Shedding light on the co-presidency

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If a novelist were to conjure the plotline of the Clinton presidency — from gays in the military and the health care debacle to sex just outside the Oval Office and the impeachment trial — he’d be accused of writing a preposterous, over-the-top, potboiler.

But as Sally Bedell Smith demonstrates in "For Love of Politics," Bill and Hillary’s White House years were as outlandish as any fiction. From the loss of Congress in 1994 to Bill’s re-election in 1996 to Hillary’s run for the New York Senate seat in 2000, the roller coaster never stopped.

Smith recounts it all, focusing on the people rather than the policies, especially the dynamics of the relationship between the two Clintons.

As she did with "John and Jackie Kennedy in Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House," Smith provides an intensely personal, dual biography. In the process, she sketches a road map of what a Hillary Clinton presidency would be like.

In his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton introduced Hillary with the promise that the voters would get "two for the price of one."

Hillary has taken a similar approach in this campaign, pledging to employ her husband as her unofficial "ambassador to the world" if she is elected next November. (Pity the poor secretary of state or vice president in such an administration with Bill free-lancing around the globe.)

Smith makes it clear in this meticulously researched, gracefully written account that the Clintons have an enduring, co-dependent partnership.

Ultimately, not even Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky could shake their determination to move ahead together toward their mutual political goals.

Bill, she reports, started talking about Hillary as a possible president as far back as 1974. "Clinton, Inc." Smith calls it. Just as Hillary was the indispensable, first-among-the-equals player in her husband’s two terms, so would Bill be crucial in his wife’s administration.

Elect Hillary, Smith implies, and you’ll get a third Clinton term, and possibly a fourth; another co-presidency.

At the same time, Smith illustrates the striking differences in the two Clinton personalities. Bill is the open, outgoing, charming, consummate pol; Hillary is the practical, controlled, self-disciplined policy wonk.

"When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sent a check to Bill’s presidential campaign in 1992," Smith writes, "he immediately said: "We can’t cash this." Hillary’s reply: "Make a copy, and then cash it."

Hillary exercised power openly in the first two years in the White House, taking the lead in the turnstile nominations for attorneys general and the health care initiative.

But when that overwrought proposal fell of its own weight, she withdrew partly from the public eye, functioning as the "hidden hand" behind many of his decisions.

Smith takes the reader through every awkward step of L’affair Lewinsky, explaining how Bill built deception upon deception, ultimately trapping himself, his Cabinet, staff and family in his cover-up.

Hillary was deeply offended — if not surprised —when Bill finally told her the truth about Monica, and enraged at the embarrassment he inflicted on their daughter, Chelsea, who read the lurid details of his dalliances in the Starr Report online while a student at Stanford.

But in the end, she soldiered through, setting aside her own feelings, publicly decrying the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband and helping strategize his defense against impeachment.

Smith suggests that it was in the wake of that scandal that Hillary decided it was time to strike out on her own and began making plans to run for the Senate.

Smith reserves her own personal judgement on the Clintons.

She obviously admires their political talents, but is unsparing in reporting their low moments, like the controversial 140 pardons and 36 commutations Bill issued in his final days as president and the $190,027 worth of furniture, china and gifts they carted away from the White House.

There is much that is familiar in this account — the drama only played out a decade ago — and anyone suffering from Clinton fatigue is likely to have a relapse from reliving it.

But there is new material as well, from 160 interviews Smith conducted with Clinton insiders, some of whom were surprisingly blunt, and from access to the personal papers of Hillary’s late predecessor in the New York Senate seat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The Clintons, not surprisingly, declined to be interviewed for the book.

They both had multi-million dollar contracts for their own memoirs and, as their lawyer-agent Bob Barnett is quoted as explaining, "There’s nothing in it for them..."

Perhaps, but there is plenty here for anyone who wants to rethink what actually happened in the first Clinton era and, possibly, prepare for a second.

Journalist Terence Smith reported for The New York Times, CBS News and most recently was media correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

Sally Bedell Smith is the wife of Washington Examiner Executive Editor Stephen Smith.

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