Lady and the tramp

In conservative bomb-thrower David Brock's surprisingly sympathetic book, "The Seduction of Hillary Clinton," the First Lady is neither a saint nor a bitch -- she's a woman who loved too much. A conversation with the controversial author.

By Dwight Garner

Published October 22, 1996 1:00PM (EDT)

Consider the strange case of David Brock, the right-wing hit man
who's come in from the cold. Or has he?

Best known for his vicious attack journalism, Brock is
the man who labeled Anita Hill "a bit nutty, and a bit slutty" (in his
1993 book "The Real Anita Hill"), and the man who authored the infamous
"Troopergate" story about Bill Clinton's alleged sexual escapades while
the governor of Arkansas. As a writer for The American Spectator, Brock
has often seemed to be purely on the Sleaze Beat  the man who is willing
to express, under the guise of objective journalism, the skankiest
thoughts that swim through most conservative's minds.

For liberals, of course, Brock has long been a man they've loved to
hate. He's been criticized not only for relying on dubious sources for his
most salacious facts, but also for the inherent contradiction of being a
gay man who writes for the often gay-bashing American Spectator.

For all the controversy Brock has kicked up in his earlier work, it
is safe to say that no one quite expected the revelations in his latest
bestseller, "The Seduction of Hillary Clinton" (The Free Press).
Predictably, Brock dishes some dirt here  notably his allegation that
Hillary Clinton hired a private detective in the early 1980s to keep tabs
on her husband's philandering. But what has really shocked readers on both
sides of the political spectrum is that "The Seduction of Hillary Clinton"
is actually a sympathetic, fairly glowing portrait of the First Lady's
political convictions and activism.

In Brock's view, Hillary Clinton's One Big Mistake was getting
involved with Bill Clinton  a con-man who "brought her into contact with
the gritty money-politics system of Arkansas, entangling her in a web of
unsavory associations from which she attempted to distance herself 
first in Little Rock, then in Washington  but which followed her to the
White House and ultimately wreaked havoc on her life and reputation."

It makes sense that Brock was drawn to Hillary Clinton's story. Like Anita Hill, the First Lady is a lightning rod  people's opinions about her are as visceral as they are factual. As with Anita Hill's story, too, the Hillary Clinton saga has lurid sexual overtones. "My sense of it is that (Bill Clinton) is basically a sex addict," Brock bluntly puts it.

Is Brock's pro-Hillary tome the sign of a political conversion? He
doesn't think so. "If they read the book, they'll see that there are a lot
of themes in here that should appeal to conservatives," he says. "There
are a lot of right-wing ideas in the book."

Nevertheless, when Salon talked with him by phone at his home in Washington D.C., he said that "The Seduction of Hillary Clinton" has put him in a difficult
position, politically.

"Right now," David Brock said, "I have no friends."

Did you surprise yourself with your portrait of Hillary Clinton?

Yes, I also think I surprised a lot of readers. And I surprised the White House (laughs). What did I think going in? Only from what I'd read, I guess I thought that the Lady MacBeth caricature was close to it. And I could point to a couple of presumptions I had that were reversed. One of them would be the idea that, to the extent that she compromised her law practice in Arkansas, one of the things motivating her was to line her pockets — that she was a big rainmaker at the Rose law firm, and that she was abusing her position as the wife of the governor to bring in big clients. The more I looked at that — and I looked at it for a long time, thinking that I would be able to establish that — the less that seemed to be the case. In fact, as you saw in the book, she was the lowest paid partner at the Rose firm. A lot of the time she was away from the firm, doing political work for Clinton. And when she did take on these controversial representations, like the Madison Guarantee representation, there's no evidence (it was for) her financial benefit. I think she made about $20 per month on that account. She may have been doing some things to try to help Bill, help his campaign contributors, things of that nature. But not out of any kind of financial self-interest. And that changes the picture somewhat — to me anyway — about what's driving her.

