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A New Book Smearing Senator Clinton Sells Well

by Fredric Alan Maxwell

Aug 1, 2005 | Books, Politics


It is called: The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President. It is by Edward Klein, and has a title almost as slimy as its text. The Klein book, with its ugly rhetoric, insinuations and smears, has dropped from No. 2 to No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. It is No. 7 on the Washington Post bestseller list. The publisher, Sentinel Books, rushed to get the book out this summer, only to see reviewers blast it as a sexually sensational read—more sex than sense.

But did such language hurt the book? Not at all—those reviews were sellers.

Political books are hot items in this period of unrest in which we find ourselves. They are not only climbing the bestseller lists, with their authors seen on TV and chatting on the radio, but are the subjects of news stories in themselves. The Clinton book is the latest example of such interest. We asked Fredric Alan Maxwell, a widely published author and biographer who reviewed the mass of 2004 political books for us last year [see the September 1, 2004, issue], to take a look at this recent biography of Senator Clinton, which among other things calls her a lesbian.

Fred reports that the book is more an example of prurient sensationalism in print than an in-depth look at the possible front-runner of the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign.

I often smile when someone mentions Hillary Clinton, and I think of a note that she sent me after reading a piece of mine in the New York Times Magazine. While writing Bad Boy Ballmer, my biography of Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, I had the unsettling experience of being investigated by the Secret Service. There was a bogus report that I’d threatened George W. Bush.

I was cleared—a pretzel is more of a threat to Bush than I am. When the agents asked me when I was last in the White House, I responded: “In the early ’90s for a press conference in the East Room. You know, Hillary doesn’t photograph well; she looks far better in person.”

As the Washington Post and NPR reported, shortly thereafter I received a handwritten letter from Senator Clinton, saying: “Dear Mr. Maxwell: I vouched for you with the Secret Service. Anyone who thinks I look better in person is a true patriot—albeit myopic. In any event, don’t let this experience deter you from speaking up and out. We need to keep our sense of humor during these Orwellian times. All the best, Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

FULL BOOKSHELVES—The Library of Congress lists over 70 books about Hillary Clinton, and some 250 about her husband. The best-selling Hillary book is probably her 2003 autobiography, Living History. The newest entry into Hillaryography is the badly misnamed The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She’ll Go to Become President, by Edward Klein (Sentinel, $24.95).

The book’s original publication date was September, but it was rushed into print in mid-June to take advantage of a self-created firestorm of publicity: gossipy forecasts cited its sex sagas, dwelling on titillating tidbits that supposedly filled its pages. The publisher should have waited until the fact checkers and copy editors had had their say before inflicting their book on readers.

Conservatives who put their hands on a copy called it a “smear job,” “sordid,” said “I had to take a shower after reading it” and averred that it “assumes . . . conservatives are stupid.” Even Fox News Channel’s arch-conservative Bill O’Reilly panned the text, nixing author Ed Klein’s TV appearance on his rather salacious show. Two other Fox personalities scheduled, then canceled, an appearance by the author.

Klein, however, was not much deterred by this negative feedback. He told the National Reviewthat The Truth About Hillary is a comprehensive biography, encompassing both her personal and political life. “My book is much broader than any representation that has appeared in the media so far,” he said.

Others disagree, and they haven’t been shy about panning the work. Sara Nelson, the editor ofPublisher’s Weekly, the publishing industry’s bible, wrote that “Klein seems intent on rehashing the rehash in this too-boring-to-even-be-execrable title.” In a Washington Post column Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, referred to Klein as “Ed Slime” for his obsession with sex and particularly his constant implication that Hillary is a lesbian. Klein also cites an anonymous source who claims that the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, is the outcome of Bill’s rape of Hillary.
The current New Yorker editor, David Remnick, penned that magazine’s lead “Talk of the Town” piece on Klein’s book. The headline, “Political Pornography,” perfectly described his take on it.

