In Their Element

Bill and Hillary Clinton are the media's dream team. They never become old news.

By William Powers

The coverage of two new books about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.—A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Carl Bernstein, and Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr.—is reviving the lost language of the late 20th century. Suddenly "Whitewater," "Gennifer Flowers," "bimbo eruptions," and other vintage phrases are caroming around the mediaplex again. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was 1997.

Given what it was like to live through that time, and the microscopic degree to which both Clintons have already been scrutinized, it's kind of amazing that there's still a booming market for Clintonography.

The most obvious driver is that Sen. Clinton is gunning for the White House. But there's another factor that's not directly related to the presidential campaign but just as important: Unlike most public figures who get their little time in the sun and inevitably fade away, the Clintons never become old news. They are the ultimate media evergreens, for several reasons.

First, they are a living, breathing riddle. Who are the Clintons, really? Inspired public servants? Power-mad Machiavellians with a secret plan to take over the world? Both? Neither? It's one of the culture's great questions. Some of the most talented journalists on the planet have tackled the conundrum but nobody has produced a really satisfying answer. Like the Bermuda Triangle and the grassy knoll, it's always there, gnawing, taunting. These two books are just the latest stabs. There will be many more, including a biography of both Clintons covering their White House period, coming this fall from the highly regarded former New York Times reporter Sally Bedell Smith.

Second, the Clintons have a powerful emotional effect on many people, turning some into raving cult followers and others into equally obsessive anti-Clinton crusaders. And the sorting is not strictly ideological. Remember how Bill Clinton drove Howell Raines, the liberal editor of The New York Times editorial page, nuts? Hillary Clinton is as loathed today on the left as she is on the right. It was Hollywood liberal David Geffen who not long ago said, "Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it's troubling."

In short, the Clintons are a bone of contention. For the news business, which has always thrived on argument, they're a dream. And now that we have a medium that is tailor-made for argument—the Web, land of endless blog posts, comments on comments on comments—you might say that the Clintons are more in tune with the times than ever. Just look at the way these books made their splash, in a pre-publication Washington Post story that was immediately the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories. Did the Clinton campaign leak some of the material deliberately in order to knock it down? The quote that Clinton's Senate spokesman, Philippe Reines, gave The Post—"Is it possible to be quoted yawning?"—was so flawless, it made you go, hmmm.

It was a classic Clinton moment, and as always, the hive commenced buzzing. Arianna Huffington immediately weighed in with a nearly 1,400-word blog post, announcing that she had "just finished" reading the Gerth-Van Natta book—being first to fresh Clinton meat is a media pastime—which she pronounced "a definitive and chilling portrait of a politician solely driven by political expedience." One Huffington Post reader named "bowiegeek" countered: "We can always look to Ms. H to advocate crappy journalism from writers such as the kind who helped to invent Whitewater." And over at the Hillary for President Web site, a certain "David from Texas" posted: "Sounds like the book is bunk and road apples!" Again, hmmm.

The point is, the Clintons are anything but a vestige of the past. It's now clear exactly why they were so mesmerizing in the '90s: They were ahead of their time, figures of endless dispute in a culture that hadn't yet moved to the medium where disputes blossom, thrive, and live forever. Now they are giving the new media culture exactly what it craves—more fodder for argument, enough to carry us at least through early '08, and maybe beyond.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/06/in-their-element/306006/