herald

Monday 23 October 2017

No public office comes with more trappings, or could be more calculated to give its holder airs and graces, than the presidency of the United States. Yet it is an unpalatable truth that attaining the Holy Grail of American politics requires a very unholy scramble.

No public office comes with more trappings, or could be more calculated to give its holder airs and graces, than the presidency of the United States. Yet it is an unpalatable truth that attaining the Holy Grail of American politics requires a very unholy scramble.

And after nearly 30 unbroken years in public life, no one knows more about political hard knocks than Hillary Clinton. Even so, with the launch of her manifesto-memoir last month, followed by a national book tour cum campaign launch in all but name, it now seems certain that Mrs Clinton is planning to ride again. She will be 69 on inauguration day in January 2017.

Why on earth would she do it? That was the question posed openly this week by Barack Obama, the man who elbowed her into an undignified second place in the Democrat primaries of 2008 and now, after six frustrating years in the coveted office, just looks impatient some days for it all to be over.

Could it really be worth the candle for those - like Hillary and Vice President Joe Biden - who might want to succeed him, Mr Obama wondered. "They've already accomplished an awful lot in their lives. Do they want to go through the pretty undignifying process of running all over again?" he asked.

The answer is undoubtedly a resounding "yes", says one former Clinton White House staffer, for the very simple reason that for all Mrs Clinton's achievements as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, nothing can cap the presidency.

HISTORIC

"Becoming president makes you into a world, historic figure in a way that Hillary isn't yet. She's made a mark on history, sure, but it goes up by an uncountable factor if she wins the White House, particularly as the first woman president," he says.

But presidential ambition comes at a cost, as Mrs Clinton knows from her husband's scandal-plagued presidency - some of it self-inflicted, like the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Fast-forward 20 years and the once-dormant cottage industry of conspiracy and slander about the Clintons has started to whirr and clank again, with the publication of a series of sometimes outrageously thinly sourced books that tap into the still-visceral dislike of the Clintons on the American Right.

Exhibit A is Blood Feud, a 320-page book that allegedly traces the bitter Clinton-Obama rivalry and rifts in the Clintons' marriage. It is written by Ed Klein, a former New York Times journalist who has made a new career out of writing salacious tell-all books.

His latest is filled with wildly implausible fly-on-the-wall accounts of the Clintons' marital tiffs and White House showdowns, all relayed in breathless Mills & Boon prose. At one point, in Mr Klein's telling, Mrs Clinton is said to have jabbed her finger into President Obama's chest, which enrages Mrs Obama when he tells her: "It hurt."

In another scene, Mrs Clinton is launches into a foul-mouthed tirade against Mr Obama for having "No hand on the f***ing tiller", before declaring: "And you can't trust the mother******."

How Mr Klein, a sworn enemy of the Clintons and the Obama administration, convinces all these aides to the Clintons to suddenly spill the beans is not explained. Mr Klein says his books are based on proper reporting, but Mrs Clinton's spokesman, Nick Merrill, impolitely disagrees, calling Mr Klein "discredited and disgraced" and even suggesting he should take a lie-detector test.

Mr Klein's work is given scant credence by serious American political media such as Politico, The New York Times or The Washington Post, but it is gobbled up with relish by the conservative book-buying public.

To whoops of delight on the Right last month, Mr Klein's book outsold Hard Choices, Mrs Clinton's scrupulously gossip-free memoir of her four years at the State Department.

Other works, such as Ronald Kessler's The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of Presidents, extracts of which were leaked this week, are more plausibly sourced but equally salacious.

According to the extract quoted in The New York Post, Mr Kessler alleges that Mr Clinton keeps a blonde, surgically enhanced mistress who is codenamed 'Energizer' by the former president's security detail, after the indefatigable bunny in a famous battery commercial.

A third takedown tome, Clinton Inc by Daniel Halper, has been treated more seriously, despite attempts from the Clinton machine to lump it in with more scurrilous works.

The book paints Clintonworld as a place where scores are always settled and where Chelsea, who has taken a much higher-profile role since joining the board of the Clinton Foundation is described as the "wizard behind the curtain".

How does Mrs Clinton cope with this onslaught? Mostly by ignoring it, says the former staffer, while relying on a close coterie of loyal old female friends such as Cheryl Mills, who defended Bill at his impeachment trial; Maggie Williams, who managed her failed 2008 campaign; and Huma Abedin, her long-time aide and former deputy chief of staff at the State Department.

Chelsea, now 34 and expecting her first child, is another of Mrs Clinton's rocks.

"Does she agonise over it all? Absolutely not," says the staffer, who worked through the worst days of the Clinton White House scandals. "Bill and Hillary Clinton have had entire forests felled libelling them and Hillary's just used to it. She understands that it's a necessary part of the game."

That layer of personal armour is strengthened by the belief among Democrat strategists that in America's polarised political universe, the avalanche of anti-Clinton books is unlikely to affect the outcome in 2016. The belief is that they appeal only to that 40pc of Americans who, as one strategist put it, "would vote for a dog for president" before they'd ever vote for Mrs Clinton.

But what may in the end be more worrying for Mrs Clinton than the pains of running for presidential office is the prospect that, even if she wins the great prize, she achieves disappointingly little with it.

DIVIDED

As Mr Obama has discovered, the modern presidency is saddled with old expectations that have not really caught up with America's divided political realities.

The president now talks openly of using his "phone and his pen" to get things done, but to many that only advertises the limits of his political predicament - which will get worse if, as now looks possible, the Republicans retake the Senate in this autumn's mid-term elections, giving them control of both houses of Congress.

Given all her past experience and the platform the Clinton Foundation offers her to effect real change on issues close to her heart, such as gender equality and free speech, would Mrs Clinton trade her current position for the frustrations of the modern presidency? You bet she would.

"Everyone believes their time in the Oval Office will be different," says the former staffer.

"And despite the frustrations, recent presidencies show that everyone does get to do something relatively big for a short while. That's the nature of ambition: you know the pain that lies ahead, but you accept the challenge. No one knows that better than Hillary."

hnews@herald.ie

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