The Clinton marriage

At this point, we'll believe anything, but a trashy new bestseller still strains credibility.

Published August 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There is something rather "Blair Witch Project"-like about Christopher Andersen's new book, "Bill and Hillary: The Marriage." Not only because the book offers the reader a peek into a world both surreal and mystifying, but also because you're never quite sure how grounded the narrative is in reality.

Is it true? Is it fiction? It doesn't seem to matter, not to William Morrow & Co. or, for that matter, to us: "Bill and Hillary: The Marriage" just hit No. 4 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

After all, the Clintons' marriage -- the longest, slowest, most painful car crash in marital history -- is still careening off the road, its victims still coughing up blood on the shoulder. And we can't help but rubberneck.

And how gruesome the carnage! President Clinton, according to Andersen, is a voracious, disturbed sexual predator whose appetites make Hugh Hefner look like a castrato. Hillary, his enabler, comes across as a shrew whose capacity for denial is equaled only by the pain she's suffered as a result of the fine print in her Faustian marriage contract.

Accurately or not, Andersen presents himself as the guy holding a glass to the wall of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "'You stupid, stupid, stupid bastard,'" he has Hillary saying to Bill after he finally confesses that the splatter on Monica's Gap dress might possibly contain his deoxyribonucleic acid:

Her words, delivered at the shrill, ear-splitting level that had become familiar to White House personnel over the years, ricocheted down the corridor. "My God, Bill, how could you risk everything for that?"

But it was not in the nature of Bill Clinton to remain silent in the face of his wife's fury. He fought back, loudly arguing, as he would to the grand jury, that he had not slept with Monica Lewinsky and therefore had not committed adultery. What he did with Monica Lewinsky -- including fellatio, fondling, and phone sex -- was not, by Clinton's narrow definition, sexual activity. "I did not lie to you about that!" he could be heard shouting through the door. "I said I didn't have sex with that woman, and I didn't!"

The screaming continued for a few moments, and then seemed to end as abruptly as it had begun. Spent emotionally and physically, Hillary sank back onto the bed. "How," she asked numbly, "are we going to tell Chelsea?"

This passage, a particularly juicy one, is good, solid cheese, ripe for a miniseries starring Tim Matheson and Judith Light. But as historical fact, of course, it's highly dubious. Andersen, who had the help of such Kennedy insiders as Ted Sorenson and Pierre Salinger for his "Jack and Jackie: Portrait of an American Marriage" and the tacit participation of Katharine Hepburn for his two books on her, enjoyed no such luxuries this time around. He had to take "a completely different approach," he admitted in an interview with Salon Books, since he "had to protect the confidentiality of the people who are still in the Clintons' inner circle."

But let's say Andersen was able to get eavesdropping Secret Service agents to drop a dime on their employers -- a questionable, though by no means impossible, scenario. How can he know when Hillary "sank back onto the bed"? And how does he know that she was "spent emotionally and physically"?

He doesn't. He's pushing along the narrative using fabricated details that the much-maligned Bob Woodward -- the ultimate bestselling, fly-on-the-D.C.-wall author -- would never resort to. And when he's recounting the president's 52nd birthday wish, Jackie O.'s phone conversations with Hillary or the fact that while an 8-year-old Bill Clinton marched off to get himself baptized, his mom and stepfather "were sleeping off their hangovers," Andersen is doing so without the cooperation of the very people he puts on the couch. Thus, the tales he presents as "facts" have to be greeted with a degree of doubt.

Ironically -- speaking of the Washington Post's fair-haired boy -- Woodward's recent tome, "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate," actually enhances the credibility of Andersen's lurid exposi. In Woodward's analysis of the Jerry Springer-comes-to-the-White House scandal, he describes Clinton attorney Bob Bennett vetting a list of "15 to 20 women who might be suspected Clinton girlfriends." Woodward even names a few of them, adding even more partners to our president's jam-packed dance card. He describes Bennett as having "smoked out the real liability on the list -- Marilyn Jo Jenkins, a beautiful marketing executive whom Clinton had known for more than a decade."