IN THE CROSSFIRE—Klein dubiously asserts that the public has a right to know about Hillary’s sex life. His evidence that she’s a lesbian includes his assertion that she did not shave her legs or armpits while attending Wellesley College. Wellesley public affairs spokespeople told me they hadn’t read the book, had no real plans to read it, and had no comment on its charges.

Such anti-gay innuendo raised the ire of David Brock, who heads the Media Matters in Americawebsite and who happens to be gay. Brock wrote: “Mr. Klein introduces Nancy Pietrafesa, whose name he misspells throughout, as someone ‘rumored to be Hillary’s lesbian lover.'” Ms. Pietrafesa, a nonpublic figure, has been perturbed to find herself thus described in the book. An attorney for her told the New York Post: ‘These allegations are totally false and unsubstantiated. Klein has apparently done no investigating. This is scurrilous, despicable and politically motivated.”

The Syracuse Post-Standard quoted Ms. Pietrafesa, who has been married for 35 years and is the mother of three sons, as saying: “This could hurt my family. This could be an insidious, totally destructive thing in a family. Having that even as a question about my love and loyalty to my husband is very hard, and very sad.” Ms. Pietrafesa told the New York Post: “No one deserves this kind of crap.”

The Media Matters website offers a 33-page critique of Klein’s text.

As The Economist opines: “Mrs. Clinton has long owed a big debt to her critics on the deranged right and it is clear that her luck still holds. . . . Mr. Klein has succeeded in doing the near-impossible: he has written a book that will make all but fire-breathing conservatives sympathetic to her cause.”

Probably the most damning criticism came from the Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutton. He wrote: “Every once in a while, something hits your desk and makes you wonder whether there really isn’t an argument to be made for book burning.”

The only positive review I read in a credible source was in the National Review, which called the Klein book “a good beach read”—kudos normally awarded to fiction. In this case it was appropriate, given the made-up dialogue that is Klein’s M.O. and the rumors portrayed as fact.

FACT VERSUS FICTION—John F. Harris, who covered the Clintons for the Washington Post, recently published a well-reviewed book called The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House(Random House, 2005).

Harris is well qualified to judge the merits of Klein’s work, and in the New York Observer he wrote: “Of course this book isn’t on the level. Presumably, neither Mr. Klein nor his publisher cares whether what he writes is true or makes sense. In fact, one has no idea what to believe about any aspect of this publishing event. Sentinel claims it has printed 350,000 copies, and that it moved up its planned publication by three months in order to satisfy public demand. Who knows? Other publishers widely suspect that both statements are baloney.”

Let’s look at this text and examine what is behind the hoopla. Clearly the book is pandering to those who have strong negative feelings about Hillary. It was rushed into print without proper fact-checking, resulting in sloppy scholarship not corrected by the checks and balances that a more reputable and honest publisher such as Knopf, Norton, or Farrar, Strauss and Giroux would require.

Klein’s book contains misleading footnotes, some 70 of which list anonymous sources that convey a false sense of scholarship. The book itself is printed in large type on thick paper, in short paragraphs, and in 44 chapters on 254 pages of text, all of which have been designed to give the book the look of heft. The result is more the appearance of a book than an actual book.

According to Vanity Fair, Klein began the book “shortly after the presidential debates,” meaning sometime in October 2004. Given the publishing industry’s requirements of lead time and the book’s mid-June publication, Klein had, at most, six months to research and write the text, have it edited, proofread and vetted by Penguin’s legal department.

We professional biographers often rail about the need for more time and money to get to know our subjects in sufficient depth, and revere quality projects like Robert Caro’s 25-year-long study of Lyndon Johnson. It has so far yielded three volumes but hasn’t yet gotten to Johnson’s presidency.

Klein simply didn’t have the time—or take the time—to produce anything that was more than a glimpse of Senator Clinton, and he chose to spend much of the time he had peeking into her bedroom. Why?

I asked Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and an editor at the Washington Post Book World why he thought a publishing house as prestigious as Penguin would stoop to such bottom-feeding?
He told me: “You, my friend, are living in another age, when publishing was a vocation for ‘gentlemen.’ Publishing is a business, and its editors go where the bucks are, not where the literary quality resides. Once this essential point is grasped, all else falls into place.”