Another misconception would be her public persona. She seems to be cool, maybe even aloof. I would assume she would be very, very difficult to work for. But in fact, the turnover on her staff is the lowest of any recent First Lady, and a lot lower than in the west wing. She has a very loyal staff, so that has to tell you something about what she's like on a one-to-one basis, as far as working for her.

You've been accused of a good deal of bad faith in this new book. It's the idea that your sympathetic portrait of Hillary Clinton is a kind of Trojan Horse that's allowed you to sneak in a lot of nasty things about Bill Clinton.

I don't know about that. The facts are the facts. Is there an effort to make Bill Clinton look bad? There's no effort on my part to shape the material in any way — other than to get as accurate a picture of Hillary Clinton, and of their relationship as I can. The fact that she's in a flawed marriage to somebody with a fair number of flaws and defects is well-established.

There's also this notion that you're trying to redeem your own reputation by redeeming Hillary's.

Well, in my opinion, I've always had a good reputation. But it's a fool's errand. A lot of liberals are never going to like me, or say anything good about me, because of my Anita Hill book, because of Troopergate, because of various other things. So if that's what I was thinking, it would have been foolish anyway.

The big hurdle was: Was I going to finish this book after I realized it wasn't going to please anybody? And I knew it wouldn't please a lot of people who have this image of Hillary as a demon. Particularly a month before the election. And people who hold Hillary up to be an icon, they're not going to like the book either, because there's a lot of criticism in here. So the question was: Because Hillary Clinton is such a lightning rod, can a book work that's not black or white, that's gray, that's about a real person? I've always had that concern. And the question was just: Was I going to be true to what I found or not? And so I just did it. And right now I have no friends (laughs). I haven't done myself any good in terms of wanting to be liked, I can assure you. I was disinvited to a big conservative party last Friday night here in Washington. So I'm just sort of sitting in my house now. Just waiting to see.

I'm interested in your notion of the seduction of Hillary Clinton. You portray her as a woman with very firmly-held political views, and it seems like — politically, at least — she would be a very difficult woman to seduce.

There is a contradiction there — some say it's a contradiction in the book. I think it's a dichotomy in the subject. It does seem like, here's a strong, assertive, determined woman — how is she possibly seduced by Bill Clinton? But I just think that there are lots of strong, determined people who do get seduced. If you look at the portrait of what happened when they were at Yale Law School, I didn't talk to anyone who knew either one of them at that point who didn't think Hillary Clinton was in love. And she does a couple things, as you see in the book, that don't necessarily make sense in any other context. One would be staying on an extra year at Yale Law School, when she was a year ahead of him. Kind of putting things on hold for a year. The other one would be moving to Arkansas after the Watergate period, when she really had anything she wanted to do in Washington, she had her choice. She was on a very fast track, and she moved to Arkansas.

And there seem to be these periods in '81 and '82, and again in '88 and '89, when there is consideration by one or both of them of divorce, and then she reenters the marriage. I think Bill is the quintessential second chance guy. And as I say at the end of the book, I don't find it that surprising because millions of voters are charmed by Bill Clinton, too. The polls show they don't trust him, but they still want him to be president. I sort of make that analogy ... she certainly knows the full picture at this point, and yet she stays.

And I don't think that it's completely a political arrangement, a cynical power grab on her part. That's the other view, and I don't think it's right. You talk to people even today who say, if you look at her, if you look at the way she looks at him — this isn't in the book, because it's all so speculative — that she's still in love with him.

Isn't there some sexism in this notion that Hillary is merely a victim, a woman passively seduced by her husband?

No. I mean, I just think it's human relations. I don't think it's sexist. The women who've read the book have liked it better than men, in general.

Your book paints a very black and white picture of the Clintons -- she's almost entirely good, he's almost entirely bad. Yet on some level, haven't they made a pretty successful team?

