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Gossip flares over books on Clinton

Times Staff Writer

Two new books about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) offer a wealth of fresh details that reinforce her reputation as a shrewd, ambitious and calculating political figure, but campaign observers raised doubts Friday that the accounts would set back her presidential chances.

Both books, by veteran journalists, cover the broad swath of Clinton’s life and political rise, digging back into the heavily mined controversies over President Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the Clintons’ Arkansas finances and stretching into her Senate years.

One is written by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., investigative reporters who wrote about the Clintons for the New York Times; the other is by Carl Bernstein of Watergate reporting fame.

The first political shudders from the books’ approaching publication were set off Friday when the Washington Post unearthed much of the juiciest contents. The most immediate controversy flared up over passages in Gerth and Van Natta’s “Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Rodham Clinton” that reported the Clintons had secretly fashioned a “20-year project” to send them both to the White House.

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Clinton campaign officials questioned the account. They noted that the Post quoted one purported source for the story, historian and Clinton friend Taylor Branch, as calling it “preposterous.”

In portions of the book obtained Friday by the Los Angeles Times, Gerth and Van Natta also write that in 1996, Bill Clinton told then-Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta about the “20-year project.” Panetta did not return calls for comment Friday, and Hillary Clinton campaign officials dismissed this account as well.

Bernstein’s “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton” also is said to have its share of nuggets, reportedly describing a tense Hillary Clinton as the key figure behind much of the White House’s defense against GOP-mounted scandal investigations.

As veteran political strategists and consultants for both political parties gossiped over partial accounts of the books on Friday, few found evidence of any revelations that could do serious immediate damage to Clinton’s presidential prospects.

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The books are “interesting and perhaps illuminating, but they didn’t drop any new revelations into the campaign,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who headed up public opinion surveys for Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004.

Even some Republicans saw no reason for Clinton to be concerned about the books’ fallout. “It doesn’t strike me that there was anything new in either of these books that I didn’t already know about Hillary Clinton,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster and strategist.

The Clinton campaign heartily agreed, pouncing on an early wave of ho-hum reviews from political bloggers. “The biggest news here is three reporters have spent the last 10 years combined looking at Sen. Clinton’s life and finding nothing new to report,” said Howard Wolfson, the campaign’s communications director. “They’ve got zero.”

The dueling biographies arrive in early June, timed to land as the Democratic contest escalates and backed by high-powered New York publishing houses with carefully planned media blitzes. On June 5, Alfred A. Knopf is publishing a 275,000-copy first run of Bernstein’s 640-page biography, which he reportedly worked on for eight years. Three days later, Little, Brown & Co. will follow with 175,000 copies of Gerth and Van Natta’s 416-page biography, which took a year and a half.

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According to the Post, the Bernstein book bores in on the Clintons’ marriage and their response to the “bimbo eruptions” during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run and ignited again as the Lewinsky affair, the personal and political crisis that led to his 1998 impeachment.

According to the Post, Bernstein reports that in 1990 Hillary Clinton, angry at her husband for earlier contemplating divorce, considered running for Arkansas governor. Bernstein writes that Bill Clinton had fallen in love with a power company executive, Marilyn Jo Jenkins, and wanted a divorce, but Hillary refused.

“There are worse things than infidelity,” she reportedly told an aide to her husband.

Gerth and Van Natta also scroll back to the Clintons’ Arkansas years for new intimations about their handling of delicate political and personal matters. “Her Way” reports that Hillary Clinton orchestrated efforts to minimize 1992 press coverage of his Vietnam War-era escape from the military draft -- including the managing of a former draft board official who had canceled Bill Clinton’s induction notice.

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“Her Way” also delves deeply into Hillary Clinton’s career as a New York senator, questioning her judgment and her ethics. The authors cast doubt on whether she reviewed a critical National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in 2002 before voting to authorize President Bush’s decision to launch the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Clinton’s Iraq vote has galvanized opposition from antiwar activists within the Democratic Party, who have demanded that she apologize for her vote. (She has not done so.)

Susan Shaer, who co-chairs the national coalition Win Without War, said Friday, “I’m sure there will be a huge kerfuffle about this, but the antiwar movement is most concerned about how the candidates act today.”

Other activists cast the account as a new reason not to trust Clinton.

“If she ignored important information that should have led to another course of action, that would have a big impact for people in the antiwar movement,” said Gael Murphy, executive committee member of Code Pink, a peace group that has heckled Clinton at campaign events.

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Campaign books did play a critical role in 2004, Mellman said. A Boston Globe biography of Kerry brought the first questions about his Vietnam War service and medals, later turned into a campaign issue by the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Similarly, Mellman said, former National Security Council deputy Richard A. Clarke’s book raised central questions about the Bush administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war.

“Are there tough, hostile questions?” Mellman asked of the Clinton books. “Sure. But do they go to the heart of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy? From what I’ve heard so far, I don’t see it.”

stephen.braun@latimes.com


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