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Hillary: Ulysses S. Grant she’s not

Americans will forgive their celebrities nearly anything but silence.

Though she has made her life in politics, Hillary Rodham Clinton is every inch a product of that culture of celebrity, which -- like encroaching seawater -- has infiltrated and brackened the wells of our politics over these past few decades.

Thus, inevitably, her memoirs, “Living History,” now in a bookstore and on a network special and on a morning talk show and in a newspaper lifestyle section and nearly everywhere else near you. The stealthy conflation of a shrewdly planned and carefully managed publicity campaign with a genuine public interest is, after all, the central deceit on which the culture of celebrity is constructed.

Boredom and morbid curiosity are the conditions out of which our celebrity fixations generally arise. Whether either exists in sufficient quantity to make back the $8 million Simon & Schuster paid for “Living History” is the only really interesting question posed by this volume. And it won’t be answered for months.

In Hillary Clinton’s case, that morbid curiosity centers almost entirely on her marriage to Bill Clinton: When and how much did she know about his serial philandering? Why has she chosen to remain married to an unfaithful and indiscreet husband?

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The answers she provides in “Living History” are parsed in the soothing phrases of pop psychology and self-help books -- ostensibly confessional and ultimately concealing, all at once. The verdict on whether they are satisfactory explanations will be rendered by those who actually are interested in what goes on inside other people’s bedrooms or who believe that what transpires there is somehow revelatory of some larger truth.

Even in those quarters, this will hardly be the end of it. Still to come are the memoirs for which Random House paid the former president $10 million. Bill Clinton will have his own explanations, though it would be more than surprising if -- however gray their shades -- they colored very far outside the lines drawn by the former first lady, now junior U.S. senator from New York.

Why answer questions about their marriage at all?

Money, clearly. The Clintons have outstanding legal bills that run into the millions and a sense of entitlement common among well-educated baby boomers. As their years in Arkansas demonstrated, they don’t appear to find public office an insurmountable bar to lucrative outside enterprise. The country has come a long, dreary way in the half century or so since Gen. George Marshall rejected an offer to write his memoirs because he didn’t believe it was seemly to profit from public service.

Tell a story, take the flack

Moreover, as a potential presidential candidate in her own right, Hillary Clinton needs to get this issue behind her -- tell a story, stick to it, take the flack it generates. That way, should the issue arise in campaigns to come, she simply can say, “I dealt with all that years ago in my book” and move on.

In that sense, according to John Rhodehamel, the Norris Foundation curator of American History at the Huntington Library, Hillary Clinton’s book does connect with a peculiar American tradition: the 19th century campaign biography. “They were commonly done after the guy was nominated for president,” he explained, though by someone other than the candidate. “For example, William Dean Howells, who then was quite a young man, got the assignment of cranking out Lincoln’s campaign biography. As was typical of the period, it was a small, soft-cover book with a picture of the candidate. Atypically, Lincoln did contribute some autobiographical notes to the book because he was quite an obscure guy. He wrote a short synopsis of his life and, even though he was clearly writing for political purposes, you wish he had done more because it was quite good.”

Lincoln was such a memorable and powerful writer, in fact, that many have wondered whether his assassination deprived American letters of what would have been its greatest autobiography. Rhodehamel is skeptical about that. “Lincoln was a pretty secretive guy,” he said, “not much into self-revelation any more than George Washington was. Washington could have written quite a good autobiography. He had an aide and protege named David Humphreys, who undertook to write a biography with Washington’s collaboration. It was published, even though it wasn’t very good. But there survive a few manuscript pages where Washington made additions that cause you to really regret there isn’t more of it.”

In fact, none of the Founders published an autobiography, though both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote private accounts of their lives not intended for public circulation.

Unfair as the comparison may be, it’s difficult to pick up Hillary Clinton’s grandly titled “Living History” and read her opening lines without recalling Jefferson’s beginning.

She writes: “In 1959, I wrote my autobiography for an assignment in sixth grade.... Forty-two years later, I began writing another memoir, this one about the eight years I spent in the White House living history with Bill Clinton. “

Jefferson begins: “At the age of 77, I began to make some memoranda and state some recollections of dates & facts concerning myself, for my own ready reference & for the information of my family.” The heading of that particular chapter is “With the Declaration of Independence.”

The difference in perspective and sense of self embodied in those two passages is the difference between a great man’s private reflections in old age and a middle-aged, late 20th century striver’s reach for the next rung on the ladder.

Grant the author

So, too, is the difference between “Living History” and the greatest of all American political biographies, “Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant.” Though it bears only her name on the cover, Clinton’s book is the product of a large collaborating staff. Grant was a writer of astonishing and powerful simplicity, whose influence on American prose has been cited by authors from Gertrude Stein to Gore Vidal. It is particularly sobering, however, to set Hillary Clinton’s Potemkin village candor against that of Grant, who begins the first of his memoirs’ two volumes with this forthright confession:

“Man proposes and God disposes. There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.

“Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication.” Then, as Grant recalled without self-pity, he lost everything when he was swindled by a business partner and the stock market crashed. “At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living on borrowed money.” Grant’s memoirs, which he completed days before he died of throat cancer in 1885, earned his widow, Julia, a then-astonishing royalty of $500,000, securing their family’s future.

The campaign biographies of which Hillary Clinton’s book is actually a contemporary variant “are purposeful writing not necessarily true,” according to the Huntington’s Rhodehamel. “That’s what they’re supposed to be. It’s not a deception. When a practicing politician with a career still ahead of her writes her memoirs, you know exactly what you’re getting.”

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Regarding Media runs Wednesdays and Saturdays. Tim Rutten can be reached at timothy.rutten@latimes.com.


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