February 11, 2016
(+++) WAY OUT TO ONE SIDE
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead. By Michelle Markel. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can. By Cynthia Levinson. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World. By Laura Barcella. Zest Books. $14.99.
Hagiography during intense political campaigns is only to be expected. When books tell candidates’ stories exactly as the candidates would want them to be told, the authors are in effect making campaign contributions rather than contributing in any useful way to reasoned political speech. That is the case with two new works about Hillary Clinton, one for younger readers and one for somewhat older ones. Starting with their praise-to-the-sky subtitles and continuing in much the same vein from there, both books make it abundantly clear how much the authors admire, respect, care for, support and look up to their subject, treating her, if not quite with reverence, with a degree of admiration that is out of proportion to responsible biographical writing but is right in line with what any candidate would love to have as an endorsement. Michelle Markel’s book goes even farther out on a limb on Clinton’s behalf than Cynthia Levinson’s does. Markel’s is a picture book for young readers – the illustrations by LeUyen Pham are fine, although they are on the stodgy side and not among her best – and suggests that Clinton was a heroic figure from her earliest years: “Take that, 1950s! Some girls are born to lead.” In Markel’s narrative, Clinton could and did do no wrong, ever, raising money for the poor when she was very young; attending the right church at the right time to be inspired by a youth minister and by Martin Luther King, Jr.; doing “a startling thing” by criticizing a senator in a graduation speech; proclaiming what was right and proper and correct and worthwhile again and again, in rallies and newspapers and from stages and in debates and – she just did so much so well, according to Markel and Pham. And her political career? Well, it was just one success after another, even though she took some time along the way to marry “Bill, her law school sweetheart. The two of them loved politics as much as they loved each other.” Lest there be the slightest doubt how Markel feels about Clinton, on one page she specifically proclaims her “a superwoman” – yes, in bold type. So little ever went wrong for Clinton, who always did so much that was so good for so many people, that young readers will be extremely puzzled at one sentence, “Some people hated Hillary and her new ideas.” But they will be reassured that those bad new-idea-hating people could not keep Clinton down: the rest of the book shows her moving from success to success to success, loved and respected by everyone except those unnamed haters, because “all her life she’s fought for fairness and compassion.” What a shame that the readers targeted by this book are too young to vote: they would cast ballots for Clinton without a second thought. In fact, the whole book is designed to be sure there are no second thoughts about her.
Levinson’s book is at least a touch more nuanced. The extent to which she backs Clinton personally, and presumably politically, is abundantly clear throughout, but the book at least includes (even if it glosses over) some of the many unsavory elements of Clinton’s life: the Whitewater accusations, her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and subsequent impeachment, the hard feelings between her and Barack Obama when they fought for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and more. However, Levinson downplays all these and other negatives by showing each and every one to have been, in Levinson’s view, a learning experience for Clinton and one that made her an even better person than she already was. For example, when discussing how Clinton’s proposed overhaul of healthcare failed in 1994, Levinson asks, “What Went Wrong?” She then mentions multiple serious shortcomings – and quickly dismisses them. For instance, “Creating a task force. Other strategies were possible. For instance, Congress could have developed the plan. However, Hillary was determined to establish managed care and universal coverage, and Congress might have had other ideas.” Well, duh, a thoughtful reader might say here – Congress is charged with making laws, after all, not rubber-stamping the notions of an unelected task force assembled by the president’s wife. Another example from the same section: “Hillary’s Refusal to Compromise. …Hillary had made a pledge to the American people for universal health care. And she didn’t want to break her promise.” That is, her motives were 100% pure, 100% of the time. That is the underlying premise and argument of Levinson’s book: even when she made mistakes or things went against her, Hillary Clinton was pure of heart, pure of mind and pure of motivation. Readers who agree with Levinson’s viewpoint and enthusiasm will find here a book that confirms all the wonderful things they already believe. Readers who do not share Levinson’s attitude – who either oppose Clinton or are simply looking for information so they can try to make up their mind about her – will find this book sadly lacking. It is so one-sided that even its modest contemplation of negatives associated with Clinton must be taken with several grains of salt, because the author is so determined to show how everything in Clinton’s life was ultimately for the better – not only for her but also for the entire United States.
Clinton makes a brief appearance in Laura Barcella’s Fight Like a Girl, too. All the biographies in this once-over-lightly book are short and positive, so there is nothing surprising in the fact that Clinton’s is as well. “Clinton has spent the last thirteen years as the Gallup poll’s most admired woman,” Barcella writes, flippantly adding that her popularity “was speckled with scandals too, but hey – that’s Washington.” But Barcella’s aim is not to boost Clinton’s candidacy, as is the apparent aim of Markel and Levinson: Fight Like a Girl is intended simply to celebrate 50 selected women who, in Barcella’s estimation, have had world-changing lives, with Clinton being #28 based on her birth year. Thus, #29 is Kate Bornstein, “née Al Bornstein, now Katherine Vandam Bornstein,” author of Gender Outlaw, who “celebrates her own ‘freak’ status with aplomb.” Only five of the women in this book were born before 1900, and except for Clinton, there are no politicians profiled at all: Barcella clearly believes that changing the world involves writing, art and stridency rather than any actual use of systems that can change things. True, a few women here are inevitable figures in a book of this sort: Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks. Others are commonplace if not 100% to be expected in a book celebrating women’s power: Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou, Jane Goodall, Sally Ride, Oprah Winfrey. More interesting than these are Barcella’s choices of various women whose names are unfamiliar or who might not be expected to turn up in a feminist-focused work: lawyer Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; singers Beyoncé, Madonna, Queen Latifah, Kathleen Hanna and Poly Styrene (the book has quite a few pop entertainers in it, as if they are somehow world-changers); Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros; fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson; artist Renée Cox; and others. Of course, personal selections of 50 people famous for anything are just that – personal – so there is no right or wrong list. Fight Like a Girl is a book for readers who believe that pop culture is really, really important; that change is almost entirely a modern (21st century or at most late 20th century) phenomenon; and that the whole concept of “change” largely revolves around artistic endeavors, popular entertainment and issues of racial and gender identification. For those who share Barcella’s predilections, the book offers clear but superficial portraits of those it names – not sufficient for a thorough exploration, but perhaps enough to encourage readers to look for more-in-depth material elsewhere.