caught up in those turbulent times, and Kent State and many of these things shaped her views of America, and she became a Democrat and liberal. And I believe it was a sincere choice on her part.

CONAN: Yeah, she - you talk about her getting elected, as a freshman, as head of the Young Republicans, quite a coup for just a freshman to do that, but then having to resign that position when her convictions changed.

Mr. VAN NATTA JR.: That's right. She had to bail out of that and - but Hillary's story and one of the reasons why it's so fascinating, and one of the reasons why she's had a bit of a problem with persuading voters of her authenticity is she really has been all over the map since then. When she went to Arkansas as a Democrat, she became more of a centrist for a time. There was a time in the White House when she was tacking back more of a liberal. When she came to the Senate, she was looking to be more of a liberal on social issues. And then after 9/11, she actually was the most hawkish of all the Democrats, even more hawkish than Joe Lieberman, when she made her remarks on the Senate floor, voting for the Iraq war.

So, I think some voters have sensed that she has been moving back and forth, left to right, and that's an issue for her. And I think it will continue to be throughout the campaign.

CONAN: We're talking with Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, current and former investigative reporters for The New York Times about their new book, "Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get - this is Michael(ph). Michael is with is from La Crosse, Wisconsin.

MICHAEL (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you for writing the book.

Mr. VAN NATTA JR.: Thank you.

MICHAEL: We wouldn't be interested in Hillary as much as any other female senator or more than any other female senator if she wasn't the wife of a former president. So it brings up the question, to what extent were her views, her current views shaped by that? And in what ways that people might not recognize are they really different than her husband's and different from what he put forward during his years as president and as governor?

CONAN: Jeff Gerth, why don't you start?

Mr. GERTH: Well, that's an interesting question, Michael. She - we report in the book that she started out really as someone who was very idealistic and much more interested in policy than politics. And her husband started from the opposite side. He was very much into politics. He ran for office in 1974 and then later sort of became more of a policy wonk, if you will.

When Hillary moved to Arkansas, she abandoned some of her ideals and became much more a sort of poll-driven pragmatist in part because she allied herself with her husband and became part of his political venture and in some ways the sort of muscle behind it, having more, sort of, an enforcement power than he did. So, I think she - her evolution, going back to her years when she was in the 20s, is quite instructive and Arkansas, I think, is sort of the critical sort of crossroads in her own political journey.

CONAN: Let me just focus that question a little bit to you, Jeff Gerth. Does Hillary Clinton act differently when she is in partnership with Bill or - as opposed to when she is running on her own or acting on her own?

Mr. GERTH: Well, that's a hard question to answer because we don't know all the bedroom talk that goes on between the two of them. She's obviously trying to project her own candidacy in doing things her own way. And since she left the White House, she's been the dominant political figure in the family after having spent all these many years subordinating herself politically to her husband.

He, obviously, is playing an important role in her career presently. Who wouldn't want his advice? But on the other hand, he has many liabilities for many voters and so that's one of the reasons why you don't see them together much. We point out in the book a very telling scene from the funeral of Coretta Scott King in Atlanta last year, where we report that Hillary actually wound up sort of getting put on the platform, thanks to Bill and his allies.

She wasn't even originally going to speak. And then unfortunately for her, she obviously paled in comparison to her husband who's one of the great public speakers of all time. And as a result, since then, you don't see the two of them making these same kind of public appearances together because she obviously pales in comparison.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call. I'm afraid we're running out of time. But thank you.

MICHAEL: That's fine, thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Okay, bye-bye. And thanks to our guests Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeff Gerth, current and former investigative reporters at The New York Times. They collaborated on the new book, "Her War: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton." They joined us today from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GERTH: Thanks for having us.

Mr. VAN NATTA JR: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, no-confidence votes in the Senate? Well, not actually. President Bush makes a final push for the compromise immigration bill and a classic tale of pork that leads all the way from Florida to Alaska on a 10-mile road. It's Political Junkie time again. If you have questions for Ken Rudin -800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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