Defense Mechanism

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POLITICS JUNE 27, 2005

Defense Mechanism

Last Tuesday, The Truth About Hillary, a lurid new tale of Clintonian conniving, appeared, and not since Monica has the right frothed so indignantly about Hillary. Strangely, they're frothing in her favor. Writing in The New York Post, John Podhoretz called Ed Klein's biography "one of the most sordid volumes [he's] ever waded through." The New York Sun editorialized that the book oozed "off-putting smarminess" and that it "debases politics and government and turns the talk to genitalia." Gone, too, were the softball questions conservative publications usually lob at such attack dogs. Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online excoriated Klein for including a claim that Bill had raped Hillary in order to conceive Chelsea, demanding to know, "Why on earth would you put such a terrible story in your book?--that looks to be flimsily sourced at that." Even Hillary-hater Sean Hannity at Fox News persistently questioned Klein on the book's intimations about the New York senator's sexuality. "[I]nnuendo, even allegation. ... There's no evidence of any such thing," Hannity mused. "Is it fair?"

So even as The Truth About Hillary bounds up the best-seller lists, the right has rallied around a collective cry of foul play. The question is why. The book is, of course, a masterwork of personal attack, full of anonymous sniping and vile insinuation. But Klein's tome relies heavily on past Hillary character assassinations--most notably, Dick Morris's Rewriting History--and the rest mostly reprises old complaints about the former first lady. The outrage emanating from the right hardly seems attributable to the rather unremarkable trashiness of this volume. More likely, conservatives are launching a preemptive strike on what Klein identifies as one of Clinton's central mantras--"victimhood can be a political plus." Piling on Hillary now, particularly over a collection of unsubstantiated trifles, would merely advance theories of her old chestnut, the vast right-wing conspiracy. Rushing to Hillary's defense would seem to be a canny strategy both to prevent her from building up too much public sympathy and to assert the intellectual honesty of the American right. But it could also turn out to be a major miscalculation.

Not, it should be noted, because conservatives are wrong about the book. The Truth About Hillary proceeds, as they have hinted, at a relentlessly puerile pace. Here, for instance, is Klein on Hillary's college-era physiognomy:

Though Hillary was never a standout beauty, she had had a nice figure in high school and college. Indeed, several of her Wellesley College classmates, who played sports with Hillary, described how she looked in a T-shirt and shorts. They said she had a tiny waist, slim legs and ankles, and small buttocks.

This paragraph offends on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin. There's the sheer irrelevance of Hillary's appearance circa 1967. There's the vague attribution to "several of her ... classmates," which, if you consult the endnote, appears to have been one "Wellesley College classmate who requested anonymity." And then there's the slow and subtle accumulation of winks at what Klein elsewhere calls "the culture of lesbianism." Hillary, ever a failure at femininity, "played sports." What's more, the other girls were totally checking her out.

This is smut, pure and simple. But conservatives aren't doing themselves any favors by broadcasting this fact. Merely repeating some of the ridiculous allegations in this book is enough to garner Hillary an outpouring of affection. In a few months, no one is going to remember that Sean Hannity suggested Klein went too far. All that will remain is the hearsay from The Truth About Hillary that conservative pundits have cited in the course of shaming the book. Klein repeatedly points out that some of Hillary's hardest sells are suburban female voters. I can only imagine that even the iciest of these constituents will melt a little if she reads Klein critiquing the way Hillary looks in a bathing suit.

There is another, related problem with the "poor Hillary" chorus on the right. Though they have remained sensitively skeptical of The Truth About Hillary, conservatives have loved nothing more than to brandish Klein's credentials as a member of the liberal media elite. The editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine for over a decade, Klein also did stints at Newsweek and United Press International. This has conservatives claiming to be shocked that Klein has produced an execrable document of adolescent voyeurism "despite," as Podhoretz noted, "a distinguished journalistic pedigree." No matter that Podhoretz, ruminating in The Weekly Standard last year, decried "the institutional, ideological, and cultural biases of the mainstream media." Hannity, who has routinely described The New York Times as "biased" and "out of touch," opened his Klein interview by hailing the author's former post at the paper.

Doublespeak of this kind is the most cynical--and cynically transparent--of tactics. With The Truth About Hillary, the right has found a way to exploit the authority of the mainstream media while simultaneously insisting on its inaccuracy. Conservatives are appalled--really appalled!--by the revelations of Klein's book. But can such an Important Journalist be ignored? Apparently not.

As a bonus, Klein's membership (or former membership) in the club of mainstream journalists evidently relieves conservatives of any compunction about hassling him. After all, he's not really one of them. (Peggy Noonan and Rush Limbaugh have gone so far as to accuse Klein of being an agent of the left, attempting to "inoculate" Hillary against legitimate criticism she might face during a presidential bid.) But a truer test of the right's recent Hillaryphilia is on the way. National Review reports that Dick Morris has another Hillary takedown coming soon. If conservatives have, with their response to Klein's book, accidentally created sympathy for New York's junior senator among swing voters, then another Clinton-bashing publishing phenomenon will send only one message to those people: Hillary '08.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.

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