So when Andersen tells the reader that, "even as the Paula Jones case grew exponentially, Bill continued extramarital relationships with several women inside and outside the White House, and was actively on the hunt for more," who are we to doubt him? Clinnochio has lied about his dalliances with Gennifer Flowers and Lewinsky, and he's been accused of various malfeasances by Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick. So it's all too believable when Andersen says that Clinton has also availed himself of White House employee Marsha Scott and Debra Schiff, a campaign plane stewardess-turned-Office of Protocol employee.

Schiff, however, speaking to Salon Books on Monday, maintained that Andersen had never called her to confirm his tawdry allegations about her private meetings with the president. Before she hustled off the phone, saying that her attorney would call me to answer my questions (he didn't), Schiff fumed, "I can't believe people keep publishing these books." (But they do. As my own agent said to me recently, "Anything written about those two goes right to the bestseller list.")

However questionably sourced Andersen's book may be -- and in addition to dozens of unnamed friends and staffers, Andersen lists professional Clinton-haters like Cliff Jackson and Larry Klayman as interviewees -- at this point there really isn't much we wouldn't believe about the first couple. Andersen benefits heartily from the fact that our benefits-of-the-doubt reservoir has run dry thanks to a Starr-induced drought.

But maybe that's a dangerous way to think. Or at least an unfair one. The claims of one of Andersen's sources, Arkansas Trooper L.D. Brown, provoke, at the very least, a degree of skepticism. But Andersen buys every story Brown tells lock, stock and barrel; the writer says that discrediting Brown is "one of the great achievements of the White House spin doctors." I dunno about that; Brown's more outrageous claims about Clinton-sanctioned drug smuggling and assassination attempts -- not to mention his participation in a rabid Free Republic rally last Halloween -- probably have something to do with his discrediting.

Andersen does have a point when he argues that the White House doesn't dispute any of the substantive claims in his book, but instead attempts to taint the entire book on the strength of Brown's participation alone. On the Aug. 12 broadcast of CNBC's "Rivera Live," relentless White House spinmeister Lanny Davis attacked Andersen for not disclosing that Brown at one point received $5,000 from a Clinton enemy, saying Andersen's "characterization of anything is based upon the kind of journalism that doesn't think it's relevant that a -- that a key source received $5,000, and that's the nature of this book." Davis then went on to impugn the whole of "Bill and Hillary" because of Davis' $5,000 payoff, as well as one factual error. He kept going back to those two talking points.

Nice try, Lanny, but no, er, cigar.

To his credit, Andersen doesn't give credence to all of the more wacked-out conspiracy theories about this administration -- Hillary as lesbian, Vince Foster as murder victim. And to be fair, his depiction of the Clintons' lopsided quid-pro-quo relationship meshes perfectly with the glimmers of insight the Clintons themselves have offered us on occasion. But even though we're willing to believe almost any scandalous allegation anyone can come up with about the first couple -- say, that Clinton spent last Christmas snorting blow off the silicone superstructures of a chorus line of porn stars while his wife used the IRS to harass the Trilateral Commission -- is no excuse to repeat such a tale without substantial verification.

Andersen dishes like a catty high school girl holding forth in the lunchroom, with little corroborating evidence for his claims, implied or otherwise. The president's admission at a Hillary for Senate fund-raiser last Friday that "for 20 years we've gone where I wanted to go and done what I wanted to" manifests itself rather crudely when Andersen gets his paws on what that carte blanche actually entailed: Bill has scabies on his genitals! Bill did cocaine! Hillary knew about the Broaddrick rape and menacingly thanked Broaddrick for keeping her trap shut!

In passages where one detects the whiff of William Morrow and Company's attorneys, Andersen is perfectly content implying dish. Hillary goes nuts when she learns that Barbra Streisand spent a night at the White House while she was out of town (nudge). Travelgate fall-girl Catherine Cornelius, "a blond Texan who was not yet 20 when she came aboard at the White House," is the president's "kissing cousin" and "would often accompany the President when he went abroad sans the First Lady" (wink).

