'Have you seen the L.A. Times review?" chortles Carl Bernstein, even before his visitor has sat down. It's Monday afternoon in Bernstein's office on the Upper East Side, and the review of his new Hillary Clinton biography, A Woman in Charge, hit the Internet only a few hours ago. " Mazal tov is right! I tell you, about twice in your life you get a review like that." He begins to read from a copy his assistant has printed off. "...it stands as a model of contemporary political biography. ... After Bernstein, it is difficult to imagine the need for another book on the first five decades of Clinton's life."
He looks up, beaming. "Never forget that Woodward and I got creamed on Final Days, but that's a long time ago."
Some have already said the same thing about Bernstein's new book. To wit: What's the point of yanking ourselves back into the icky sticky era of Arkansas state troopers and Hillarycare and the meaning of "is," when matters of U.S. national politics are now so grave, when enemies are at the gates or hanging around JFK Airport, and more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are wearing targets on their backs? In so many ways, both the optimism and peculiar pathologies of the Clinton era feel like a long time ago.
But Bernstein is a card-carrying citizen of long-time-ago land, if not in reality than at least in the popular imagination: Some part of him is fixed in the early seventies and will forever be so, which is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that he, like Hillary Clinton, knows how tough it can be to extricate oneself from a famous partnership. The blessing: Even with the dozens of Hillary bios written over the years, a new Bernstein book demands notice simply because it comes from one half of the Hydra-headed investigative beast that once brought down a sitting president.
And here's what's important to remember: Yes, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein reported shocking stories that sparked headlines around the world.
At its root, though, their work was dedicated to the notion of - as Bernstein likes to say of journalism - "the best obtainable version of the truth." And A Woman in Charge makes a strong case that all of the other biographies of Hillary failed in that simplest of aims.
"Hillary Clinton does not want to be scrutinized, and never has," says Bernstein, banging a meaty fist on his L-shaped desk.
"I could see how opaque and unknown she was, and how other writers had tried to grapple with this problem, and they could get little pieces of the puzzle, but they were never strung together coherently - because she didn't want 'em! And the Clintons have opposed every effort to depict - her, especially - accurately. And if she doesn't have a hand in the process, she and her people and her acolytes and the Clinton apparat go after it. And it's unfortunate, because she's better than that, and I think it ends up diminishing her."
Neither of the Clintons sat for an interview with Bernstein, which he claims they had long promised to do. Their absence rankles him, both as a reporter who recognizes the book would have been richer if they'd participated, and as a civilian who seems to want to believe in Hillary's potential, but is held back by doubts that need addressing.
"I think it speaks volumes - of her, especially," he says. "Bob Barnett [Bill's lawyer] when I started on the book, said, 'Don't do this book, nobody'll talk to you.' I said, 'I don't believe you, and that makes me want to do it all the more.'
"I think in the end [Barnett]and a few others prevailed - that it would be a bad idea for them to talk to me. I think it was a really bad mistake on their part."
That may be, for the portrait that emerges in the 550-plus pages is ambivalent about Hillary, lauding her strengths (loyalty, intellect, pluck and a Methodist impulse to improve the world) as well as her weaknesses (arrogance, secretiveness, skittishness and her lack of authenticity). Bernstein spent almost eight years on the book, securing long, on-the-record interviews with Hillary's closest childhood friend and some of her closest adult friends. He offers reasons for empathy - A Woman in Charge is probably the first book to paint Hillary's emotionally abusive childhood in such detail - that are balanced out by astonishing anecdotes about her willingness to cover up Bill's philandering, and her talent in avoiding blame.
Asked if he would want to see her in the Oval Office, Bernstein responds with an almost Clintonian level of equivocation. "Ahh, certainly," he says, then pauses. He leans back in his chair, all silk tie and rolled-up shirt sleeves and heavy newsman's gut, and sips from a can of Coke Zero fetched by his assistant.
In person, he is like Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show: a bear who growls, but is actually an old softie. "It would depend who was running against her. I can certainly think of a lot of 'em I'd rather see her than." Another pause. He looks away, casts his eye down the length of his office. "And also I want to see how this thing plays out, I want to see how she plays out herself. I want to see who she is willing to show herself to be."
Pause again, looks up, and says in his mid-Atlantic drawl, "Don't know the answer."
Bernstein has been in this office for only about three years, but he looks deeply dug in. Bookshelves line one long wall all the way to his desk at the far end, stuffed with novels and volumes of poetry and works of non-fiction. CDs of his son's band, the postpunk pop outfit the Actual (he'll play you the first song off their new disc if you ask, and even if you don't) are in a pile near another bookshelf that holds multiple copies of Bernstein's works.
There is a Hillary Clinton bobble-head and an original "Win With Dick Nixon" chocolate cigar, and a clutch of honorary degrees on the shelves, many from Catholic universities and stemming from his co-authored book on Pope John Paul II. These last are especially meaningful, he says, because he's a college dropout. (His diploma from Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland is also here; and to be fair, he dropped out of college to work at The Washington Star.)
And there are many photos of him and Woodward in the glory years, most glamorously in a black-and-white Richard Avedon snapshot taken outside the Ziegfeld Theatre at the April, 1976, premiere of All the President's Men. "That's me, that's Bud Trillin, that's Warren Beatty, that's - I know who that is, ..." (it looks like Bernstein's then-wife, Nora Ephron, from whom he later had a famously public and nasty divorce) "... that's Bud Trillin's wife, Alice, that's Mike Nichols's wife of the time, that's Jerzy Kosinski's wife. That's Bradlee, I think," he says, pointing out the half-obscured grimacing face of his Watergate-era managing editor at The Washington Post.
Those Watergate days returned, of course, two years ago, when former FBI man Mark Felt unmasked himself as Deep Throat, Woodward's secret Watergate source, ending the longest-running parlour game in U.S. political journalism. Vanity Fair broke the news without even giving Bernstein, who is a contributing editor, a heads-up, lest he scoop the story. He probably wouldn't have, since he and Woodward had pledged never to reveal the truth.
"It felt kind of funny, not having that secret to carry around any more - sort of like this little jewel you carry around in your pocket to make sure it's safe. One day, it wasn't there any more, but you still kept going like that," he says, tugging at his right front pocket. He looks up, casts his eye down the long room lined with those books and memorabilia. There is no one else in his direct line of vision. "But that, too, seems long ago."
About four dozen books have already been written on the former U.S. first lady and current junior senator from New York. This week, two more hit the stands.
A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein
Watergate-famous, Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter offers deepest background yet on Hillary's upbringing, and some delicious details on her own Machiavellian capacities
Eight years since conception
Original release date: September, 2007
Publication date moved up to June 5 to get ahead of other bio
Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Don Van Natta Jr.
and Jeff Gerth
Two hard-nosed reporters who covered Whitewater for The New York Times reveal an alleged 20-year secret plan hatched by Bill and Hillary for shared presidencies
Two years since conception
Original release date: August, 2007
Publication date moved up to June 8 after Bernstein's book moved up