First the question asked by everyone who remembers 1998, the ineffably sordid year of Monica: why has Hillary Rodham Clinton revisited the moment of her greatest humiliation, the bleakest moment of all in a marriage surely studded with bleak moments?
"I am a private person - it was difficult to write this book," she confessed last week as the first leaked excerpts of her memoirs appeared. But few are the reticences that an $8m publisher's advance cannot overcome - and Hillary always was more concerned than Bill, the careless poet of politics, with the practical things of life, like money. After all, it was Hillary, not her husband, who in 1979 turned an infamous cattle futures trade on a tip from a friend, netting $100,000 (a huge sum in those days) to supplement his very modest salary as Governor of Arkansas.
But money, one suspects, is not her only purpose. Living History is a book about the past, but with the future very much in mind. Today's recounting of yesterday's pain looks very much like tomorrow's intended liberation, clearing the decks for the former First Lady to make a White House bid in her own right. The very thought seems preposterous: is America ready for a woman in the White House, a woman, moreover, whose very surname is synonymous with scandal, dividing the country according to the liberal-conservative culture wars that now pass for American politics? Look a little closer, however, and the notion is not so far-fetched.
By any standard she is qualified. Leave aside the ever-intriguing question of who called the shots in the Clinton White House. At the very least she knows the business from the inside - amid pressures few presidents have ever faced. By common consent, Hillary has done a fine job since becoming the junior Senator for New York in January 2001. Only Bill Clinton is a more potent Democratic fundraiser. And, often overlooked, she has a marvellous sense of humour.
That came through the first time I met her, in February 1992. Laughing and joking, she sat at a table in a shopping mall outside Nashua, New Hampshire. Those were dark days. Bill was in a McDonald's across the way, greeting customers as they entered, the comeback kid trying to save his White House candidacy in the state's vital primary, amid scandal over his philandering with the nightclub singer Gennifer Flowers, and claims that he had dodged the Vietnam draft.
A few days before, the couple had appeared on the prime-time news show 60 Minutes, which would catapult Hillary into the national consciousness. With a sheepish Bill beside her, she was asked how she had put up with the problems in her marriage. "I'm not sitting here as some little woman," came the crisp reply, "standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him."
Country stars and their fans rose as one in protest. But that evening one ballsy lady had stolen the show. At later campaign events, Bill would bring his wife on stage, proclaiming: "Vote for one, and get two." And Hillary has stood by him ever since, in a partnership that conforms to no rules, but which has provided fodder for a dozen books. It is a soap-cum-psychodrama that fascinates or repels, depending on your side in the culture wars, but leaves few indifferent.
Time and again, above all after the Monica Lewinsky humiliation, she asked herself the question, whether or not to stick with her husband. When he told her the truth about the young intern (by the book's account just 48 hours before the 42nd President had to testify before a grand jury, after six months of lies) Hillary wanted to "wring Bill's neck". She was not sure the marriage "could - or should - survive" the betrayal.
But as usual, she toughed it out. Her mother Dorothy Rodham loved to tell the story of the four-year-old Hillary and the neighbourhood bully in the middle-class Chicago suburb of Park Ridge. The bully was an older and bigger girl, but Dorothy told her daughter to hit back. She did so in front of a group of boys, and then ran home in delight: "I can play with the boys now." She has never yielded an inch to the opposite sex since.
She met Bill at Yale Law School in 1970, in the library reading room. Clinton had been staring at her, and in typical no-nonsense style, she broke the ice. "Look," she said as she approached him, "if you're going to keep staring at me, and I'm going to keep staring back, we should at least introduce ourselves. I'm Hillary Rodham."
The physical side of their marriage may be speculated upon ad infinitum. But mentally they were - and remain - a perfect match. Each respected the other's intellect. She was the decisive one, articulate, business-like and determined. He was charming, disorganised and irresistibly persuasive. They performed together in the law school's 1972 prize trial, a mock trial in which graduating students have to show their forensic mettle. One classmate in the audience observed later of their contrasting but complementary styles, that Hillary never bothered about stepping on toes, but "Bill would massage your toes".
That year she worked with her future hus- band on George McGovern's losing presidential campaign, before moving to Washington as a researcher on the house judiciary committee which was preparing grounds for Richard Nixon's possible impeachment. In 1975 the couple were married, and five years later their daughter Chelsea was born. For a while the independent-minded first lady of Arkansas kept her maiden name of Rodham, to the dismay of straight-laced southerners. Later she consented to be called Hillary Clinton, but struck up a thriving independent career at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm.
In the White House the pattern continued. Hillary in her own words would be "no cookie-baker". Instead her husband placed her in charge of a task force to reform America's healthcare system. The over-ambitious scheme ended in failure in the summer of 1994 - just as the special prosecutor was intensifying his investigation into the Whitewater land deal (a probe which led to the revelation of the Lewinsky liaison).
But throughout, the couple stayed together, their relationship slowly healed by a new mutual interest in Hillary's 2000 Senate run. And now we can read all about it in Living History, with a prepublication print run of a million, available in US bookstores tomorrow. No less important will be the author's summer-long promotional tour.
Book tours, as Colin Powell's royal progress around the US in 1995 proved, can be far more than literary events. If Powell had doubts about his popularity ahead of a possible presidential run, his rockstar reception banished them. In the end, it was his wife, Alma, who vetoed a campaign. Should Hillary choose to run, she is unlikely to encounter such spousal objections.
We are, of course, talking 2008. But 2004 is too early for a senator of so little legislative experience - and why challenge a popular president whose re-election seems more than likely?
Instead, a careful rebranding is under way, of which the book is part. Hillary the feminist liberal has given way to Hillary the super-competent centrist, who has worked hard and effectively for her adopted state of New York. She supported the war in Iraq, and has obtained a seat on the Senate armed services committee to advertise an unsuspected interest in the military and national security. She has even worked across the aisle with the Republican Lindsay Graham, a prime tormentor of her husband in his own impeachment saga. This isn't the behaviour of a cookie-baker, but of a would-be president of the United States.Reuse content