Oh absolutely. I think if you want to know why he's going to be reelected in three weeks, you have to look at Hillary Clinton. What I found interesting was that when they worked together, they were successful. At the periods when she was disengaged -- like in 1980 when he was running for reelection, and she was pregnant with Chelsea and very busy chairing the Legal Services Corporation, and she wasn't around much -- he lost. Then if you look at the health care battle during his first year in the White House, when she was running the show and he was basically AWOL, you see they also went down to defeat. Some of his instincts, his ability to tap into the public mood, and to hone an agenda that's going to fly with public opinion, and the salesmanship skills, they weren't really there until the summer of '94, which is a year and a half into the whole battle and it was too late.

But yes, on the whole, their partnership has been phenomenally successful. And they are almost, as I say at the end, two as one, as opposed to two for one.

You are the author of the infamous Troopergate story alleging Clinton's flagrant infidelities while governor of Arkansas. In your new book you seem to argue that Hillary Clinton's willingness to overlook his adultery also led her to overlook other, perhaps more serious things.

I think the thing that explains a lot of her behavior in Arkansas, not only on the philandering question but on some of the Whitewater stuff, is a conscious avoidance of the facts — a conscious avoidance of what's going on around her. And so when you look at some of these deals in which she is really only peripherally involved, the question is: She's a smart woman. She either knows what she's doing — and I don't think the evidence shows that — or she's playing a quick cameo role and trying to forget that this stuff is going on around her. And it's later that she gets into trouble, because during the presidential campaign it becomes her role to have to keep all this quiet.

People still wonder, why is there all this concealment, why is there all this evasion, when we don't know that there are any crimes committed? And I think it's because she's walking a political minefield every day. She doesn't know, given his history, given the people around him — the McDougals, Dan Lasater, people like this — what's coming up next. So it's almost an overcompensation on her part to give away nothing, to give away no document, to answer the question as technically correct as you can. I think that whole bunker mentality, not only is it from being a lawyer, but it comes from this whole culture of coverup that's surrounded the Clintons for years. Garry Wills called it "the philanderer's secret" -- and I thought that was the best explanation I had seen for this whole thing.

In your opinion, does Bill Clinton's promiscuity continue to be an

Well, I don't know about continue to be, because I don't have any
evidence since he's been in the White House. But up until then, I think it
was very indiscreet, and it was at a level that I think it was legitimate
to discuss it. Where you draw the line, I dont know. It's a gray area, and
there are no rules in journalism about this. But I reached the same
judgement that the L.A. Times did on the Troopergate question, which was:
Not only was he doing this stuff, but he was exposing himself to letting
people have this kind of knowledge of his private activities, and was using
people to procure women.

My sense of it is that he's basically a sex
addict. My guess is that this hasn't stopped since he's been in the White
House. It may be at a much lower level, since he's under so much more
scrutiny. That wasn't my purpose in the book, to find out if this was
still going on. But I'd be surprised if he'd changed his stripes.

You're often criticized, from the left anyway, for your use of
dubious sources. Some of your book's bigger revelations — that Hillary
once hired a private eye to keep tabs on Clinton, for example — don't
seem to come from the most credible places either. How did you decide what
to include and not include?

I think, in general, one of the problems with reporting in Arkansas
— and I'm not the only person who's had this problem, you see it in James Stewart's
"Bloodsport," for example, which relies heavily on the McDougals, and the
McDougals' credibility is open to question — is that a lot of the people
in the Clinton circle are themselves compromised. This was a problem with
the Trooper story. They might have been badly motivated. And so the only
thing you can do as a reporter is, when you have information that raises a
question about the material, you put it in there, you acknowledge it.

What is it about Hillary that's so endlessly fascinating to people?

Part of it is who she is, but part of it is more on a symbolic
level — what she represents. There are a lot of people who are threatened
by Hillary Clinton for a variety of reasons. And I wouldn't have thought
this going into the book. I found that with Hillary Clinton, you can't not
consider the effect that she has as a strong woman on some men, and as a
professional working woman on some women who followed a more traditional
path. The main thing, I think, is her political profile. And that's why
somebody like Elizabeth Dole, who has also followed a kind of a feminist
path, she doesn't stand for anything different than what Bob Dole stands
for. There's no real suspicion generated by her — you know, that she has
her own politics and her own agenda. But Hillary Clinton has a long
intellectual and political biography of her own, so she's a threat to
people who don't agree with her views. And certainly, as we saw when she
sort of threw the New Democrats out of the administration in the
transition period in 1993, she's a forceful presence. So that's going to
make her a lightning rod, I think. There's just nobody else in our
politics — maybe Newt Gingrich, but probably not — who's that much of a
lightning rod.

