Not many votes for Clinton bio
No one said it would be easy to sell a book on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not when nearly 20 already have been published (including “The Hillary Clinton Voodoo Kit: Stick It to Her, Before She Sticks It to You!”). Not when celebrity author Carl Bernstein’s biography on the former first lady has arrived on store shelves three days earlier.
Authors Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. have had to labor not only to escape the shadow of Watergate reporting hero Bernstein but also to cope with the particular loathing the Clinton camp has reserved for their biography, “Her Way.”
For the record:
12:00 a.m. June 23, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Clinton biography: In some copies of today’s Calendar section, Taylor Branch was credited with writing “Eyes on the Prize.” Juan Williams wrote “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965.” Branch wrote “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” among other books.
Clinton supporters have never forgiven Gerth as the journalist who wrote the first story on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Ozark Mountain vacation development, Whitewater. They have been trashing the duo, who both made their names at the New York Times, for allegedly carrying a grudge and, as Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines has charged, “rehashing for cash.”
In dozens of radio and television interviews, Gerth and Van Natta have tried to turn the conflict to their advantage. They depict themselves as truth tellers whom the New York senator and Democratic presidential front-runner wants to silence. “Her Way’s” promotional headline: “The Book She Doesn’t Want You to Read.”
“Her Way” publisher Little, Brown won a round in the promotion wars when it got a lengthy adaptation of part of the book, on Clinton’s Iraq war record, published in the New York Times Sunday magazine. The paper considered running another excerpt in the news pages but didn’t reach an agreement with the publisher, which worried “it would steal too much thunder from the book,” according to Times Editor Bill Keller.
When a Los Angeles Times reporter pressed him about his paper’s decision not to run the news story, Van Natta snapped that the questions were “straight out of the Clinton talking points.” The 42-year-old writer added, in explanation, “I am under a tremendous amount of pressure.”
Unfortunately for the authors, the substantial heat around the book has not yet turned into fire at bookstore checkout stands. Nielsen BookScan reported that -- as of last Sunday, after 10 days in stores -- “Her Way” had sold 7,000 copies. That put it well behind Bernstein’s “Woman in Charge,” which sold 25,000 copies in its first 13 days. Neither biography was within fighting distance of Clinton’s “Living History,” the 2003 autobiography that sold 439,000 in its debut week. (BookScan tracks sales at about 70% of retail outlets.)
Both “Her Way” and “A Woman in Charge” are “serious books published with enthusiasm” but might not deliver what readers really want, said Peter Osnos, editor at large for book publisher PublicAffairs.
“If you are a Hillary fan, you don’t want to read a book that is really negative. And if you are a Hillary hater, you want a book that really creams her,” said Osnos. “Both these books are too straight to
Van Natta and Gerth say they ran into opposition from the moment they told Clinton’s staff they had a book in the works. Many of those they called, including Clinton’s colleagues in the Senate, refused to speak, on instructions from Clinton’s office, they said. The senator’s aides denied that they ordered anyone not to cooperate. But many Clinton loyalists did not require prodding given Gerth’s connection to the original Whitewater story.
The Media Matters factor
Leading the charge against Gerth and Van Natta has been the liberal watchdog organization Media Matters for America. Two weeks before the book’s June 8 release date, the website began pounding away with what would be the first of about 30 postings. It dredged up criticism of the reporters’ past stories, focusing initially on critical reviews of Gerth’s Whitewater story. Media Matters accused the reporter of “an over-hyping [of] innocuous facts.”
Like other reporters, Gerth and Van Natta described close ties between Media Matters and the Clintons. They write, for example, that a former Clinton staffer was among the key advisors during the group’s start-up.
Gerth, 62, defended his coverage of the Arkansas land deal. He said he had no idea the story would take on a life of its own. “It turned out to have more [longevity] than I or anyone else imagined it would.”
Two weeks prior to publication, the Washington Post published an article about the two Clinton biographies, effectively dumping the news on the eve of the long Memorial Day weekend. There is evidence the Clinton team had seen at least portions of the Gerth-Van Natta book prior to publication but no proof they had a hand in its early release. Still, a trusted hand from the Clinton White House said such a maneuver would be standard operating procedure.
“If you have access to information like this, why not put it out and have the force of it dissipated by the end of the long weekend?” said Mark Fabiani, the Clinton administration lawyer who completed so many pre-holiday document dumps that reporters came to dread working late on “Fabiani Fridays.”
“By Monday or Tuesday this thing is gone, it’s disappeared beneath the waves,” Fabiani said. “I think that’s basically what happened here.”
One finding that Gerth and Van Natta worked to highlight was that Bill and Hillary Clinton, early in his first term, discussed the idea that each of them would serve two terms in the White House. The authors cited two individuals who said they once heard Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch (“Parting the Waters”), a Clinton friend, talk about this “audacious” plan.
But the Clinton campaign helped make sure Branch was prepared to rebut the story. Hillary Clinton’s campaign counsel, Cheryl Mills, alerted the historian two weeks prior to publication about the two-Clintons-for-two-terms passage. She sent him copies via e-mail and told Branch to be ready to answer questions from the Washington Post. Branch subsequently labeled the claim “preposterous.” And that knockdown would continue to pop up in interviews with Gerth and Van Natta for weeks.
Gerth has stood by the recollections of his sources, who are named in the book. And he has repeatedly noted that Branch, who is writing an oral history on President Clinton, previously acknowledged he was “not objective” when it came to the former president.
Reviewers weigh in
Many independent reviewers have described “Her Way” as the tougher book. But they generally concluded that Bernstein, the Washington Post veteran who devoted seven years to his tome, succeeded in drawing a fuller portrait. In his June 4 review in the Los Angeles Times, political analyst Ronald Brownstein credited Gerth and Van Natta for a more thorough review of Clinton’s record as a U.S. senator from New York. But he faulted “Her Way” for “pedestrian prose, insufficient analysis and excessive reliance on anonymous sources.”
The New York Times review, by historian Robert Dallek, dismissed “Her Way” for drawing Clinton as “a one-sided figure who never quite springs to life or feels truly authentic.”
That led Van Natta to counterpunch, in an interview this week, that Dallek, biographer of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, “is a biographer of dead presidents. We did an investigative biography of someone running for president.”
To be sure, “Her Way” has made more of an immediate political impression than Bernstein’s biography. The Gerth-Van Natta account has forced Clinton to defend her war voting record in the Senate and, particularly, to respond to the authors’ finding that she failed to read a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the prewar threat posed by Iraq.
Clinton aides respond that the vast majority of other senators didn’t read the report either. Spokesman Reines added that Clinton “was briefed multiple times by several members of the administration on their intelligence regarding Iraq, which included the classified aspects of the NIE.”
The 346-page biography makes a mark in at least one other sense: in turning media conventions on their head.
In one of their most recent appearances, the authors appeared together on the typically New York Times-hostile Fox News cable network. They were greeted warmly by conservative commentator Sean Hannity, who assured Gerth (who left the paper in 2005 after 30 years) and Van Natta: “I’m really enjoying the book.”
It was left to the network’s liberal foil, Alan Colmes, to ask tough questions and to observe: “You’re marketing this as the book Hillary doesn’t want you to see. How can that be a balanced look at Hillary Clinton?”