Or consider this extremely questionable call: "During one trip to the West Coast, Clinton changed his schedule so that he and [Sharon] Stone could both be in San Francisco at the same time. Clinton often gushed to friends about his favorite Sharon Stone scene -- predictably, the graphic leg-crossing shot in 'Basic Instinct.'" That Clinton is a fan of Stone's notorious beaver shot is, indeed, predictable, but Andersen uses it to imply a lot more -- to the point that a photo of Stone is included in the book among those of more credible Clinton paramours like Flowers and Susan McDougal.

"I can just state what the facts are and let people draw their own conclusions with Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone," Andersen coyly told Salon Books.

Andersen insists that everything in his 320-page roman ` clef is, of course, gospel. His timing, he acknowledges, couldn't have been better. In January 1998, when the ink on his contract was barely dry, the Lewinsky scandal broke. That -- according to Andersen -- loosened the tongues of disillusioned Clinton confidantes.

"Most of the stuff is from their friends," Andersen reports. "The Lewinsky thing changed the whole ball game." Many Clintonistas, he says, "felt betrayed" by "the man they thought they knew, or the man they had deluded themselves into believing." Arkansans grew particularly garrulous in defense of Little Rock, which they felt had been shamed enough by the legacy of segregation, and was "now going to be remembered for one of the most sensational sex scandals in American politics."

As a dissection of the Clinton marriage, though, Andersen's book doesn't get very far beyond this basic dynamic: He's a charming, insanely libidinous huckleberry, she's a multi-cuckolded, power-mad intellectual and their common interest is that they both love Bill Clinton. Finally, after Bill's one-millionth affair, Andersen does hand Hillary his sympathy: "Whether her loyalty is misguided or not, she's had to bear the brunt of the humiliation," he tells Salon News. But he never really makes us understand what made her stick around. So many marriages seem to be built on foundations of sand, and this one all the more so. Just what the hell is she in it for? And why doesn't he just sever the ball and chain so he can tomcat around with Madonna, Delta Burke, Markie Post, etc., in public and with impunity? The only explanation Andersen can come up with is that they fundamentally dig each other.

I don't doubt that some Clinton pals sat down and blabbed with Andersen, but none who could offer him the insights of a truly close friend (if, indeed, the Clintons have any). Shut out from the intimate moments that would help explain what, exactly, they dig, he comes up with an interesting psychological outline, but his final analysis is weak.

Factual and editorial discrepancies color the book. Sen. Orrin Hatch's name is misspelled, but more importantly, Andersen -- marinating for 18 months in the most vile rumors about one of history's most reviled couples -- occasionally falls victim to the skewed perceptions of those who view everything the Clintons do with suspicion.

Andersen depicts then-Gov. Clinton's willingness to execute "the mentally deficient" Ricky Ray Rector in January 1992 as an example of Clinton's callowness -- but no mention is made of the fact that Rector became brain-damaged only because he shot himself in the head after he killed a police officer. He reports that Hillary "offended her Chinese hosts" at the 1995 U.N. conference on women because she was "compelled to take a stand regardless of the international ramifications" -- a harsh judgment when you consider that her gauche behavior involved speaking out against the slaughter and slavery of Chinese women. And Andersen describes Clinton as having "violate(d)" Monica Lewinsky "with a cigar," a characterization Lewinsky herself would no doubt dispute.

A clip-job that repackages material from such sources as Dick Morris, George Stephanopoulos and the Starr Report -- with a few questionable but deviously satisfying details thrown in -- "Bill and Hillary" is a guilty pleasure. But as psychological probe it doesn't cut much past the epidermis. Andersen seems like a pleasant and agreeable fellow; if I met him at a party I would no doubt enjoy talking to him. But if I saw him on TV passing off his gossip as fact, I'd probably change the channel.

The 18th-century French writer Joseph de Maistre once said that every nation gets the government it deserves. Perhaps the same can be said about the Clintons: They're getting the book they deserve. Andersen's previous works include biographies of Madonna, Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson; his autopsy of the Kennedy marriage included dish about Jack sleeping with Audrey Hepburn, Jackie shtupping William Holden and both getting addicted to speed. Maybe in the end, the fact that the Clintons' marriage has been recorded in a cheesy book is only fitting.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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