Is she is a tragic figure?

Yeah. I think it ends up being a tragic story. Only because it
seems like she is disproportionately paying for all the Clintons' troubles. To the
extent that she has been a shock absorber for Bill Clinton on all this
scandal stuff, it's done a great deal of damage to her reputation — even
if it doesn't go further in the legal process. It just seems to me that
she is mostly cleaning up after him, rather than hiding her own misdeeds.
And I do think that has a tragic element to it, in the way that this whole
relationship has worked. She's the decisive one, she's the person of
action, and so she's the one who's going to have to play hide the ball
with these documents. That's not something he's going to do.

That's my
personal opinion, as to whether it's tragedy. Other people can read the
book and say she deserves everything and more, and want her to go to jail.
I don't have that view. I can't finish this without having some level of
sympathy for her. Others will say: She deserves her fate, she made her
choices, she should have left him.

Speaking of contradictions, you've taken some heat for being a gay
man who's writing for a magazine, The American Spectator, that is less
than progressive on gay issues.

That's never bothered me. First of all, we could go on forever
about this. Is The American Spectator anti-gay? I'm not sure what that
means. It doesn't strike me that way. And since I publicly talked about
being gay two and a half years ago, I've never had any problems with The
American Spectator. They encouraged me to do that at the time. On an
article by article basis, are there some attempts to poke fun at gays?
Yeah. But in my opinion, everyone is fair game for a joke. I haven't seen
anything that I consider objectionable in the magazine. And even if I did,
I don't see myself as a gay cop at The American Spectator. I'm doing my
writing. I'm not editing the magazine, I'm not responsible for everything
in it. I'm perfectly happy, so I don't see any problem.

Everyone who knew Hillary Clinton at Wellesley and then at Yale
clearly thought she was destined for great things. Where do you think she
would be now, if she hadn't married Bill Clinton?

Well, I don't think she would have run for public office. I think
she would have gone more the route of public interest law, and she might
have ended up in a position where she was appointed to a presidential
cabinet, perhaps the attorney general or something. I think she would have
been very successful. I suppose there's a chance she would have gone back
to Illinois and gotten involved in politics, but the electoral route ... I
think that by the time she was in her mid to late 20s, she really wasn't
going to go that route. Although she did have, and continues
to have, great leadership potential. So it's hard to say.

Will her influence increase in a second term?

I think her high point is over. Her high point was the first year
of the first Clinton administration. Although the only consistent
ideological thread in Bill Clinton's political career is Hillary Clinton,
and that's not going to change. Particularly because there will be no
countervailing forces -- Dick Morris is out of the picture, for example.
So I think she will continue to be influential.

He has signaled that she
is going to be involved in the implementation of the welfare bill, for
example, and that's really something. That takes a direction that's
counter to everything she stands for. So I think that will be interesting.
She will also continue to be influential in the appointments process and
in the composition of the judiciary, because she has always
been involved in that. I just don't think, partly because she has been so
battered, public-opinion wise, and partly because she will continue to be
the subject of this Whitewater investigation, however long it goes, she's
ever going to have that moment that she had in the first year, and really
the first six months. Because once Vince Foster killed himself, I don't think she
ever really recovered.

So she's going to be fighting on several fronts, as
well as trying to continue to advance an agenda and protect Bill Clinton's
place in history. Who knows about her own political future? They're still
young. If she avoids all legal problems, who knows, in ten years, whether
she wouldn't be a cabinet official in her own right or something. She's
obviously very capable.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Liberalism Love And Sex Sex Washington D.c.