That makes sense to me. After all, sex sells, and given my own professional dealings with the publisher of Sentinel Books, Adrian Zackheim, who also heads Penguin’s business book portfolio, he appears to need the money.

THE PUBLISHING WORLD’S UNDERBELLY—Two years ago Zackheim asked me to consider writing a biography of Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. I accepted his offer only to wait four months for the contract and an advance, a situation he blamed on “getting lost in the bureaucracy.” It was more probably due to the fact that my check was drawn on the first business day of a new fiscal quarter.

When the book took longer than expected to research—in no small part because of the contractual delay—Zackheim took the rare step of unilaterally canceling my contract and asked for the return of the advance payment.

This is the sea we are swimming in, one in which publishing belongs together with the lowest instincts of our culture. Edward Klein has become a word whore operating out of a corporate brothel. I doubt that his work will ever again be taken seriously. Klein told Salon magazine: “What I do for a living is write popular nonfiction, and the more popular it is, the more books I sell and the more money I make.”

As for the publishing of poorly sourced, poorly written, and richly marketed drive-by biography, the market is voting, and our fellow citizens have been showing some admirable judgment. The Klein book quickly made the second spot on both the New York Times and Amazon.com bestseller lists but hasn’t shown legs and quickly disappeared from the top of those charts.

The Truth About Hillary is more “the Truth About Low-minded Book Publishing.” Penguin, which launched Sentinel, seems to have made a Faustian bargain, and may be laughing all the way to the bank. Yet there are other possible truths for the book’s falseness that media reporters have failed to take into account. Penguin’s Putnam imprint publishes Tom Clancy, who, as Linton Weeks of the Washington Post has detailed, in fact no longer writes his own books but hires other people to write them.

Since the Klein book suffers from so many omissions, falsehoods and unsubstantiated claims, calling it The Truth About Hillary is quite Orwellian. But Hillary herself has said that we need to keep our sense of humor in these Orwellian times.

One possible reason for Klein’s hack job is that it’s not unusual to see a conservative press such as Sentinel contract with authors to conduct supposedly independent research while, in truth, the conclusion to bash the subject was decided at the beginning of the project.

As the American Prospect has reported, in 1997 Alfred Regnery, the head of the Washington-based Regnery Publishing, approached veteran crime reporter Dan Moldea about writing a book on the Vince Foster case. Foster, as you’ll recall, was the Clinton administration official who was a tragic suicide. The right-wing pundits tried to suggest that Hillary was somehow involved in his death, and that the cause of death might have been murder. Regnery says Moldea hoped that his contacts within the law enforcement community would shed new light on the case. But Moldea came to the same conclusions as all the official inquiries did. “There were some mistakes, some omissions,” says Moldea. “But this was a dead-bang, bona fide suicide.”

When Moldea turned in A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm, the editors at Regnery “were less than thrilled. There were some real battles that went on between us, between me and the staff,” he says. “It got so bad that I was almost hoping that they would reject the book, because I knew that they were just going to seal it and it would never see the light of day.” Luckily, Moldea prevailed.

Of course, Hillary-bashing books are nothing new; they have been coming out ever since she became First Lady and rarely show balance. Such titles include Hillary’s Secret War: The Clinton Conspiracy to Muzzle Internet Journalists by Richard Poe; She Took A Village by Alan Gottlieb—the title a play on her best-selling book on parenting, It Takes A VillageHell to Pay: The Unfolding Story of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Barbara Olson; The Case Against Hillary Clinton by Peggy Noonan; and Big Sister Is Watching You: Hillary Clinton and the White House Feminists Who Now Control America—And Tell the President What to Do by Texe W. Marrs.

Knopf has the great investigative reporter Carl Bernstein under contract for a Hillary biography. And in October, Regan Books is bringing out two more additions to the Hillaryography totals: The Case for Hillary by Susan Estrich—Michael Dukakis’s former campaign manager—and Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race by Dick Morris.

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